Teaching Opinion

For Teachers, May Is the Cruelest Month

By David B. Cohen — May 13, 2016 3 min read
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With apologies to those teachers in year-round schools, or whose traditional school calendar still extends well into June, I think May is the cruelest* month for teachers. Eliot’s opening line for “The Waste Land” makes a strong impression because it undercuts our positive associations with April and springtime and lilacs; how could they be cruel? And what’s wrong with memory and desire?

Teachers understand the cruelty of springtime. It’s just too much. Especially May.

May is the month of looking back. Year-end projects give our students opportunities to show what they’ve learned, to celebrate growth. Portfolios are assembled. We take stock of our students’ progress, and our own as well, reflecting on the year that’s about to end. As we begin cleaning up, each bulletin board and folder and box reminds us of the work we’ve done this year. Yearbooks arrive. Final assessments and final exams are prepared, if not completed. Graduations too. We celebrate with our retiring colleagues, and recall not just this year but many years gone by.

May is the month of looking ahead. Next year’s class lists and teaching assignments are assembled - always subject to change. Classroom shifts and staffing developments mean it’s already time to pack up some boxes in anticipation of moving. Having noted what worked or didn’t work this year, we’re already modifying lesson and unit plans for next year. Summer plans, personal and professional, need to be finalized. New curriculum must be reviewed and developed. New hires are already identified in some cases, and so we begin orienting them to the school, providing information and resources. Summer school teachers are already receiving communications and instructions about their next assignment.

May is the month of holding on. We’re holding on to students and classes for whom we’ve developed such affection, such appreciation of their efforts and growth. We’re holding on to ambitions (or maybe illusions), that we still might get through this final unit, complete this final project. We’re holding on to whatever rules and routines help maintain order when everyone is feeling anxious. We’re grabbing at the loose ends, hoping to tie up a coherent conclusion for our classes. We’re holding on to our sense of humor, and hopefully, our sanity.

May is the month of letting go. Our students are about to move on, to the next grade level, the next school, the next phase of life. We can look down the rosters, name by name, letting them go with a sense of deep pride and satisfaction in what we’ve accomplished together. Or, in some cases, letting go has a bitter and disappointing feel, recognizing that we haven’t met our goals with every student. “The best laid schemes” of last summer and fall went often awry - and we make our peace.

May is the month of chaos. Days are getting longer, and hotter. Some schools are still taking standardized tests. Stress builds up among students, parents, and teachers, all mindful of how few days remain, few opportunities for students to complete work and raise grades, lack of time for teachers to assess and return student work. Each day seems to bring a final something - final chance to submit make up work, final performance, final game, final publication, final exam. Last day to return library books. Last day to retrieve items in lost-and-found. Then it’s time to select next year’s club leaders, editors-in-chief, class officers. Mustn’t forget A.P. exams and proms, league finals, senior ditch days. Field trips, class picnics, team dinners. Coffees and luncheons to thank teachers and volunteers, acknowledge PTAs and school site councils. Students, clean out your lockers, and teachers, your classrooms.

May is the cruelest month, full of dread and delight, energizing and exhausting.

* If you noticed the variation in spellings, “cruelest” with one “L” is the American version; Eliot naturally used the British spelling.

The opinions expressed in Capturing the Spark: Energizing Teaching and Schools 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.