Saturday, June 8, 2013

Thinking 9 to 5

Teacher, gardener, cat.
A short time after my first year of teaching I discussed the upcoming term with another teacher, who intimated that I'd completed the curriculum and wouldn't need to do much, if anything, the next time around. My reaction was a moderated version of, "Away, fool!" I was and remain simultaneously flattered and offended by the notion that I've completed anything, seemingly an odd position for a conservative, who by nature looks askance at progress and seeks more to conserve what already exists. Yet while life is not led by the arrow of progress, it is neither sustained by curating hoary antiquity. Instead, living is cultivation in a cycle of renewal. It's about growing, staving off entropy and ennui, and then adding what you can. Nothing is perfected and there are no revolutions, life is the slow, steady mixing of effort, virtue, and whatever comes your way.

I seldom consider what I've done as completed or perfected because I don't think of myself as perfected or, at least in the foreseeable future, ending. Sure, in the short term, things end. Projects have deadlines, payments are due, and other concerns arise, but I'll be back to everything at some point, hopefully bringing something new and finding something buried. This sounds very discursive, very unsystematic, and maybe it is, but I can't imagine having my head in the sand for so long. Maybe it's unprofessional too, but I think students would rather learn from a living person than a fossil who has "completed" his studies. In fact I think the whole educational system of the country would collapse forthwith if students knew their teachers and professors were 9-to-5 intellectuals.

In fact, I've often thought the teaching world would benefit from what's usually and idiotically called professional development, but not of the curriculum-planning, rubric-writing, box-checking, mandate-fulfilling variety. Instead, teachers should, wait for it, study their disciplines. I suggest this not so much to keep up with new developments but for education's salutary effect on the character.

Teacher in summer. url
First, it's exciting to learn, and I'm certain teachers get numb and dumb teaching the same thing over and over. Second, that repetition gives them a false sense of their expertise. It'd do the Gradgrind of an English teacher some good to have some red ink spilled over his own precious prose. Too, maybe the music teacher could put the brakes on his singing and tear out a few tufts of hair while he tries to write a fugue. Maybe everyone in the humanities could actually learn Latin so they could know what they're talking about. Third, teachers should study things outside their discipline, yes because life is bigger and more complex than any one branch of study, but also to feel some sympathy with students who are compelled to switch gears ever 45 minutes. Most of all, the ossified teacher brain will learn that it too must work slowly over time, and that neither 45 minutes nor a day nor a week nor a month nor a year nor is the divinely ordained span of time during which learning must begin and flourish.

Unfortunately the academic calendar, with it's short days and numerous vacations, fosters the opposite of a desire to cultivate slowly over time. In my experience, the less your job requires of you, the less you do, and the less you do, the less you want to do. At the bottom of the spiral you grow to resent the little that you have to do because it feels like an encroachment on your time rather than the focus of it. On top of this, the defined beginning and end, rigid track of courses, and clockwork exams press everyone to perform in a limited time, so everyone grows miserable. The remedy is simple: more work, more learning. In approaching the job this way, summer vacation comes less like the desperately needed crash onto the couch or beach, and more like a shifting of responsibilities from the external and quantifiable to the internal and perennial.

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