How 30 Years of Teaching Feels – and How It Should Feel

I started late in the school year my first year of teaching in 1990 – October 8th to be precise. I was hired to trim class sizes for other teachers and take their extra students as part of a program our district had adopted called Writing Enhancement. The program kept each English teacher’s total student load to 125 students. I didn’t know how good I had it. As I reached my 30th anniversary last Saturday, it was a chance to look back, but also to take stock of where I am now.

I started in a program that limited my student population to 125 students. We were encouraged to use the Nancy Atwell reading/writing workshop approach. There were no high-stakes standardized tests, and the writing program was evaluated by student portfolio checks that looked for breadth of types of writing, student autonomy and self-efficacy in writing, and creativity. I had two planning periods to help expedite giving writing feedback to my students.

Flash-forward to today. My five 9th grade English classes currently total 149 students. Add to that my Creative Writing elective, and I am topping out at 180 students. (Creative Writing being crowded is partially my doing, however. Students wanted to come back, so I got them to add an advanced class in with the Creative Writing 1 class, and it is now 7 students larger. Without those students, I’d still be at 173.) Everything we are asked to do is designed to raise high-stakes test-scores, even though we are dealing with a brand-new test no teacher has ever seen. I get one planning period a day, and generally only four planning days a week since one of those planning periods is generally devoted to PLC meetings. We are only encouraged to give students writing that prepares them for the writing test – breadth, autonomy, self-efficacy, are out the window.

They are not out the window just for students. They are out the window for teachers as well. Our curriculum is spelled out now on a map that is more an itinerary, based entirely on our textbook. The system’s conception of teaching has transformed to from a profession of, well, professionals to a profession of curriculum dispensers who are supposed to bring nothing to the classroom but a willingness to comply.

My teaching career got off to a rocky start. I was laid off after that first year and unable to find work for two more years. When I did get a second teaching job, my return to the profession was marred by what I can only call a group of students out of Lord of the Flies if Lord of the Flies had been set in a small, rural Florida town instead of a remote island.

But 10 years after that, when I had moved to my third school and shortly into the run of my comic strip about teaching, I won school, and then district, teacher of the year. To be validated for what I was doing as a teacher after such a rocky start, after all the rejections and after an entire school year spent wondering if I would make it to the end of the year, was marvelous I must confess.

And what was I validated for? For finding ways to reach and engage students. For turning them on to reading and writing. For being creative, not just with an individual lesson plan here or there, but creative in my whole approach, creative in how a built a year: laying a foundation not just of skills but of reasons that reading and writing matters, building on that foundation to teach students the moves real, expert readers and writers make as they read and write. For finding just the right texts at just the right places to get students thinking, questioning, making connections, and emulating the writers we read together. For seeing where students were, knowing where I wanted them to be, and finding ways to take them there. For being a thinking, caring, creative teacher who had something unique to bring to the classroom. Administrators would come into my room to see what I was up to today – it was usually something cool.

Nowadays thinking and creativity are discouraged. When “district people” come into a classroom, they are checking for compliance, not creativity. In 2020, just before the pandemic, I drew a comic strip depicted the transformation…

If the teaching profession had stayed as it was when I started, I would have reached 30 years feeling like the luckiest man alive, professionally. In addition to the autonomy and creativity mentioned above, I was set to see my pay go up at a reasonable rate, with steps for years of service. (Steps were taken away a long time ago. At least I still have tenure.) To work in a profession where you are encouraged to be the very best you can be at what you do, at the work you feel called to, is to feel you are right where you should be. Teaching hasn’t always been easy – it is still exhausting sometimes, even on good days, especially as I get older. But 30 years should have felt like a celebration of being encouraged to be my creative, enthusiastic, inventive self. It should have been pure celebration.

Here’s what 30 years of teaching feels like instead. It feels like watching my profession become de-professionalized over time – micromanaged and slandered until we have a massive teacher shortage that seems to baffle everyone except teachers. It feels like surviving a battle against the system – a battle to teach creatively and actually encourage my students to love reading and writing. It feels like a long, slow betrayal. It feels, as I have stated before, a lot like an abusive relationship. I should be pondering if I ever want to retire. Instead I find myself counting the number of times I almost quit.

It also feels like Open House did the night before Hurricane Ian when parents told me how happy they were their kids were in my class. It feels like my school administrators dropping by to appreciate what I do. It feels like a student coming up at the end of Creative Writing today and spontaneously saying ,”I love your class!”

That’s what I tried to think about as I celebrated 30 years this past Saturday.