Friday, July 1, 2011

Are Teachers at the Edge?

First off, I’ll freely acknowledge that my perspective might be due to age and my preferred view of peaceful landscapes and deep woods; nevertheless, I’m compelled to voice a concern for the well-being of the people who hold the future in their hands: our teachers.  In taking the temper of K-12 teachers around the end of school year 2010-2011, I’m sensing the edge of breakdown and detecting signs that it’s more widespread than I’ve felt in about fifty years.  The political climate with massive layoffs, funding cuts, and accountability attacks weigh heavily in the polluted atmosphere; and the extended fear tactics that desiccate our overall environment, especially for the decade since 9/11, should alert us to a weakened resilience in persons in extended stressful conditions, like those of most classroom teachers.

Given this perspective on the threatened and precarious state of so many dear folks in key positions involving international security (yes, classroom teachers), I’m prompted to reconsider my planning for the next school year.  As director of the University of Maryland Writing Project, as teacher educator, and as concerned citizen of our global village, I’m wondering about prioritizing the “greening” of teachers.  Regarding our summer programs, increasing numbers of educators reluctantly dropped out with hesitant “excuses” that I took as valid reasons for taking care of themselves; the beautiful faces of those who showed up anyway appear to cover a fragile, stressed interior.  Our time together is no less sweet, no less profound, and no less promising for extending the miraculous work done by caring teachers; but the need for more frequent visits to the water of life seems urgent.  I want to put on our calendar and make accessible Educator R&R.

Contemporary R&R, in contrast, sometimes has the nutritional value of a Smokey Bar. Renewal wants more than Friday-Night Lights, extra sleep, and brain-deadening media; we must offer better nurturance than fast food and TGIF happy-hour stupor.  I’m not attacking chocolate and coffee equivalents that get a person by.  I am asserting that the sub-strata of emotional, mental, and physical health must be attended.  I wonder how many persons who are dangerously out of balance, even teetering on the edge, are aware of it.  Do they know anything better? Perhaps some have lost touch with the feel of holistic good health.

I’m not just talking regular organic granola bars either.  High-quality professional development stays on the menu.  For example, I’m underlining Katie Wood Ray’s distinction of writing as teachers-of-writing (somewhat different from writing as writers) for our program.  We’ll still do our teacher inquiry workshops.

At moments of burn-out, however, I believe we need more than professional development and pedagogical reflection.  My teachers may require something restorative in a way somewhat different from the intensive institute, the star-studded professional conference, and the Saturday Seminar. 

We must contact the wellspring, write for our lives, right our lives; and that may mean making silence in sanctuary spaces, making poetry in communal moments, and laughing, of course.  More than our usual “enough to get by” can be added to our calendar. 

I know I’m not creating the wheel; writing retreats happen.  Let’s prioritize them, cultivate them, infuse them with our love and get our teachers to them.  In our National Writing Project communities with shared values, particularly the commitment to social justice, we already have a vital resource for restoring and maintaining balance.  Let’s commit to caring for our national, global treasure.