Dear Mrs. Metzger,
I am writing to you as a former student who has just graduated from Brown University and who is considering teaching English next year. I remember you as a compelling and demanding teacher who seemed to enjoy her job. At the moment, you are the only person I know who would support my career choice. Almost everyone else is disparaging about teaching in public schools.
But teaching matters. I know that. You mattered to me, and other teachers have mattered to me. I enjoyed student teaching and I look forward to next year. I have imaginary dialogues with the students in my mind. I hear myself articulating my policy on borderline grades, explaining why I keep switching the chairs from circles to rows as I flounder in my efforts to decide what's best.
But I wonder how much of teaching is actually an ego trip, a ploy to be liked, accepted, and respected by a group of people who have limited say in the matter. I also know the humiliation of a student's glare. I know there will be problems. Yet, I cannot deny the tremendous sense of worth I felt as a student teacher when students offered me their respect and when students worked hard and were proud of their effort.
I wonder where I would get this sense of worth if I were to work in a New York advertising firm or as an engineer at Bell Labs. And yet, going to work for a big corporation--whether an advertising firm, a bank, or a publishing house--impresses me. It would seem real, "grown-up,'' as teaching never will.
My mother doesn't want me to go into teaching. She is afraid I will get "stuck,'' that my efforts will not be appreciated or rewarded, and that I will not meet men. When I called home from Minneapolis after a long, productive, and exhilarating day interviewing at schools, my mother congratulated me and suggested that I spend the evening putting together a second resume--a writing resume--before I forgot everything else I know how to do. She suggested I spend the following day visiting television studios scouting for writing jobs, "just in case.''
I write to you, Mrs. Metzger, because you were the first person to excite me about the processes of writing and because your integrity in the classroom has long been an influence on me--and on my decision to teach. You mattered. I am turning to you because you are a professional; and you continue to choose teaching after 18 years. I welcome any advice, comments, or solace you could offer me.
I admire your courage to consider teaching. Your friends and relatives are not alone in their negative opinions about teaching. At least four blue-ribbon studies have concluded that teacher education is inadequate, that the pay is the lowest of all professions, that schools have deplorable management, and that the job is full of meaningless paperwork.
I know that much of the criticism is valid. However, the reports sensationalize and do not tell the whole truth. I appreciate your letter because you are giving me a chance to defend a profession I love.
Clare, I look forward to teaching. By mid-August, I start planning lessons and dreaming about classrooms. I also wonder whether I'll have the energy to start again with new classes. Yet, after September gets under way, I wake up in the morning expecting to have fun at work. I know that teaching well is a worthwhile use of my life. I know my work is significant.
I am almost 40 years old, and I'm happier in my job than anyone I know. That's saying a lot. My husband, who enjoys his work, has routine days when he comes home and says, "Nothing much happened today--just meetings.'' I never have routine days. When I am in the classroom, I usually am having a wonderful time.
I also hate this job. In March, I wanted to quit because of the relentlessness of dealing with 100 antsy adolescents day after day. I'm physically exhausted every Friday. The filth in our school is an aesthetic insult. The unending petty politics drain me.
A curious irony exists. I am never bored at work, yet my days are shockingly routine. I can tell you exactly what I have done every school day for the past 18 years at 10:15 in the morning (homeroom attendance), and I suspect I will do the same for the next 20 years. The structure of the school day has changed little since education moved out of the one-room schoolhouse. All teachers get tired of the monotonous routine of bookkeeping, make-up assignments, 20-minute lunches, and study-hall duties. I identify with J. Alfred Prufrock when he says, "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.'' My own life has been measured out in student papers. At a conservative estimate, I've graded over 30,000--a mind-boggling statistic which makes me feel like a very dull person indeed.
The monotony of my schedule is mirrored in the monotony of my paycheck. No matter how well or poorly I teach, I will be paid the same amount. I am alternatively sad and angry about my pay. To the outside world, it seems that I am doing exactly the same job I did in 1966--same title, same working conditions, same pay scale (except that my buying power is 8 percent less than it was when I earned $5,400 on my first job). To most people, I am "just a teacher.''
But this is the outside reality. The interior world of the teacher is quite different. I want to assure you that teachers change and grow. There is life after student teaching; there is growth after the first year. You will someday solve many of the problems that seem insurmountable during your exhilarating student teaching and your debilitating first year.
Sometimes, I am aware of my growth as a teacher, and I realize that finally, after all these years, I am confident in the classroom. On the very, very best days, when classes sing, I am able to operate on many levels during a single class: I integrate logistics, pedagogy, curriculum, group dynamics, individual needs, and my own philosophy. I feel generous and good-natured towards my students, and I am challenged by classroom issues. But on bad days, I feel like a total failure. Students attack my most vulnerable points. I feel overwhelmed by paperwork. I ache from exhaustion. I dream about going to Aruba, but I go to the next class.
