Monday, August 15, 2011

Buildings vs. Students

It is the first day of school for my former colleagues and students at my school in New Orleans, and I can't help but feel restless and anxious that I'm not there. People keep saying, "We miss you!" and "We wish you were here!" and "It's not the same without you!" which is all very flattering and - come on - obviously true, but it's been making me wistful, nostalgic, and sad too.

I've also been emailing furiously with several friends who teach 4th grade, writing them notes and insights about my kids from last year. Since I'm not there, I feel a heightened sense of urgency to let them know who needs a little extra attention, who needs to be challenged, and (for their own good) which parents are nightmares.

But it's also got me thinking about the outcomes and legacies that we leave behind through our work.

While I was in New York last week, I spent a lot of time with my brother 23. If you remember, 23 is in his first year of architecture school, but he's spent a good portion of his time since high school taking architecture enrichment classes, interning for my uncle and another architecture firm, and even drafting the plans for the expansion of my parents' house in Sapphire, NC. Though I have no interest in architecture, I am slightly jealous of the nature of his work. There is something so satisfying about the idea of creating something. With architects, you can see and touch the results of their work. There used to be an empty lot, and now there's a building. There was no deck and hey look! a deck. They get to see a project through from a nascent idea to a realized, physical end. I have literally walked around, slept, and cooked inside my brother's work.

Let's contrast that with my job. Though I think it's the best and most rewarding career you could have (side note: talk to me in two weeks when the kids have been there a few days and I'm stressed out of my mind... I may recant), I don't actually make something tangible. Yes, my students produce grades on math tests and stories about aliens and endearingly scribbled artwork - but that satisfying start-to-finish aspect of my brother's chosen career will never be there, because inevitably, after nine months of teaching my ass off, they move on past me.

I don't think I will ever get past the mourning I do each May for the loss of my kids. I put my heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears (ok maybe not blood. It's a phrase.) into them, and then they're on to their next favorite teacher.

So I don't really create anything. I contribute to the well-being and knowledge of children for nine months when they are eight and nine years old. That's my job in a nutshell. What tangible thing have I made - that I can pick up and hold in my hand and say, "I did that"? Standardized test scores? I don't think so. All I have to go on that I objectively produced something in them is their continued success and well-being beyond my classroom. That, my friends, is why I am such a crazy person about checking in on my people when they go to 4th grade - the need to reassure myself that I produced something.

Listen to the way I talk about them - my kids, my people. They are my product, our product - that is, the product of every teacher they have had. (For the sake of this post, I'm leaving out people like "parents" and "siblings" and "baseball coaches." Indulge me.) Each year we send them off to our colleagues and hope that what we created, stirred, and put into them sticks. What is the end result, the legacy shall we say, that we leave behind as teachers? I'll leave you with that to think about.

Happy school year.

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