This summer I was asked to write two columns for my local teachers’ association’s newsletter–one for the fall and one for spring. This will appear in this month’s Jefferson County Education Association’s Insight:
“Laughter is the Best Professional Development”
Teaching has never been a career for sissies, and if ever there were those apocryphal educators who only went into teaching for the summers off, I doubt they lasted long. Even when I was a student, I was fully aware that my best teachers were educators, counselors, mentors, and life coaches (even though “life coach” wasn’t an official job when I was in school) all at the same time. They inspired me, opened the world to me, pushed me beyond the limits of my own small experience.
I knew what I was getting into when I chose my career. I wanted to be all of those things to young people. I wanted to give back all I’d gotten from the most beloved of my own teachers, so even as “education reform” has pressed to render teachers merely “proficient,” I—like so many of my fellow educators—still strive to inspire and truly challenge my students.
It’s been a job at once rewarding and exhausting. Any of us can affirm that those “summers off” are really only times when the workload slows down. During those fleeting weeks, we reflect, plan, study, take some time to replenish the well, and return ready to take on a new year.
But this year, it’s the first week in October, and it seems like my colleagues and I have already tapped those recently replenished wells dry. We are implementing vast changes in curricula that were not completed in time for us to take advantage of summer months for planning. We have been told to implement all these new lessons without the requisite materials. We fly by the seat of our pants every day, spinning straw into…well, if not gold, copper at least, and with nary a Rumpelstiltskin in sight.
One of the other things that has struck me recently is the impact our economy is having, even in our more affluent schools. This year at Columbine, I have more students than ever before who cannot afford such basic school supplies as binders and dividers. I have one student who has moved three times since the start of school. He works from 4:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m. every day to help three families crowded into one house make ends meet, but he cares deeply about school, so we work together to figure out how he can go to his job and then come home to a house where there is no computer or quiet study space and accomplish his homework.
Often the morning conversation in the English office entails such topics as the upcoming school board election, the implications of being held accountable for results of curricula in which we had no voice, shocking discipline issues (like the student who threw her cell phone at a colleague), and the general sense of despair to which we teachers can easily fall victim these days.
Then lunchtime rolls around. Somehow, there just isn’t any more room for the burdens and worries. In my department we gather around a giant table—one that can seat all 14 of us—and laugh. We laugh at students’ antics and colleagues’ inadvertently naughty gaffs in the classroom. We howl at Anguished English style mistakes students make in their papers. And the laughter doesn’t stop at lunchtime. We find newspaper articles that are of genuine professional interest—the latest studies done in education or various literature-related articles—and post them on a giant white board in the English office. By the end of the day, it is surrounded by our colleagues’ responses: jokes, puns, double-entendres, obscure references to bad pop music and cult movies. Teachers from other departments have been known to stop by just to read our white board and chuckle.
My mother always told me that crying never solved anything, and I guess laughter doesn’t either, but it sure does lighten the load.
No, teaching has never been easy, and it seems just to be getting harder, but we have one indomitable advantage that cannot be legislated away nor mangled in the machinery of policy and education “reform”—we have each other. Whether we are collaborating together, joining voices to speak truth to power, or just gathering over an eclectic bounty of sack lunches, we can meet today’s challenges and do right by our students if we know that we can lean on the person next to us and laugh.