Like farming or, say, bartending in the Greek Islands, teaching is a seasonal profession.
The return to routine is jarring. Each September, our circadian rhythms are interrupted as our lives, our schedules, even our bodily functions, are again dictated by bells. Actually, what we have in our building isn’t really a bell in the traditional sense—nay, it’s more like an electronic barge horn, fraying our nerves with each angry blast. On particularly frazzling days, I’ve wondered whether it’s that noise blaring at schools nationwide that has caused an increase in violence.
When the school year begins “for real” (when the kids arrive), the major adjustment period begins. Every teacher I’ve asked, whether three years in or 30, confirms it each September: we don’t sleep well for two to three weeks. Depending on our schedule, some teachers—and about half of our students—won’t get a break to eat from 7:30 until noon. And back to those bodily functions: while students get the proverbial bathroom pass (which could be more accurately titled “the-roam-around-the-halls-and-text-message-your-friends-in-other-classes pass”), their instructors must often wait hours. Basically, it’s a rough transition after summer weeks of peeing whenever, and possibly wherever, we want.
But this week, the week before Labor Day, is different. Summer is officially over but school has not begun. It’s a surreal experience: the hallway lights are dimmed, the floors are waxed to a not-for-long sheen, and in the air rages a battle between teachers’ stereos, with NPR, AC/DC, and U2 all vying for attention. For high school teachers, this week is not about hanging posters and decorating bulletin boards with autumn decals. We meet and plan and meet and plan, and then plan some more and meet to discuss what we planned. While it sounds monotonous—and it sometimes unavoidably is—it’s also motivating.
Teachers, however cynical they may sometimes be, must be optimistic, or they wouldn’t return with higher hopes each year. Next week is about tweaking, refining, or throwing-out-and-redoing what didn’t work before. We gather and set collective goals for the year: 90 percent of our students will pass the state writing test. We set professional goals for ourselves: students will be able to pass the state reading test on the first round due to increased use of word study activities in my curriculum. Individually, personally, we set different goals: 100 percent of my students, after reading To Kill a Mockingbird, will be able to apply the concept of walking in another person’s shoes in their own lives.
While the “beginning again” part of teaching can be rough on the body, it can be great for the soul. A reminder to us all that we get a clean slate (or whiteboard), where students start another leg of their journeys with the wind at their backs, and teachers believe that maybe this year, we can help even more of them make it to that last bell in June of their fourth year. That bell, according to seniors, is the best sound they’ve ever heard.
Susanne Stefani is a writer and and a creative writing teacher at McNary High School.