Tucked in my clipping file is a bitter New York Times essay by a Long Island English teacher who retired at 55 because of what he calls “a strange alien attitude coupled with resistance to learning that ... makes teaching no longer a noble, joyful profession.” I’ve kept the clipping for six years now as a warning: It could happen to me. It hasn’t yet, but what has happened is a softer, more enervating shift in my feelings about my job.
Like the prototype in Theodore Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise, I’m a 53-year-old high-school English teacher who quietly wonders if anyone cares, if he really makes a difference, if there’s been much point to 31 years in the classroom. Yet I’m better paid than Horace and I enjoy a much better teaching climate, despite some cloudy horizons at my school.
Part of me worries that I’m past the possibility of change, like George Babbitt, whose midlife crisis I teach every spring. Another part of me agrees with Willy Loman: You are what you do, and when you can’t do it anymore, that’s all. But Willy was 63 when he felt that--I’ve got 10 more years. Why not get out now, while I can still do something else?
The hardest part of getting out now is the students I work with. When a teacher gets a letter like this one, leaving seems like treachery: ''I’ll miss you very much next year, but I won’t forget anything you’ve taught me. I hope you know what a mentor you are for me, as well as for many others, I’m sure. I also hope that you’ll continue to do what you do for high-school students, because you’ve had such a significant influence in my life.”
I haven’t received more than a handful of these letters over the years, but each one feeds the ego like strawberry shortcake. I stumbled into teaching in the first place, but it’s the students who’ve kept me here. Their honesty, enthusiasm, and signs of growth provide a motive that I don’t think exists elsewhere.
Graced by such students, my teaching conditions come close to the ideal. For one thing, I teach a course that students choose to take. I don’t have that added salesmanship chore most teachers shoulder. For another, I teach in a cultured community where taxpayers spend $6,000 per year to educate each high-school student, where we’ve never had a teachers’ strike, where 98 percent of the students go to college. I’m well paid by teachers’ standards. As senior member of the English department I enjoy a certain deference.
“But at my back I always hear time’s winged chariot,” as Andrew Marvell puts it. Why think of leaving if I don’t have to? I’m bored. I have followed the same work routine three-fifths of my life. School opens in September, it closes in June, several vacations interrupt it, summer’s a time for study or travel. I’ve taught Macbeth and The Grapes of Wrath a hundred times each. I read four or five file drawers of papers a year and students still misspell separate and background and don’t know its from it’s.
My complaint, I think, affects many of us in teaching: Our task is horizontal. We do it over and over and over. New students keep it fresh--to a point. But there’s no ladder to climb; moving up, however you define it, just can’t be done for most of us. The thrill of an advanced-placement class is all we can anticipate.
At my age one exhausts the tidbits of change that spice up the job. Sizer’s Horace despairs at genuine change within his school; so do I. My school pays teachers $10 an hour for curriculum work, then brings in consultants at $60 an hour for the same task. It pays a retiring teacher a $500 bonus for his files--his life’s work. I lug home 20 hours of essays to grade on Friday, while the gym teacher walks out empty-handed. Until we turn the school over to the faculty to run--and that includes tenure decisions-- we won’t treat ourselves as responsible professionals. I can’t wait.
If I stay another 5 or 10 years, I know it will be a static experience: busy, pleasant, a few nervous interruptions as administrators change and enrollment drops, but as vivid a twilight as any teacher could hope for. I don’t want to end up like the legendary Mary L. Taft, for whom my school’s top English award is named. Honored at a retirement dinner after 42 years, she stood up and said, “I hope you’ll never have to work as hard as I did,” sat down, and died two weeks later.
But my itch to leave lies more within me than in my school. In The Informed Heart, Bruno Bettelheim cautions us not to stop developing our consciousness of freedom, especially what he calls our decisions about attitudes; otherwise, he says, our autonomy is too apt to wither away. Perhaps that ties in with my comment about stumbling into teaching. Many of us in the “silent generation” that I’m a part of became teachers by default, without quite meaning to. Often it happened because the nearest campus where a lower-middle-class student could get an education was a teachers’ college. That happened to me--at $500 a year, I could work my way through. We may have planned to teach for awhile and then .. . but then never came: habit, children, and a mortgage did instead.
My point is that the teaching profession is too large to think of as populated by teachers who wanted to be only that. Rather, it is filled up with would-be actors, would-be doctors, and would-be architects, who teach English, biology, and mathematics. In my case, a would-be journalist. I don’t mean to claim that teachers have been victimized by a system that seduced them with the bait of higher education, then trapped them in a classroom. None of my jobs has been a blackboard jungle. Nor do I mean that once entered, the classroom became a prison. Teachers come in and out of the profession freely, a healthy flux that connects schools to the real world.
But if teaching can be a second career for so many housewives and military people, it can also be a first career for someone like me who started at 22 and seeks something else at 55. I need to know what else I might have been, to answer Platinov’s question in Chekhov’s Wild Honey: ''Why do we never lead the life we have it in us to lead?”
A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 1986 edition of Education Week