Dear Jim: What can I hope to accomplish in the time we have left?
Though it seems like there is a lot of time left, there is not: twenty days of actual class if you take out the four days of state testing as lost, the three days for final exams; there are even fewer if you add in the assemblies, the time spent wrapping things up (collecting books, assembling portfolios, returning projects, giving culminating presentations, and so on). I don’t say all this to scare you or hurl you into a state of panic, but rather to remind you that the year is moving along. This is what time does best: pass. And yet we all have certain needs that must be met if this remaining time is to satisfy students and teacher alike. In short, we must find a way to bring the year in for a decent landing so that as everyone steps down onto the tarmac of the summer months, they can look back and feel they traveled some distance from where they began and see us as having helped to get them there.
I can’t help but recall those lines from T. S. Eliot’s poem “Little Giddings”:
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right …
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning….
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know that place for the first time.
What brings this poem to mind? As I watch my seniors head towards graduation––every day seems to have some small step toward the rite of passage: today they were given cards on which to write out their names as they wish them to appear on the diploma––I am suddenly struck by the realization that this is not an ending but just the beginning of the life they must go out and create for themselves. I’m only 43, but my graduation was twenty-five years ago. To me, it is everything after that event that matters most. As for you, Joy, you are ending your first year but only beginning your career, your adult life. This year is merely “where [you] start from,” and every day and year from here on out will be as some phrase or sentence in the longer, greater story of your professional life. And though you can think only of ending the year, hidden within that truth––that it will end––is the invitation already to begin dreaming the new year, the year to come when you will do it all better, guided by all you know from this year.
Still, I know this last stretch has been difficult. I know that because it has been difficult for me. While I do my best to soldier on in the midst of all the sound and fury going on around school lately, the truth is that I struggle myself in ways that are worth sharing. Though it has not touched you––because you are not full-time yet––many teachers have been going through a real firestorm of conflict as the district and school board move to impose cuts to save money. These troubles weigh on us all. Who could not feel some measure of compassion and grief when they read such an email as this one, sent to a colleague by a new teacher:
I can’t help seeing myself in my second year of teaching, the only time I have ever cried in front of students as I sat in the front of the class holding my own pink slip (only about a month after being nominated by the principal for County Teacher of the Year!). All I could think of was how much I loved teaching and how happy I was at that school, with those kids, those teachers.
I was twenty-six and finally knew who and what I was: a teacher.
This originally appeared as part of a letter in my book Letters to a New Teacher: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Year Ahead (Heinemann).