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Renewing Our Delight

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Another excellent teacher, a good friend and colleague of many years, is leaving the profession. The signs were already in place last fall. In a burst of enthusiasm, she had agreed to chair a crucial committee aimed at keeping at-risk students in school. This in addition to an already heavy teaching load--10th-, 11th-, and 12th-grade English, as well as writing lab--plus serving as faculty sponsor of the 10th grade (her favorite), giving individual help to students whenever she could find a minute, attending plays and athletic competitions, and so on and on.

Predictably, the result was burnout. Instead of teaching school next year, as she has done for the past 20 years, she will be moving to Florida, where she hopes to find a job working in a bookstore.

There are no two ways about it: Teaching, teaching well, is a grueling occupation. Dealing all day with children's academic and emotional needs, but also with the often irrational demands of parents, not to mention administrators; as well as maintaining the energy level required to survive the long days, beginning before school with last-minute prep and meetings with students (because there's no other time you can get together) and not ending till late in the evening, after more school work and conferring on the phone with parents--these demands are not exceeded by any other job or profession of which I am aware. "What about all those vacations?'' you hear frequently. Yes, there are the wonderful Christmas and spring vacations, when you patch yourself together before once again leaping into the breach. For many teachers, though, summer vacations are largely a thing of the past. With the trend everywhere toward a longer school year, teachers increasingly work year round.

How does one do all this, and still retain a zest for the classroom? A wise teacher in college told me, "Leave it at school.''

As a goal, that advice is golden. For if we teachers are to make the long haul, we must learn to reserve time for ourselves and not take school home every night. I say "goal'' because, of course, teaching never was, never will be simply an 8-to-5 job. And prep time doesn't count. A good teacher loves his or her subject. Time spent at home preparing lessons in that subject--and I'm not talking about grading papers--should constitute a regular opportunity to revive the spark of delight in learning. After all, love for a subject is what originally aimed many of us toward the classroom.

Nor am I suggesting that we avoid our fair share of the duties that go along with teaching school. You cannot sit around drinking coffee in the faculty lounge during your prep period (if you are lucky enough to have such) and expect to go home with an empty briefcase. I believe in working hard, working to capacity, while at school. Our duty to our students, the school, and ourselves demands no less.

But when it is time to go home, a teacher should make it a goal, indeed a policy, to walk out the doors and enjoy the other parts of his or her life. For many of us, that means first of all being a parent and/or spouse. It may also mean doing yard work, taking the dog for a walk, driving down to the shop that sells baseball cards, practicing with a jazz band, or writing--poems, letters, poetry. If your favorite coffee shop is frequented by patrons of the school, and if you want to avoid spontaneous inquiries about their children's progress, then you might ask yourself if that is where you really want to go for coffee. Furthermore, I suggest that you disconnect the phone at whatever time you consider to be a reasonable hour. After making ourselves available to students and their parents all day at school and part of the evening at home, none of us is obliged to be accosted by telephone as we gear down for sleep.

I also would suggest that teachers take advantage of every professional conference and convention, every seminar, that is available to them. Yes, some conferences are pretty awful. But, to paraphrase a fellow Oklahoman, I never met a conference or convention I couldn't like. That is, I have never attended one from which I did not bring home something of value--some teaching tip or idea for a new course or insight into what makes kids tick. In addition, there is the built-in vacation, the chance to live for a day or two in a different place, stay in a hotel and use those fancy little soaps in paper wrappers--you just have to learn to appreciate the little perks provided by teaching. The bottom line is, you return to school refreshed.

Best of all, teachers should be aware of the splendid line-up of Summer Seminars for School Teachers, provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities. For those teachers who apply and are accepted, these four- to six-week expense-paid courses offer the chance to study classic works in the humanities at colleges and universities from Maine to Mississippi to Oregon. Working with an intelligent and fun-loving group of professionals like yourself on a topic of common interest, under the guidance of a notable scholar in the field, and being paid for it is guaranteed to pep up even the weariest among us.

A quiet voice may be asking, "But aren't these suggestions selfish? Doesn't the profession of teaching necessarily require an open-ended commitment, in the form of endless involvement in the activities and problems of the school?'' I would ask in return, "Is it preferable to allow ourselves to be consumed prematurely?''

Who is the winner when, instead of being taught by my friend, one of the best teachers I have ever worked with, five English classes at my school, next year and the year after that, will not enjoy that privilege?

Perry Oldham is the chairman of the English department at Casady School in Oklahoma City.

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