Belonging: Life Before Retirement and Cancer
I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. As a result I bounced from job to job, always being lured back, like Homer’s call of the Sirens, to a family business that I absolutely hated. That all changed the day I walked into my father’s office and quit for the last time. “What are you going to do,” he asked?
“Teach,” I replied and I left.
What I learned was teaching is not a job, or if it is it is unlike any other job I ever held, it is a mission, a calling. Severely underpaid compared to private sector work and overworked when one considers all of the time spent grading student work, planning daily lessons and the time spent in professional development, whether school provided or personally funded earning advanced degrees; teachers work long hours and are generally not paid for their efforts very well.
While I had some inkling that this was the case, my wife was a primary grade teacher and I could observe just how hard she worked at her job, I was unprepared for the pressure and rigor required to be a teacher when I first entered the classroom. Finding my way to comfort was a matter of learning how to belong.
Yes, teaching is something like a club, one in which the classroom teacher faces many audiences. First, one faces an audience of students, each one different and each group different as well. I was a middle school teacher with a home room and three other classes of language arts (the politically correct term for English). I saw around 120 students each and every day and found that I had to plan for each group differently because each class was a different audience. I arrived at school early every morning, generally an hour before the day began, not because it was expected (as a requirement of belonging) but because it was absolutely necessary to ground me for the day. While I left school when the last bell rang, I generally went to a local library where I spent hours grading papers before I headed off to graduate school where I earned my MEd and EdD degrees. Finally arriving home at ten, I was exhausted. And that was the preparation needed to address the most important audience, my students.
Then there were those other audiences in order of importance: school administrators, parents, political leaders, and the community leadership embedded in the social and business strata in the community in which I taught. Parallel to those interests was the Union, a body to which I was also a delegate representing the teachers in my school. The Union provided an umbrella of protection from the whims of the governing school community.
Once I earned my doctorate, I left the classroom and moved to higher education. I began teaching at the university level in Lubbock, Texas at Texas Tech University. That first job was as an assistant professor in the department of reading, the area in which I earned my doctorate. Not unlike the pressures of the k-12 classroom, the university added additional requirements, specifically the requirement to do research and publish those findings as well as to do service for the university community by serving on committees for the benefit of the governance of the university community.
Given that background, brief though it may be, the issue of belonging, of becoming an insider rather than an outsider, was one of learning the rules of conduct. What was and was not acceptable. Which rituals must be followed and which could safely be ignored. What constituted being a faithful representative for the teachers I represented and what set of circumstances might allow me to follow my conscience even when I was found to be in conflict with the faculty I represented in the house of delegates (this didn’t happen too often as we tended to be a rather radical group working for a tyrant of a principal).
As a new teacher, it was enough to just learn the patterns of the school year, a process that took me a couple of years. That, by the way, was partly relearned when I went from middle school to higher education, not so much the teaching role, rather the administrative interaction had to be relearned. As a veteran teacher the goal was no longer to accommodate to the rules but to often act in spite of them by doing the ethical rather than the demanded.
As my career advanced I learned how to be more independent as a scholar, to become more empathetic as a teacher and to be a friend to my colleagues. This required me to balance many roles at once. I served as a spark for my students to think clearly, to consider alternatives and to become better preservers of knowledge than they were before they encountered me as a teacher or professor. I don’t say this in an arrogant, self-serving way, rather I see evidence of this among a small group of middle school students that have ‘friended’ me on Facebook. I see the way they think, the way they consider problems and ideas and how they interact with the world in which they live. I’d like to think that I had something to do with that.
As a retired teacher and professor, I continue to read, to write, to think about those things I thought about before I retired. The primary difference, especially since my prostate cancer diagnosis, is that I can do it all on my own terms. I am beholding to no one; I answer to only myself without having to be on any committees, please any parents, pretend that I am doing the will of the principal (in higher education there is, or at least in my experience, was far more independence given the importance of academic freedom) and I don’t have to bow down to the will of the political or business community. It seems that cancer is liberating in a way I could not have expected.