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Here is something they never taught me in my teacher credential classes two decades ago: how to confront the first signs I am perhaps losing a step in the classroom.
I’m not a hipster in my fashion, not woke in my politics, and certainly not hyperaware of the modern trappings of youth culture.
I don’t understand the humor of their tweets, the witticisms of their memes, or the drollness of their one-liners. Eventually, after voluminous explanation from my students, I finally “get it.” During these moments, I feel like the third-wheel in my own classroom, especially when the students reference YouTube celebrities, famous Instagram posts, or use the latest slang.
I can still make them laugh, but not like I used to. Nowadays, they laugh at my foibles as a father of three managing a boisterous household stable that includes two willful teenage daughters, an outrageous eight-year old son whose temper can be delightfully volcanic, and my wife whose pointed one-liners are the stuff of Hollywood screenwriting legends. (I’m still debating if I should create an anonymous Twitter account with the handle @mywifeshilariousoneliners).
I don’t want to participate in the activities of young staff members. I don’t want to dance at the rallies, act in plays, or chaperone the school dances. When students ask me to come to school events, I usually attend, but often out of obligation.
The principal, who has guided my career for two decades, is retiring this year. Some of my best friends speak often of retirement; even I have started to play with the California State Teacher Retirement calculator from time to time.
I am not sure if my best friends on campus who are my age will be here in five years or ten years or beyond. A lot of them talk of becoming administrators or going to other schools someday. The one person who I thought would always be teaching down the hall from me—my one constant colleague from the beginning of my teacher life—died suddenly last year of cancer. She had just turned forty the month before her death. Teaching hasn’t felt the same since she died to be honest. But everyone else has moved on, so I don’t mention it to anyone anymore.
I used to get upset when students acted disrespectfully towards me, brazenly ditched my class, or displayed the obnoxious persona of the indifferent graduating senior. Now, I just put my head down and accept most of it—why fight? Why verbally joust with seventeen-year-olds whose brains are not even done developing yet? God knows I hope my high school teachers don’t remember me at that age! After all, my students won’t see my disappointment or condemnation as fatherly or ennobling. Frankly, they’ll just think I am being a gigantic jerk. And who wants that? Right? I have decided our parting of the ways in late May is more likely to be positive and affirming if I don’t declare nuclear war on their poor behavior in their final weeks of high school.
I am starting to get a sense that I am woefully out of step with their world-views and preoccupations. I am not an environmentalist, a STEM teacher, or a social justice warrior. They ask me if I like tattoos, and they never really like my answer—in fact, they playfully try to change my mind by giving me every imaginable option. What about a small American flag where no one can see it?
They get on me for not drinking enough water. When I do drink water in class, I’m told it shouldn’t be from a plastic bottle.
My voice keeps dying by mid-week. My back aches a little every time I drop a pen on the ground, and I bend over to pick it up. If the kids are talking and one student asks me a question, I absolutely have to silence everyone else to hear him or her. I don’t play tennis with the tennis team much anymore. This isn’t geriatric decline, granted, but it surely isn’t youthful spryness, either. I feel more at home on campus when I sound like a cranky fuddy-duddy curmudgeon that an agile avantgarde cosmopolitan.
I am nobody’s favorite anymore. I’m not a new teacher. I’m not edgy. I don’t use cutting edge teaching methods. My ethical inspirations for how to live a good and meaningful life come from prosaic places like Athens, Jerusalem, and Gettysburg. I read books more than I watch Netflix or YouTube videos. I have no interest in places like Coachella. Projections of how to live deeply and true used to be viewed through the prisms of poets, prophets, artists, philosophers, and statesmen. Now, it’s Twitter, and I can’t help but feel that something essential about life is being overlooked, forgotten, or ignored by this development.
But here is the ultimate sign I have lost a step: it’s all OK. No, really, except for wincing when I happen to look at pictures of my youthful teacher self, I always knew the onset of decline had to happen someday. In some ways, getting older in the classroom is a privilege. Some days I feel like I have to work twice as hard to be half the teacher I once was. Or to put it another way, sometimes my current self feels like he is pretending to be my former self.
It’s all very meta and odd and off-putting.
And yet, there is still magic in my day. A lot of magic, actually. I laugh hard almost every single day. I get to teach and discuss genuinely important and fascinating curriculum every single day. My students make me smile a lot more than they make me frown.
I can joyfully admit I had a long time in the sun, teaching at the absolute meridian of my powers. I still throw a lot of strikes, I still have days that brim with significance, I still adore my students, and I still get the sense that deep down they know I passionately believe in them.
As I settle into this third decade of my teaching career, I want to matter as much as I ever have. Maybe that’s just not possible anymore, or maybe I am being overly fatalistic. But I am pretty sure this is what the genesis of decay looks and feels like—like the basketball player who doesn’t dunk anymore, the writer whose sales are in decline, or a singer who used to sell out stadiums and now plays casinos off the strip in Las Vegas.
I can bemoan my altered station, or I can rejoice at the peak I once occupied. Or maybe, just maybe, there is a third option. For despite the fact that there are more teacher years behind me than in front of me, perhaps the best option is not to slowly walk down the mountain, but to find another one and to start climbing anew.