The Wall

When I bump into old college buddies, I am often teased about the profession that affords me “all that vacation time.” Considering I “only work 9 months of the year,” I suppose I am open to such ribbing. These jabs are usually followed up with, “Just messing with you. I don’t know how you do it. I could never be a teacher.” This confusingly backhanded compliment usually annoys me, but then helps dissolve any lingering pseudo-angst I have about the year gone past. But something was different this year. The “joke” became an itch I couldn’t scratch.

Why was I irked? Why, when playfully teased about my profession, did it feel as though a fresh wound had been opened? Why was I struggling to answer the question that was always so easy for me in the past: Why was I a teacher? And I was startled to learn that I couldn’t readily answer the question. Doubt had crept in. But why? And so I turned to the past, as we historians tend to do, and I thought back to the beginning, how I got my first position.

I thought to myself at the time:  the job well is dried up. After a years of exhaustion, frustration, achievement and success, I feel as though I’ve lost before the race before it’s been run. But an email in from a former colleague in late September, 2005, opened the door. A telephone interview for an aide position lead to another call about a 5th grade position. “Absolutely!” flew out of my mouth before I could fully process what was to come.

The whirlwind continued with another interview, meeting my new 5th grade colleagues, meeting all the 5th grade parents with their inquisitive faces that wondered “Who is this guy?” and perhaps even the thought: “Please not for my kid.” Town Hall, Human Resources, and then, at 2:00 pm, an empty classroom. At 10:00 pm Principal Swaim walked in: “Greg, go home. You’re ready. See you in the morning.” I nearly set off the fire alarm at 6:00am the next morning, with 8:00am soon to follow: “Hello everyone. I’m Mr. Porter. Welcome to 5P.” And it began. I thought: I can do this.

The start was so overwhelming, so incredible, so ridiculous, that there was little time to stop and think. I loved kids, loved working with kids. And when I would hit a wall, a frustration, I would act. I would climb over it, finagle a way around it, or get a boost from a colleague in order to scale it. During those first years, the classroom became a lively, engaging, intoxicating place to be, as we bridged, laughed, fought, and cried. We built something special, and we did it together.

But there was more. The desire to improve my practice drove me forward. The super-hero-like teachers around me created a dynamic learning environment, and now that I was above water, so to speak, I wanted to be a bigger part of it. Teachers need to be lifelong students, and I embraced that concept with a full heart. It lead me all around the world, and eventually around the corner, to Lesley University. It’s so clear in my mind, as if I was in class last night. I would think to myself:

What am I doing here? 9:30 on a Thursday night, watching 20-somethings uploading pictures onto Facebook while the professor is reviewing the requirements for the paper due next week. This is going to make me a better teacher, I remind myself. I’ve become versed in Algebra, Geometry, Adaptation and Evolution, Optics, Astronomy, SexEd, Engineering, Memoir, Poetry, Persuasive Writing, Ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and early American History, as well as painting, sculpting, engineering, acting, and singing over the past 6 years. Why not toss some adolescent psychology on top?

It will be worth it in the end. I will understand my students better, be able to connect to them in an even more genuine way. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been going since 5:00am and I’ll be saying hello and goodnight to my wife on my way in at 10:00pm. I may even get an understanding tail wag from the dog. But this is what I was meant to do, I thought. This is possible if I want it bad enough. I can do this.

My professional development opportunities provided training, growth, and excitement. They helped me find a direction and purpose within a profession that, in reality, involves teaching similar if not identical content year after year. I felt enriched, energized-I was becoming an expert in the body of a generalist. Through learning, innovation and collaboration, I added depth and breadth to my classroom.

