Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Lucky Teacher on sabbatical

link to published article

I just read an interesting blog on surviving teaching by Cool Cat Teacher, Vicki Davis and John Kuhn's viral hit, The Exhaustion of the American Teacher.  Teacher burnout is a perennial problem. It is impossible to survive with idealism, purpose and dignity intact amid changing mandates, recessions, and media inflamed paranoia about American public education. Public schools do not advertise or lobby for their best practices and public school teachers tend to receive less praise, less attention the longer they stay in teaching.

I guess this is why I feel so fortunate to not only survive twenty years of service in education but to look forward to my start in 2013 as happy and idealistic.  I am returning from a mini sabbatical in New Mexico to teach at my Vermont public high school and I have never felt so alive. A sabbatical is a true gift. I have been thinking of the spirit of giving this holiday season and I am grateful to have a school board and an administration that appreciates its professional community enough to grant such a leave. Not many school systems afford this opportunity and it is a shame. Teachers encourage students to follow their bliss, to strive to be the best they can be and yet they often settle for much less.  Allowing me to step away from the classroom, tour someplace new and to take risks is both humbling and enlightening. I can now say to students with confidence that I practice what I preach.

Two things needed to change for me.  I have not been unemployed since the age of sixteen and I badly needed a break.  I have spent my entire teaching career in Vermont which makes me wonder how well I prepare students for their experiences in a multicultural world. A family home in Santa Fe, New Mexico became available so I seized upon the opportunity to pick up and move temporarily. On former visits I had volunteered in a literacy program and was able to persuade this contact to allow me to shadow her program while I wrote a case study for my Masters in Literacy. My adventures began mid summer on our drive across the country, each mile, each frustration, each responsibility melting away behind me.

Crossing the Mississippi gave me pause as I considered the long history of other migrants who learned to let go of their securities and trust in the unknown. I would experience both the hardship and the joy of starting from scratch. My husband would need to stay behind in his teaching position but I had faith that we could mold our distance into a new family experience. This sabbatical began with the challenge of passing through drought ridden landscapes, devastating heat waves. angry traffic and dust storms. We met and talked with people all along the way, enfolding their stories into our own new awareness of what it means to be American.

New Mexico was everything I hoped it would be. My daughter transitioned into one school community while I began my volunteer work at another. Age and experience allowed me to make some smart decisions about my role. I purposefully limited the number of hours and days I would work in the school system.  I gave myself ample time for research, writing and time to enjoy my surroundings which I never had as a regular classroom teacher. Time to reflect is extremely important to development in education. Letting go of my own management and teaching style in order to work under the tutelage of someone new requires a great deal of faith and self assurance. I spent my first month hiking at 9,000 feet heaving for each breathe as my brain stumbled over all that I had seen in a day. I learned to let go of ideas in teaching that I thought were valuable and I learned to accept it with grace.  The person I shadowed had survived education longer than I and I had much to learn from her positive outlook and her steely resolve.  In return, I was able to use my own experience as a veteran teacher to jump in without a great deal of explanation.  I plunged into daily routines and responsibilities that were taking a toll on my adviser and her staff.  Educators are not used to having back up help or a lending hand and on several occasions I know I saved the program from unexpected emergencies.

My humility became a source of strength. Most of my students did not speak English as a first language and my grasp of Spanish was weaker than I realized. Their rapid dialect made the spelling of names in my ledger and the request for directions to the school baño humbling tasks. I was lost in translation. I took it upon myself to spend days aside from teaching by jogging roads, taking pictures of anything unusual and then striking up conversations with strangers in museums or coffee shops. Everyone I met was friendly enough to help me with pronunciations and cultural differences. People here seem to move at an unhurried pace, maybe it is a Southwestern attitude or my new approach to listening but I have learned much coupled with recommendations for travels into quiet canyons, hot springs and spiritual places.

Not everything is perfect in the Land of Enchantment.  I have witnessed parents angrily blasting the school systems for allowing outsiders into their public schools or for not giving their kids enough homework.  I have seen teachers here berated by the media for high rates of absenteeism yet no mention of their lowered salaries.  Some public schools have more field trip opportunities than others and all are constricted in their access to technology and digital applications. Everyone worries about being part of a hierarchical order and trust is a huge issue. I realize here that it is important to be an involved parent but one who doesn't say much and offers real time with kids.

Familiarity with two schools gave me freedom to volunteer in more than one program, to introduce and integrate technologies and to pilot lessons that were successful back east. The exchange of ideas and conversations with educators here have been fruitful. I regret that I can be too busy in my own practice, in my own school to have these opportunities. The transition from beginner, to observer, to trusted colleague has allowed me to weave together a stronger thread of experience and  knowledge. I can't wait to bring home to my classroom an efficient system of management, new lessons on histories not covered in our textbook and a better understanding of what a multicultural classroom should look like. Most importantly I have gained an appreciation for the toils and troubles that plague educators everywhere and that everywhere there are individuals whose positive energies do transcend the daily grind, changing education for the better. I hope it isn't my last chance to work and observe a school system outside of Vermont.  I have visions of a long future in education and in travel.

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