Image via U.S. Department of Education
As I write this it is the evening before I walk in for my 38th first day of school.
Teachers spend this evening with their own sets of thoughts—savoring their last free evening of the summer, or perhaps creating those last few sets of teaching materials.
Some of us have the Teacher Nightmare. There are many different versions of the Teacher Nightmare. In some, you find yourself in a classroom completely unprepared—no lesson, no materials, no idea what you’ve already done with the class. In other versions, the class spirals out of control until you are surrounded by students that you can neither reach nor settle. In the worst versions, you get both, as students realize you are an imposter, with no idea what the heck you are doing.
The night before school is like the moments before the lights go up on stage, before the first whistle in the contest is blown. It is easier to start than to wait to start.
As I sit here mentally rehearsing my first-day spiel, I also find myself reflecting on the questions that seem to pop up every August. Here’s how I’m answering them.
Are you ready to go back?
This question can be meant in two ways. The first one is really: “Don’t you just hate going back? Tell me how much you hate going back.” Actually, I am pretty excited to go back. I do wish you would stop asking students this question though, as what they hear is, “You should definitely hate school.”
The other version is actually a real question: “Are you prepared to go back?” I usually respond, “Ready enough.” Because even after all these years, there are still things that I am working on improving. I don’t expect I will ever say, “Yes, I’ve totally got this under control and I can just cruise on autopilot now.” I’ve never met a good teacher who thought that way.
Also, I can’t be fully prepared because I don’t know my students yet, and I won’t know exactly what I’m doing this year until I meet them. I have to meet them where they are, and find out where they want to go. Preparing all of my instruction before I’ve even met the students is like baking the wedding cake on the day of the proposal—before a wedding date has even been set.
How have kids changed?
Again, this can be one of two questions. The first one means, “Don’t Kids These Days Suck? Tell me how much you think Kids These Days suck.” That one’s easy. They don’t suck—at least not at any higher rate than the general human population.
The real question is more complicated to answer. I don’t think students have changed that much in forty years, but the cultural soup they swim in changes all the time, and that can make the students seem different. But the basic characteristics have not changed. My students still want to be seen and heard, still want to know who they are, still want to be individuals even as they want to be connected to other people. They still want to find their strengths and figure out how to face their weaknesses. They still want to figure out how to be their best selves and understand the best ways to be in the world.
What nobody asks.
Almost nobody asks how school is different, how my work has changed. That’s because almost everybody, for some reason, assumes that school still operates just like it did when they were there.
It doesn’t. One of the bizarre recurring features of education reform is a reformer saying, “We must stop schools from doing X,” but whether X is all-lecture instruction or rote memorization or writing with quill pens, we already quit years ago.
Schools are always learning and changing; adapting to the latest round of requirements placed on us. School is always different.
All this means that every new year is exciting because my students are new and the work is new, even as certain foundational factors remain the same. That is just one reason my job is so cool—the awesome mix of growth and stability. Tomorrow is going to be a great day. Curtain up.
Peter Greene has been a classroom secondary English teacher for over thirty-five years. He lives and works in a small town in Northwest Pennsylvania, blogs at Curmudgucation, and is Midwest Regional Progressive Education Fellow.