Education Opinion

Prepare for Re-Entry!

By Susan Graham — April 13, 2008 3 min read

My physical therapist has warned me, “Don’t get too ambitious.”

My teaching partner has lectured me, “No one loves a martyr. The world will turn without you.”

My principal has told me repeatedly, “Take as much time as you need. I want you back, but I want you back healthy so you’ll live to teach a few more years!”

But it’s been 28 calendar days and 15 school days, so on Monday I will go back to school.

What’s the big deal? My regular readers may remember that I have been Knee Deep In Guilt since Tuesday, March 18 when I took a leave of absence for a knee replacement. Last Friday I was taking a break from preparation for re-entry when I ran across Jamie Sussel Turner’s take on teachers missing school in Education Week. Turner is a principal who knows something about When Life Interferes. She says:

It’s never easy to balance the mother in me who wants to emotionally embrace a troubled staff member with the principal in me who knows that the needs of children can’t be put on hold. To the 20 or so students in a teacher’s care, this is their only chance…”

It’s not surprising to hear her voice, from an administrator’s perspective, expressing the same struggle I have had in trying to balance not taking care of me against not taking care of my students. We both worry about the balance.

So, last week I did the following:

• Practiced getting my right leg into the car and driving with my left foot. (Please do not report me to the police.)

• Worked hard at doing all my physical therapy exercises so that I could get around with a cane and get up once I sat down. (If only I was this motivated to do regular exercise.)

• Began to work on my nine-weeks grades. (Don’t tell my home health care nurse—this was against the rules.)

• Completed work on the district strategic plan for my content area. (One of those little extra duties I committed to back when I could walk.)

• Read an entry for an Advanced NBCT Candidate (Like taxes, it’s due on April 15th.)

• Practiced synchronizing body demands for rest, nourishment, and elimination with the school-day schedule. (Only another teacher would understand the need for actual practice.)

• Loaded my walker into the car. (Just in case the cane is insufficient for a whole day.)

The admonitions of my teaching partner and my principal are ringing in my ears. But the fourth nine weeks begins tomorrow and that means two new groups of seventh graders who need to meet their teacher -- plus that bunch of eighth graders who are impatient to get back to more hands-on instruction, which requires my presence.

I am blessed to work for a principal, who like Jamie Sussel Turner, understands that teachers are his most valuable asset. Not all administrators get it. I have heard teachers who have been made to feel guilty for not anticipating their own preschooler waking up with a fever, for not being able to get an after-school appointment for medical testing, or for taking a day to be there when a son comes home from a war zone. But part of me understands. They have a school to run and their first responsibility has to be to the welfare of students. They will be the ones to take the heat if scores aren’t high and parents are upset.

But somewhere along the way, they missed that leadership class where you learn that real schools function through the efforts of real human beings who have common, everyday problems that stubbornly refuse to get out of the way. Turner says,

After a decade of living and breathing the life of a principal, I look back and recall the topics on my mind in the months leading up to the start of this exciting new role: student learning, team building, professional development, curriculum renewal, parental involvement. Not once did I anticipate how the everyday life of the adults who inhabit our school might interfere with these lofty goals. Not once in graduate school did the topic come up. Not once in my reading did I encounter this theme. No wonder I felt unprepared when life inevitably did interfere.

I’ve often complained that teacher prep programs rarely prepare teachers for the human aspect of teaching—the unhappy or angry child, the overwrought or unconcerned parent, the necessity of working with as well as alongside colleagues. In mentoring new teachers, I find they have been taught to differentiate instruction, but they often stumble when school requires them to differentiate for individuals and their circumstances.

Reading Turner’s reflection makes it clear that preparation for school leadership may be lacking this same vital element. Maybe it’s because it has to be learned in practice and cannot be taught in theory. Humans, whether big or little, just won’t fit into pigeonholes and stay put. Life is messy. Maybe we need to take a deep breath and just accept that it won’t always work perfectly, but we do the best we can to balance our focus on outcomes and our compassion toward people.

Re-entry from a disrupted life, job, or education is never easy. By the end of tomorrow I’ll probably be flat as a pancake. By the end of the week, I’m guessing my students, my co-workers and I will be glad things are back to normal. I’m already feeling the pressure. But I’m willing to pay that price. The alternative is to be lost in space.

I miss my middle school world.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.