But as the years passed, a notable shift occurred. No longer was my professional development driven by my interests and the needs of my classroom. Curriculum changes due to administrative turnover brought philosophical approaches imposed without input; programs instituted without conversation; my expertise felt threatened, felt attacked. Instead of the confident, knowledgeable teacher I had become, I was defensive, protective over the environment that had been created and cultivated over many years. Something beyond my control was taking place, and I felt powerless to stop it. I thought a change from 5th to 6th grade would help stave off these feelings and provide a fresh start, but I only found nostalgia. I can remember one particular staff meeting, but in all honesty it could have been several, where my mind wandered to these feelings. I would be sitting there, thinking to myself,

Why do staff meetings always seem to come right after a break. What I really need is to get myself back on track, and I’m struggling to be fully present. While I am working with my former 5th grade colleagues today, that is only making me pine for the old days. I fear the change that was meant to reinvigorate my practice has had the opposite effect, professionally isolating me as the only sixth grade social studies teacher.

The school-based initiative presented before us has real merit, and would have been professionally stimulating to me years ago, but today all I feel is resentment. My distracted and disenfranchised mind provides me time to reminisce with my colleagues, but produce very little toward the goal of the meeting. I feel unfulfilled and fraudulent. I wondered: Can I do this anymore?  

10 years in and I’m questioning my profession. Why do I feel so overwhelmed? I thought I was done with tears. Is it because of all the things that I know and feel helpless to act upon? That I feel less competent than ever before? Where has the joy gone? The challenges that were once so much fun to explore have become cumbersome and lackluster, as the focus has shifted to assessment, data collection, and  “coverage,” rather than on the art of learning. I am not the teacher that I wanted to be when I set out 10 years ago. And yet, I continue to add more onto my plate. I’m a veteran now, a colleague others look to for help and support. They need me. And this was particularly true this past year, as our teacher contract spilled into another year. After another long day I would wonder:

When does it end? I understand that drop in meetings are a part of the job, but if feels like an avalanche at this point. Middle School brought fewer parent check ins, but the role of union rep has no set schedule. I understand and accept the responsibilities I have as rep, but I had no idea that my role would shift the way my colleagues look at me. I want them to ask about the new and exciting project that’s taken over my classroom. Instead, IF someone is to drop in, it’s to ask about the newest union action/contract update/potential grievance. Not that I blame them. It’s the reality we are facing. While it’s critical that we educators reclaim our profession, the reality is that many have retreated within themselves and their classrooms. And I’ve never felt more alone. I’m not sure I can keep doing this.

I’ve never before felt so ready for the year to end. I was desperate to walk out the door. I kept a stiff upper lip and soldiered on, but I limped over the finish line. When asked about what I was up to for the summer ahead, I answered curtly: nothing. No PD, no grad courses. Open ended. To myself I answered honestly: to find joy in my life again. To find out who I was and what I truly wanted. If I could rediscover that, perhaps I could find my way around/over/through the wall that was before me. After the first two weeks of decompression, the first step toward the wall began with a:

Metzger Workshop free write topic: Who were your most challenging students? It’s easy for teachers to name the kids that kept them up at night, the moments that drove them crazy. It might be students that never raise their hand, poke holes in discussions just for fun, students “eat” their pencils, tear books in fits of frustration, lose lunches, swear casually. Others that cry at imperfections, lie about homework, steal snacks, break desks, or tie themselves up in social angst and heartbreak. But I can see right through that. I can see the slight yet steady progress and the light bulbs turning on. I can see the student that is hiding in plain sight, beginning to share who they are. I see selflessness and friendship, kindness and creativity. I have been a part of transformative experiences and inspirational breakthroughs. And when I think back I see honesty and caring. And it makes me smile. I makes me think: I can do this again.

This summer helped me to find my joy again, and that joy is the children. They are my kids, and I am their teacher. We are in this together, on a wild ride of learning and discovery, both of what we are and of what we can be. And WE will get over the wall, together. By reinvesting in myself, in rediscovering myself, I have rediscovered reinvested in my kids, and that has been time and energy and        love      well spent.

And so, as many stories do, we return to the beginning at the end, and the question of Why do you want to be a teacher? But I’ve learned that in order to find the right answer, you have to ask the right question. And my question was, IS,  What do you love to do? Answer: I love to teach.

I teach, because I can teach. And what’s more, I want to teach, to keep teaching. I know this to be the truth about me, who I am and who I want to be. And that makes me incredibly lucky.