I keep going because I'm intellectually stimulated. I enjoy literature, and I assign books I love and books I want to read. I expect class discussions and student papers to give me new insights into literature. As you may remember, I tell students that, in exchange for my hard work, they should keep me interested and teach me. They do.
To me, teaching poses questions worthy of a lifetime of thought. I want to think about what the great writers are saying. I want to think about how people learn. I want to think about the values we are passing on to the next generation. I am particularly interested in teaching thinking. I love to teach writing. I am working now on teaching writing as a tool for thinking. Questions about teaching are like puzzles to me; I can spend hours theorizing and then use my classroom as a laboratory.
And every year, new students require new teaching skills--Cambodian boat children who have never been in school and are illiterate even in their own language or handicapped children, such as a deaf Israeli girl who is trying to learn English without being able to hear it.
And then there are all the difficult, "normal'' situations: students and parents who are "entitled,'' hostile, emotionally needy, or indifferent; students who live in chaotic homes, who are academically pressured, who have serious drug and alcohol problems. The list goes on and on. I received my combat training from other teachers, from myself, and mostly from the students. You will, too.
Sometimes I think I can't do it all. I don't want to be bitter or a martyr, so I am careful to take care of myself. I put flowers on my desk to offset the dreariness of an old school building. I leave school several times a week to run errands or to take walks in order to feel less trapped. Other teachers take courses at local colleges, join committees of adults, talk in the teachers' lounge, or play with computers. In order to give to others, teachers must nurture themselves.
Ultimately, teaching is nurturing. The teacher enters a giving relationship with strangers, and then the teacher's needs must give way to students' needs. I want to work on my own writing; instead, I work on students' writing. My days are spent encouraging young people's growth. I watch my students move beyond me, thinking and writing better than I have ever done. I send them to colleges I could never afford. And I must strive to be proud, not jealous, of them. I must learn generosity of heart.
I hope to love my students so well that it doesn't even matter whether they like me. I want to love them in the way I love my own son--full of respect and awe for who they are, full of wanting their growth, full of wonder at what it means to lead and to follow the next generation.
Clare, when you consider a life's work, consider not just what you will take to the task, but also what it will give to you. Which job will give self-respect and challenge? Which job will give you a world of ideas? Which job will be intellectually challenging? Which job will enlarge you and give you life in abundance? Which job will teach you lessons of the heart?
With deep respect,
In the fall of 1984, Clare Fox took her first teaching job, in a junior high school in Tucson, Ariz. She worked there for a year and then changed jobs, dividing her time between working for a publishing company and teaching at a local inner-city high school.
Dear Mrs. Metzger,
After two years of teaching, I still derive strength and vigor from the letter you wrote me so long ago. Your letter makes me remember all of the best parts of teaching. I remember lots of laughing. I laugh a lot in the classroom, more than I do in my private life.
And I think a lot, too. There is no better way to learn a book than to teach it, no better way to think through a writing problem than to wrestle through the drafts of a paper, guiding the writer beyond frustration to resolution. I am at my brightest, some moments in the classroom.
And yet, I have decided to leave teaching.
I am feeling too selfish to teach, too possessive of my time and my future. I have decided to work full-time at the publishing company where I have worked afternoons this year.
After a strong, satisfying year, I left my first teaching job in June because I was afraid of the cycle that had already been established; I taught six classes a day--five writing and one advanced reading--to 7th graders. I taught at an exceptionally demanding, academically rigorous junior high. By February, I was exhausted, and by June, I had made two friends outside of teaching. Too much of my time outside of school had been spent on papers or in the library. I spent a lot of time with other teachers from the school--a smart, professional, and fun group of people. But, still, we talked about school--and our shared exhaustion.
After living for Memorial Day weekend, I found myself with no plans. I realized how completely I'd been absorbed by my job. I also saw myself years from now, a good teacher, better than I am now, but still without plans for a holiday weekend. And each year, the kids would move on.
Yet, for all my martyrdom, I have never once felt caught up. I have never passed back a set of papers without wondering whom I had disappointed, who had counted on my intuitions and my goodness and not just my editorial skills. There is no room for complacency in the classroom; we are forever judged and measured. No matter how achingly we want to do it right, there is always something that could be done better.
I hope to teach again some day, when I have more in my life and other investments to balance with teaching.
In my heart, I think I'll be back. And I think I'll be a better teacher for having stepped out and indulged my selfishness.
Thank you for your support. You have been very important to me.
In February, Teacher Magazine tracked down Metzger and Fox (now Clare Ringwall) to find out what happened after their exchange of letters: When Margaret Metzger got the news in the spring of 1986 that Clare Ringwall was leaving the profession, she was saddened. But the 23-year public school veteran was not convinced that her former student had abandoned the classroom forever. She hoped to find a way to lure Ringwall back into the fold.
"I thought that if Clare were given a chance to work in a school that trusted its teachers, she would love it,'' Metzger says. Six months after receiving Ringwall's last letter, Metzger was able to offer her that chance.
