At the end of my last work day, 3/1/2012, a few of my peers gathered with me at St. Stephens Green to ease the transition to retirement because, of course, I have mixed feelings about leaving. I invited my "go-to" friends, those whose presence at FLC and readiness to work together eased the day-to-day job pressures. The catered gathering was also my thank you to them for their positive support through the years. It was a small and sweet gathering.
Under the hugs and best wishes and smiles I sensed the hyper energy and exhaustion of my friends. It had been a difficult day, especially for the three whom a student had confided in. She had come to school after an incident of sexual abuse and, adding this to other recent losses, was ready to give up. She didn't; she talked to her teachers instead. The challenge was that no resources were available to the staff: Counselors were out of the building and no handouts of help-lines or other resources were in evidence. One teacher surfed for information which she made available to the child, but wasn't sure whether she would be liable for any negative results from her action. We sat and discussed that problem, repeating the ritual support that teachers give each other when the challenges of teaching seem to endanger us.
There is no avoiding the lives of our students. None of us would want to. In these days of teacher ultra-accountability, however, all acts away from the script--acts that are both trust-provoking and educational--are dangerous. Self-preservation makes us hesitate to follow the very instincts that we have honed over the years. These are teacher instincts, the instincts of teachers who teach children rather than merely subjects and who set up learning environments in which meetings for learning occur regularly.
In his recent NYTimes editorial "Confessions of a Bad Teacher," William Johnson details this problem. Following good instincts leads to both negative evaluations and strategic ambiguity on the part of administrators who also seem to be protecting themselves. We have to ask, from whom? Whose job is it to "put the students first" these days? My friends in teaching are the ones who take the actions to make this rhetoric true, and they are the ones who fear for their jobs when the worm keeps turning.
These issues had a part in my need to retire. Nothing makes physical pain more difficult to bear then emotional pain and psychological undermining. I have often been a radical in the face of mind sets--even my own. This weekend's meeting with a successful ex-student from the College of William and Mary reminded me of that, big time. My educational philosophy was honed in the halls of Ellen Stewart's LaMaMa--the subject of my doctoral dissertation and critical hero of international diplomacy through performance. She demonstrated how to guide potential clashes into both collaborative work AND individual integrity--what I think of as the quantum theatre and the United Nations and a classroom of students. I expect to write more about this in the future.
Meanwhile, the friendship among like-minded teachers remains the major life-raft in the sea of politically-motivated school reform. Thank you friends. We do because we do. I will miss you greatly and admire you always.