Friday, June 17, 2011

Schooled: The Culture of Teaching

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).


Olga said...

I worked at a middle school so the drama was pretty much nonstop. I'd say that the monkey hormones abounding in a middle school actually do infiltrate the emotions and behavior of the teachers there.

Arkansas Patti said...

Never really thought about you teachers liking recess so much. We kids tend to think it is all about us. Love the funnel cloud reference.
Perhaps limited adult time is a good thing.

Wisewebwoman said...

I've worked in schools so know whereof you speak, Marcia and my cast at the moment has a few retired teachers and current teachers so I am privy to their chatter.
What shines out through all of this is their love of their students.
It is beautiful.
As are you.

Celia said...

My sister is one of those out today for the summer in Portland. After a school year of fourth graders she is sad to see them go and I bet she won't be up before 9am tomorrow. Enjoy your summer out this way.

Brig said...

I worked as a middle school site secretary for a few years before moving on to district & county offices. Loved my principal and my students. The teachers were special as well. Ah, the days of bloody noses, head lice, parents that cared-parents that didn't. The bus drivers, the janitors, the cafeteria staff, one giant soap opera. It was interesting every day.

joared said...

I enjoyed your commentary on teaching, a profession I had once planned to enter, but my path took me in a different direction. Later years in mid-life, I entered a new profession from my prior television years. After meeting requirements I did actually complete two related public school practicums, one to work as an itinerant and another in a classroom for children with severely disordered language that I also taught one summer.

I do recall a period of time when
I felt a need for more adult conversation and interaction, so I can appreciate what you're saying.

But again my path veered and ultimately I chose to work in the medical world where I provide services on a 1:1 basis. Primarily, I now serve older adults only, part time only in a retirement community.

I greatly admire teachers, especially several who were very significant in my life. So many say the same, yet it seems like there's a disconnect when I consider how teachers are often treated.

Freda said...

Recess must be an absolute blessing and a necessity. In my time as a parish minister I used to visit 2 schools as chaplain for half a morning. It was exhausting! But such fun and so important.

schmidleysscribblins, said...

My favorite time of the year when I was a kid was the day school let out and my other favorite time of the year was the day we went back to school. It took me about two weeks in summer to become bored. Dianne

Friko said...

I have never worked in a place where my colleagues and I 'fairly foment in the fray'.
Can't imagine what I missed.

Cile said...

I once had the honor to serve as a teacher's aide in a small school house in Oregon in the 70's. My job? Watch the children at recess. I was worshiped by teachers who really needed that time to hide away and catch their breath. I've never felt so needed! People just don't understand at all what kinds of heartfelt energy goes into every day for a teacher. No idea.

I loved this and it made me laugh!: "...They bring their problems to me so that I can give them my best advice, advice they ignore just like my own children." You are so clever, Marcia, in how you sneak up on people in your writing to illicit a laugh! A gift.

Vagabonde said...

I don’t have experience with teaching in schools. When I retired I offered my time, free, to the high school nearby to come and speak French with the language kids so they could get some practice, I offered to come 2 or 3 afternoon a week or as they wished. They never answered me, so I am not privy to what goes on there. In France they start English in kindergarten, but it seems that in high school here it’s not a priority, at least in Cobb County. I looked at the Prado Apts you mentioned, they look classy. Don’t you miss the 95 degree heat and humidity? It must not be so warm in Portland?

nazelet said...

You bring back so many of my good memories of teaching and all that draamah. But it was the most rewarding work I've ever done.
How is Portland? What is it like to live there?

oklhdan said...

Since my daughters are both teachers and I worked in deaf education for 7 years I know of what you speak! Nothing is more rewarding than working with children!

Katie said...

This is one of my favs! I miss ya:)

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