The other afternoon, I was walking to the grocery store in the village-like area of St. Johns, where I live in Portland during the summer. My small condo is across the street from James John Elementary School. As I was walking, I remembered that schools in Portland break for summer several weeks after we do in Atlanta and also that it was the last day of classes for Portland children. Noting the jubilant looks on the teachers’ faces as they made for their cars, I knew this was a big day for them too. I offered those Portland teachers a covert salute as I know the feeling well.
In spite of renewed interest in year-round schools, most teaching is seasonal work, kind of like picking peaches. There’s a definite rhythm to it: the beginning anew each fall and the finishing up each spring. We get to start over every new school year, something that doesn’t happen in many professions.
But because K-12 teaching involves working with children and adolescents for much of the day, time with other adults is limited. When I was younger, I yearned for a “grown-up” job with adult interaction that included an office and a lunch hour, so I stepped up the ladder to positions like curriculum coordinator, principal, college professor, and state department manager. But now that I'm older and perhaps in my second childhood, I like the limited time with adults.
But not having much time to interact with grown-ups doesn't seem to inhibit work friendships. In fact, it may actually promote them in that we don't have enough time together to get on each other's nerves. The seasonal work with children and the separation from other adults make for relationships created by stolen moments during bathroom breaks, planning time, and 3 PM Happy Hours. If you happen to happen by a bar in mid afternoon on a Friday and it's filled with raucous people dressed in t-shirts that say I Survived Field Day 2009, you know you're in the midst of a gaggle of teachers.
And, in the elementary grades, there's recess. Recess is held sacred not only by kids but also by teachers, and inclement weather is as disappointing to us as it is to the children. While keeping an eagle eye on the antics of our students, we are catching up with the antics of the grown-ups. Our joke is that we always have recess unless there's a funnel cloud in evidence.
When I decided to return to teaching in an elementary school setting at age 56, one of my primary concerns was that there would be no one else as ancient or decrepit as I, but I was wrong. There are people my age (and older) at my school; they just don't happen to be on my grade level team so I don't see them very often. But that hasn't mattered one bit. The ages of the people on my team run from mid 20's to early 40's with good old me as the elder teach-person. Although we don't often hang out on weekends, (how could we when I go to bed at eight?) my young colleagues seem to like me well enough as far as work friendships go.
My work friends often use me as their surrogate mother, which is fine with me as I use them as my stand-in kids. They bring their problems to me so that I can give them my best advice, advice they ignore just like my own children. Because of this relationship, I get to be on the in-the-know cutting edge when it comes to first dates, break-ups, engagements, weddings, babies, and future babies.
One of the things I enjoy most about working in a school is the turmoil. Every place I've ever been employed had some drama, but since an elementary school is heavy on females, we fairly foment in the fray. There's always something exciting and titillating going on, enough to make it worth getting up each morning and facing the day.
And finally, there's the gallows humor. We complain about our working conditions and all the wrongs that have been put upon us, but this is typical of all work places. With teaching, however, we also get to complain and laugh about our students, but please keep in mind that we are quite proprietary about those complaints and that humor. Nobody else better be messing with one of our kids. We're like mother birds, squawking out our grievances while pecking at intruders.
So, there are difficulties being an adult who spends her days with children, but the friendships we make with other teachers are a lot of fun, perhaps made better by the limited amount of time we can spend together during a typical workday. Fred, that annoying co-worker, has to get back to his class before he can get on too many people's nerves.
And there's always recess (unless a funnel cloud has been sighted).