Soon after deciding to leave teaching, Ringwall took a full-time writing job with an educational materials publishing company near Boston. But she couldn't get her mind off the classroom. "I started having imaginary dialogues with students,'' Ringwall recalls. "And I found myself telling my friends old teaching anecdotes about the lively moments of the classroom.''
Even though the then 25-year-old loved leaving the office promptly at 5 p.m. and treasured the time she was spending with friends and on her own projects, something was missing. That's when fate, with a little help from Metzger, stepped in.
Metzger was planning to go on parental leave, which meant Brookline High School would need to find someone to teach her classes for two months. When Metzger suggested to Ringwall that she take over the classes, the younger woman was flattered but reluctant to give up on her new career in publishing.
Still, she was interested enough to go for an interview when Donald Thomas, Brookline's English department chairman, called--at Metzger's suggestion. Several days after the interview, Thomas called Ringwall at work and offered her the job. Yielding to pragmatism, Ringwall said no. But not for long.
"As soon as I hung up the phone, I felt physically ill,'' she recalls. "Saying no made me realize how much I really did want it.''
In a panic, Ringwall left her office and ran out into the dreary November rain to a phone booth on the street, where she knew no co-worker would overhear her conversation. She dialed the school's number and asked the chairman if the job was still available. After talking extensively with Thomas, she realized that she did not have to jeopardize her publishing career to take the two-month assignment. By working extra hours in the afternoons and on weekends at the publishing company, she could hold down both jobs.
In an ultimate deja vu, Ringwall soon found herself in Room 347 at Brookline High School--the same room in which she, 10 years earlier, had studied the essays of E.B. White and first learned to take her writing seriously. Only now she was on the other side of the desk. "It was terrifying,'' she recalls. "I was stepping into Margaret's classes when her students were less than thrilled to have her leave. But also, one of the classes I had to teach was European literature, which I had been too intimidated to take as a student.''
Soon after Ringwall took over Metzger's classes at Brookline, another event made her feel as if she were teaching in the twilight zone. Every year for the past 22 years, as the final assignment for an essay-writing class, Metzger has asked students to write and address letters to themselves. While her students go on to choose colleges and careers, Metzger holds the letters hostage for 10 years. Then, every New Year's Day, she slips a batch into the mail. Ringwall was standing in Metzger's shoes when she received her decade-old missive. "A lot of the letter was about how sad I was that the class was ending,'' Ringwall recalls, and how much she would miss Metzger.
During her two months filling in for Metzger, Ringwall's attachment to teaching grew stronger. She enjoyed working with the 28 other teachers who made up Brookline's well-respected English department. Instead of nudging students through an adopted anthology of literature, page by page, Brookline's teachers use curricula they develop, and they choose their own books. With her strong interest in writing and curriculum development, Ringwall thrived. Her confidence increased each day in the supportive, stimulating environment. "During my first year of teaching, I was too dependent on student feedback,'' she admits. "If I put a huge effort into a project and kids didn't notice it, I was resentful.'' But at Brookline, she was learning how to trust her own judgments.
When Metzger's leave ended, Ringwall was disappointed; she was not ready to stop teaching. By coincidence, Brookline needed long-term substitutes for several other English teachers. Ringwall offered to pinch-hit for a few of them and managed to patch together a fairly full schedule that kept her teaching for the rest of the school year.
At year's end, Ringwall faced a moment of truth: teaching or publishing? "Rather than give up on teaching and try to find an alternative career that could give me a fraction of the sense of worth, challenge, and joy that teaching was giving me,'' she says, "I realized that I should stay and figure out how to maintain a satisfying private life.'' Ringwall applied for, and received, a full-time teaching job at Brookline.
Metzger no longer thinks of Ringwall as a novice. In the past few years, the younger teacher has received grants, served as a mentor teacher in a summer program at Brown University, and acquired tenure-- which, at Brookline, means a lot. Metzger says she turns to Ringwall for help and ideas just as often as Ringwall turns to her.
In fact, last summer, Ringwall had the chance to give Metzger back a little of her own sweet medicine. While Ringwall was at Brown, she heard that the education department was looking for an expert teacher to offer a methods course and supervise student teachers for a year. Ringwall told them all about her older colleague. And so, this school year, Metzger is on leave from Brookline, working with 15 graduate students--and loving it.
How long Ringwall will stay in the profession is still in question. Right now, she enjoys her work; but her concerns about teaching haven't magically disappeared.
If she could custom-design her own future, Ringwall would eventually cut her load at the high school in half and spend the other half of her time studying and writing. Meanwhile, she relishes those unpredictable moments in the classroom when her intelligence, resilience, intuition, experience, sense of decency, and sense of humor all come into play at once. "Those are the things that make me feel alive and challenged,'' she says. "I do love teaching, and I think I do it well.'' Her friend and former teacher respectfully agrees.