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Returning to the Classroom

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Is it true you can’t go back? I’m about to find out.

Six years ago, after a 26-year career as a classroom teacher, I opted to become a middle school literacy coach in the Los Angeles public school system. It was a stimulating career change in many ways. For the first time I had some breathing room. I was able to gaze out beyond the four walls of my classroom and the immediate needs of my own students and examine the educational world at large.

In my role as a supporter of other teachers, I’ve had the opportunity to immerse myself in the “best practice” literature and to carry out action research. Much to my delight, I’ve learned that many of the instructional practices I figured out along the way have been judged effective by education researchers. And they actually have names: constructivist, performance-based, inquiry-based, active learning, student-centered learning, choice, differentiation.

In my emerging role as a teacher leader, I was also fortunate to be invited to join the Teacher Leaders Network. For the past three years, I’ve participated in a virtual professional community filled with smart, insightful teachers. I’ve learned a great deal about education policy and found public and private venues to give voice to what I value in curriculum and instruction.

Now I am ready for another challenge. I can feel my passion for coaching other teachers is waning. It seems my heart never left the classroom, and I’m in need of a new creative outlet, having accomplished everything I could figure out to accomplish in my role as literacy coach. I want my own classroom again—my own students, my own daily classroom routines, my own opportunity to make a difference with individual children who find themselves within my personal sphere of influence.

As part of a partnership, teachermagazine.org publishes this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

Interestingly, because of my many years as an educator, my recent tour of duty as a professional developer, and the fact that I have a Master’s in administration, almost everyone I talk to about this career-shift wonders what has gotten into me.

It seems that stepping back into the classroom is most often perceived as a step backwards. I’m hearing, from colleagues and supervisors alike, questions like: Why are you returning to the classroom? You really want to teach again? Your perspective is so much broader than the average teacher; don’t you think you belong at the district level? You should be a principal! Why?! You’re going to be tired, Kathie!

Ah, and therein lies the rub. When I return to the classroom next fall, I will be turning 61 years of age—no longer a cheery 20- or 30-something, or even a sprightly 50-something! My energy levels may have dropped, but the paperwork certainly will not have. Nor have I managed over my decades as an educator to rein in my impulse to do everything “just so.” There’s plenty of hard work ahead.

The saving grace for me, though, is the fact that I actually find middle school students energizing. Crazy, hormonal, silly, vexing, incessant, yes, but energizing nonetheless. As a literacy coach, my happiest times have been when I was welcomed into class to do demonstration lessons. So I am not at all concerned about having the energy to teach all day in a classroom filled with lively adolescent minds.

I will admit, however, that the paperwork is another issue altogether. As a literacy coach, I have not had to take home reams of essays to correct at night and over weekends. I’ve had no grades to compute and no parents to contact. No papers to photocopy or forms to fill out for the office. You know the endless drill.

Fortunately, as I prepare for my return to the classroom, I bring with me a mature appreciation for professional literature. One of the first things I’ve done as I anticipate my plunge back into a sea of children is to pick up a copy of Carol Jago’s Papers Papers Papers: An English Teacher’s Survival Guide. I’ve just begun to dip into Jago’s advice (which includes “Ten Tips for Handling the Paper Load” – oh yes!). It’s a comfort to know there may be answers for me that will make my transition back to the classroom a little easier.

As Ms. Jago says in the introduction, “(W)e must not allow it to become the case that only teachers without families or a life outside the classroom are able to teach children to write well. It should not be necessary to sacrifice every evening and all day Sunday to the grind of grading papers.”

I’ll second that! In early June, my little granddaughter Sofia will be joined by her new baby brother, Jack Thomas. Much to my dismay, my grandchildren live 400 miles away; and although I will be completely devoted to my students come September, I will need time to talk to Fifi and her mommy via Skype or the phone, and to create the next series of photo storybooks at Kodak Gallery for little JT. Plus, my oldest daughter just moved back to New York, so I will need time to travel.

Being a mother and a grandmother continues to be a huge priority for me. So I know finding balance remains the key. But I have four more years until I retire, and I intend to make the most of every moment.

I still consider teaching my highest calling. A return to the classroom is just what I need to get my passion back.

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