I retired in 2020. March 12th was my last day in the classroom, followed by a few months of flying by the seat of our pants like we had never known. I wasn’t ready for that to be the end, and at that point we did not know that was our last in-person day, but Covid made it so. I thought I knew what to expect after the school year ended. I was wrong.
I did not expect to grieve so much. The year ended not with a bang but a whimper. There was no closure. It just suddenly stopped. There were many tears during that first year. I missed my students; still do. I missed my school colleagues; still do.
I did not expect to have insomnia. My body apparently forgot how to sleep when it wasn’t “teacher tired.” It has taken a lot of time and effort to re-wire myself.
I did not know that my knees and ankles would not improve much once I was no longer on my feet all day, but here we are.
I still worry about those kids who needed me, especially the ones whose lifestyles or identities were judged harshly by most. I especially worry about the gay students who may not have someone to support them. It’s a very lonely, scary existence to be different in any way in high school. If your sexual identity does not match the prevailing community standards, the consequences can be brutal. I never overtly singled them out or tried to make them talk about it, but always hung close, kept an eye on them, and made sure they knew I accepted them. Numerous times over the years I’ve stepped in when they were being bullied. Who will be there for them?
I profoundly miss those days in the classroom when a student had an “aha” moment. As an art teacher my importance in the school was usually related to how good Homecoming and prom looked, but the core of my purpose was crystal clear to me when a kid realized they had created something meaningful that they did not know they could do. Art is not just a class in which you learn to master certain skills and materials. It is a process that, when taught appropriately, reaches into the deepest levels of consciousness. I considered my career to be a journey of self-discovery and spiritual growth for myself as well as my students. It is part art therapy, part imagination journey, part relaxation, part skill mastery, part whimsy, part problem solving, and a lot of perseverance.
All art is self-portrait. To think of it only as decorating for events, although those are also important, is to completely miss the true value of arts education and those who teach these classes. People have been creating and imagining for thousands of years. Long before they developed language and numerical skills humans were painting on cave walls and making utilitarian or aesthetically pleasing objects that expressed their values. They give us an understanding of ancestors and culture. Creativity is at the core of what makes us human. A good art teacher needs this sense of history in order to fully appreciate how fundamental it is to our existence.
Yes. I really am that passionate about it. You may see a childish rendering of a daisy, but I see a small glimpse into something that intrigues that child. They may have spent hours thinking about daisies and how perfectly God created flowers. Art matters. Teaching is not just a job.
Retirement is not without its special charm however. I had always looked forward to the lack of morning chaos. Getting up and ready for school was a challenge my whole life. Arriving anywhere on time–major challenge. Now my mornings are usually quite enjoyable. I can sip coffee for as long as I want. Having that gentle buffer into the day is one of life’s simple pleasures.
I had also looked forward to not having to rush around all day, then go back later for ball games, conferences, school programs, special events, etc. These days it’s hard to pry me out of the house after 5 o’clock in the evening and I’m ok with that.
As a retired teacher I reflect on all those years, starting as a naïve twenty-something who had actually hated high school. I saw myself in the kids who felt the same. They sat at the back of the room, sleeping or watching suspiciously, guarding themselves by acting out or withdrawing. I felt my sense of purpose and commitment grow quickly when I realized that they were a big part of the reason I was there. I hope that my presence in their lives made a difference. I believe it did.
Most teachers I have known in my career have so much grit, dedication, and love for their students that they would walk through fire for them. Teaching has always been a demanding profession because in order to do it well you must be all in, heart and soul. Teachers work from instinct as much as lesson plans. Maybe more. They constantly monitor and adapt what they are doing and how they interact with children. They know when to throw out the lesson plan and take an interesting detour. Teaching absolutely cannot be quantified or judged based on data alone. Children deserve to be evaluated as whole people, not by test scores. The obsession with constantly changing technology is gutting education by not allowing the time needed for teachers to do what they know is best for their students. Endless data evaluation, strict pacing guides, test prepping, and micro-managing of content do not improve education. Educators improve education.
Growing pressure from radical groups demanding to know every single detail in a year of lesson plans, months in advance, are making a challenging career almost impossible. The narrative has become increasingly negative, and paints an unrealistic picture of what is happening in Arkansas public schools. A small but vocal minority of people would have us believe that schools are a hotbed of subversive troublemakers. Nothing could be further from the truth. In recent years teachers have had to grow a thicker skin than ever before. The barrage of criticism has become a very heavy burden. Young teachers are leaving the profession in disillusioned droves. Veteran teachers like myself are retiring heartbroken because we do not know who will be there for our children in the future.
Too many people in decision-making positions do not understand any of this. They continue to beat the same drums, demanding more from educators while offering no additional compensation or respect. Any governor or commissioner of education should be in constant contact with those in the classrooms who work with the students every day. They should come out from behind their office doors and go into communities to listen and learn. There should be a seamless two-way system of communication with school employees so that ideas can flow freely. State governments spend millions of taxpayer dollars on companies and consultants peddling “the next best greatest thing.” These programs claim to solve problems perceived to be present in public schools. These companies and consultants exist to make a profit. I propose that we change course entirely. We should convene groups of highly trained professionals with advanced degrees and many years of experience who know exactly what education should look like. If the pandemic experience has taught us anything, it is that teachers have proven that they possess the organizational skills and the vision to make education happen under the most impossible circumstances. Imagine what they could do under optimal circumstances, provided with adequate time, space, and compensation. That is how you improve education.
There is no more valuable resource than our future adults. They deserve the best education that we can give them…one that does not come from outside companies. It comes from teachers. History will judge the decisions we make today. Isn’t it time that we made the right one?