I recently noted that while I write a lot of poetry, I cannot call myself a poet. I have long thought of myself simply as “teacher.” But in just a few short weeks, I will no longer teach in a classroom, I will no longer be employed as a teacher. I’ll be the same person, but what will I call myself? How will I identify myself to the world? What will go in that little box on my tax return?
How we label ourselves is an unconscious decision, but oh, how important it is! I have worn many different hats during my lifetime, each of which might be a label: daughter, friend, wife, mother, grandmother, teacher, writer, photographer, teacher.
I have been employed in many different jobs, too, but teaching is the only one that has extended into how I identify myself, and that it true because I believe teaching is something I was born to do; it’s within me. When I needed to declare a major in college, so many years ago, it was going to be English because I thought that my love for writing could lead to work for a publishing company. My mother convinced me to major in education, because I “could still focus on English,” she told me, “but the world always needs teachers.” She knew even then, when I didn’t, that that’s who I was, but while I agreed to be an education major, I did not become a teacher until many years later.
I entered college in the fall of 1968, the height of the Vietnam war, when it seemed like it would never end and public outcry against the military was gaining strength. At this time, men who were full time students received a military draft deferment, which caused an explosion in college enrollment all across the country. In my freshman class, there were 400 of us — 300 were men who didn’t want to go to war. Many of us, men and women, became education majors, and so when we all graduated, there were literally hundreds of applicants for every available teaching position. I secured only one interview, and the whole meeting took place across a counter in the high school office. The woman speaking to me asked me only one question: “Well, what can you teach?” I was so stunned by the publicly rude behavior, I don’t even remember how I answered the question. I didn’t apply for any other teaching positions for fifteen more years.
Who was I then? I didn’t yet know. I was married by the time I graduated from college, and found work first as a waitress, then was hired to work at a local hospital in public relations and volunteer services. I loved that job – I wrote press releases and much of the content of the monthly employee newsletter. That was a blast, and I was also asked to take photographs to accompany the articles I wrote. I think my favorite assignment was actually going into an Operating Room, gowned and gloved, to take pictures during a surgical procedure.
And there was teaching. In addition to public relations, our department of two was also charged with managing volunteer services, and I was enlisted to train new volunteers in their appointed tasks: how to perform each of the myriad jobs that the many volunteers are enlisted to do. It was fun, and I became acquainted with many great people. But I didn’t identify who I was with what I did for work.
After that, I worked a few years in retail, and when the company launched a training program for associates to improve in customer relations, I was appointed the store trainer. I liked it when managers and supervisors came into my classes; they were impressed at how I personalized the lessons and how the associates really learned what they were supposed to learn. It didn’t take long before I was asked to be a district-wide trainer. I enjoyed that job, too – I even got to travel, flying to upstate New York to help open a new store. But while I still didn’t identify who I was with what I did for work, I did finally figure out that there was a message there and it was about time that I faced the truth. I was supposed to teach.
Here’s how it all came down. In September 1986, my dear friend Kathy married, and I arranged to take a long weekend off so that I could be there. Weekends off in retail are rare, so this was a big deal. When I returned to work, I discovered that the assistant manager of the store had decided that he wanted my office for himself, so he stuffed all my belongings into my desk, shoved it into the back storeroom, and moved into his new space. I returned from the weekend to find my desk near the loading dock, belongings trashed. I gave my notice that day.
But one does not find teaching jobs after school has begun for the year, so I hired on as a substitute teacher, and I liked it; my children were small, but they were both in school so it allowed me to have much more time with them than my retail work. I subbed in several schools in the area, and quickly gained a good reputation, which led to more frequent calls to work. One of my first assignments was to cover a sixth grade English class for several days. The lesson plan called for students to read a story about jazz music; after the first day, I brought some jazz music to class to play for them so that they would have more understanding of the ideas in the story. When the “real teacher” returned to school, I happened to be there to cover a different class, and I was able to speak with her directly, telling her what I had done to augment her lesson. I will never forget her response: “You mean you can TEACH?”
Subbing during that school year was an eye-opener in several ways. I got to know which teachers were well organized and left solid plans, and which teachers merely assigned busy work that would never engage student interest. I saw the benefits of different systems of organization and planning, and I saw how different teaching styles can impact classroom environments. It gave me insight that I would not have understood had I not “walked a mile in those moccasins.” I carried that awareness with me always, and later I would write my own sub plans with the expectation that a competent and qualified stand-in would follow my direction with the capacity to use his/her own judgment if and when it would be necessary. I was seldom disappointed. The year I spent at this job was definitely time well spent. I was getting closer.
The following school year, I was hired as a full-time teacher – at the very school where I had brought in the music. I knew that I was in the right place, although I can’t identify any exact moment when “teacher” became who I was; perhaps it was always there, or perhaps it unfolded slowly until it just was. I know that I will always be a teacher in one way or another. As for what I shall call myself, that is not yet for me to know, I think. Somehow, “retired” doesn’t feel like it will work. Perhaps I’ll just have to try on a few different identities and see which one feels the best.