Responsibility to the Future

A friend whose brother is about to become a teacher wrote asking for the best advice I’d received about teaching. Here is my response….

You are responsible to the students you will teach to 10-15 years down the road as well as to the ones you teach now.

As a teacher, it’s hard for me not to go full throttle all the time, to take time to rest and relax. People often go into teaching because they love and care about kids and so it can be hard to give what feels like less than your best at times. The above advice was helpful to me because it helped me re-frame the my needs v. students’ needs to needs of my students now versus those down the road. That reframing has helped me feel less guilty about taking time for myself when I need it and not beating myself up when I haven’t been able to devote the time I’d like to a particular project or lesson. If I so work myself to the bone that I flame out and don’t make it past my first five years of teaching, I’ll miss out on the opportunity to be a great teacher to students who will come later.

After I wrote the above, I realized that it reminded me of the Billy Collins’ poem “Schoolsville”

Glancing over my shoulder at the past,
I realize the number of students I have taught
is enough to populate a small town.

I can see it nestled in a paper landscape,
chalk dust flurrying down in winter,
nights dark as a blackboard.

The population ages but never graduates.
On hot afternoons they sweat the final in the park
and when it’s cold they shiver around stoves
reading disorganized essays out loud.
A bell rings on the hour and everybody zigzags
into the streets with their books.

I forgot all their last names first and their
first names last in alphabetical order.
But the boy who always had his hand up
is an alderman and owns the haberdashery.
The girl who signed her papers in lipstick
leans against the drugstore, smoking,
brushing her hair like a machine.

Their grades are sewn into their clothes
like references to Hawthorne.
The A’s stroll along with other A’s.
The D’s honk whenever they pass another D.

All the creative-writing students recline
on the courthouse lawn and play the lute.
Wherever they go, they form a big circle.

Needless to say, I am the mayor.
I live in the white colonial at Maple and Main.
I rarely leave the house. The car deflates
in the driveway. Vines twirl around the porch swing.

Once in a while a student knocks on the door
with a term paper fifteen years late
or a question about Yeats or double-spacing.
And sometimes one will appear in a windowpane
to watch me lecturing the wallpaper,
quizzing the chandelier, reprimanding the air.

From Sailing Around the Room: New and Selected Poems 

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2 thoughts on “Responsibility to the Future

  1. I needed to read this post. I’ve been working on my own end of year post, in which I admit that I feel like I’m broken this year Now I see that I am not actually broken, I am simply struggling with my pacing. It is very tough to look down the road and think of future students. Early in my career I actually wanted to be a “rockstar teacher” in the sense of burning everything I had at full blast until it was gone, and then moving on. I didn’t see it as selfish back then. I do now. If I am a good teacher (which I think I can be, at times) I need to find ways to be better for an extended period of time. Thanks for this post, Meredith.

    Also, the poem is fantastic. On Monday a student challenged me to name all of my former students in the class pictures I have hanging by my desk. My first class is just finishing up their Junior year in college. I’d estimate I’ve had about 800 students (including this year). I was able to name all but sixteen. Not bad…

    1. I totally empathize with the desire to be a rock star teacher. I feel like I managed to do that, at least somewhat, for my first couple years of teaching, but came dangerously close to serious burnout. Working through that has definitely been a challenge. Here’s hoping that you’re able to find some rest in the last few weeks of school. That’s an impressive memory you have 🙂

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