When our son started playing Little League baseball and International youth soccer many years ago, the neighborhood parks didn’t have artificial lights. And so it happened now and then that the games were called on account of darkness.
I thought of that Monday night close to midnight when I put out the lights following an invigorating first live Twitter chat—a lively interaction about play, playfulness, and resilience in education.
Gratifying enough was the near-retirement experience of maneuvering (successfully, I think!) through a first Twitter chat. (The retired teacher who encouraged me to learn and lurk affirmed my bravery in actually adding to the conversation. Gave me A+ for my efforts. Felt good to be a good student—despite my admitted insecurity and nervousness).
Unexpected were the revelation-ary aftereffects of pondering what others—as well as what I, myself —had said about the role of playfulness in the classroom; playfulness for all concerned—students and teachers.
And then, sometime around one a.m. when I still couldn’t turn off my brain, when I still kept reflecting and interconnecting with my life what I had read in the Twitter thread, it occurred to me—as if a light had been switched on in the darkness, and for the first time since I turned in my retirement papers, I understood more clearly and fully what had precipitated that action….
As an only child, I learned to be my own playmate. From the time I entered kindergarten, one of the games I played was “school,” with me (of course!) as the teacher.
During the school week, my poor dog was cast in the role of my student. On Saturday mornings, I would knock on neighborhood apartment doors, collecting neighborhood children for the next installment of my own version of an ongoing school drama in which I was playing the leading role–teacher.
Time past. I stopped forcing my dog to be an obedient student; I stopped knocking on neighborhood student-playmates’ doors. But I never outgrew my heart’s desire to teach. Yes! Praise God, the day finally came when I was able to fulfill my lifelong dream for real—I became a certified teacher.
Starting out in a district that required an inductive approach, sans textbooks, I was jubilant, creating materials and orchestrating scenarios for eighth grade social studies students to “play” (“explore,” as someone suggested last night, might be a more PC term for those opposed to the idea of students’ playing) at learning.
The decades passed, always with me playing at teaching and learning in a variety of different contexts and roles. I worked hard—very hard—but always with a sense of playful joy, as I realize now, grateful for the chance to be creative in providing learning experiences for my students (and myself, along with them!). In fact, when I hear myself, I realize I often say, “I’m still playing with that idea…” or “Let me play with that idea…”
In what has turned out to be my last teaching job, for these last ten years, I have been very professionally fulfilled. (Happily!) still no student textbooks in place, only now I was preparing materials for hundreds of students from grades PreK-5, in my role as a library media specialist.
Time out! …Correction.
Yes, I have been a library media specialist for the last ten years. Incorrect, I have not been feeling professionally fulfilled all ten years. No. I have been feeling increasingly less and less professionally fulfilled for the last two of those ten years.
What changed? …Enter the darkness. Not the darkness that comes with dusk in the absence of artificial light, but the darkness that comes when deep in one’s core, one knows that something is wrong—that one is not being true to oneself. A darkness that robs the light, the fire, the spark that makes one jubilant in one’s life work—in one’s “job.”
Oh, I could have continued forcing it—that fire of enthusiasm and commitment when one does what one believes in. I tried doing that. I had a retirement plan that was not intended to take effect for two more years. I am not a quitter. No matter what, I was not giving up, not succumbing to the darkness.
My body betrayed my plans; my body manifested the frustration and stress my spirit was experiencing, participating in a way of being and doing teaching that I did not believe in.
“Teaching’s not fun anymore.”
How many times from how many teachers’ lips I heard those words these last two years. Works spoken with accompanying deeply sad voice and downcast countenance.
Those who haven’t been in the game, haven’t lived how the rules have changed, rules that encouraged and included accommodations for “fun,” can’t imagine, I’m sure, what it has been like to have the life sucked out of teaching.
Not that I blame anyone who doesn’t understand, who hasn’t been a player in the game. “Having” or “not having” “fun” seems trite. Not something that a professional adult should speak aloud about seeking or missing.
I understand. Taxpayers are over-taxed. The last thing they want to hear is that someone on their payroll wants to have fun on their dime. …If only I had words to explain what is the meaning and value of teaching as a sense of having fun, and the deleterious effects on students when teachers feel unpermitted to provide “fun” for them.
Teaching is a serious occupation. Consider the awesome responsibility inherent in educating other peoples’ children. But taking teaching seriously does not equate with never being playful; nor does it preclude having fun with students. Quite the opposite.
As a library media specialist, rather than a classroom teacher, I still enjoyed a modicum of flexibility—until these last months, when even I felt the strangulation of Common Core, PARCC, and demoralizing evaluation systems, when even I had lost the opportunity to provide playfulness for students.
Oh, one could argue I could have stood my ground. Could have fought the system. Could have continued doing what I believed in. Trust me, for some months I did just that.
Finally, in the end, I had to cede defeat—something I detest, having been called “tenacious” all my life.
In the end, as I came to realize and understand upon reflecting on the Twitter thread, the real problem was that my heart was no longer in teaching. Playtime was over. In the end, I now realize, I had called the game on account of darkness—the darkness of teaching without playfulness.
If I had been younger, I would have looked for a teaching job somewhere else where the lights still burn bright and teachers and students can engage in an enterprise of authentic learning that takes into account that not everything that takes place can—or should be—reduced to a mathematical evaluation of either student or teacher.
Truthfully, I don’t have the energy to start over someplace else, nor do I think another district would hire me at my age. Worse yet, in this state, at least, I don’t know if such a utopia exists.
Time to call it a day. Game over. Called on account of darkness.
Age has its privileges. I can refuse to play in a game I don’t believe in, and I don’t believe in the kind of teaching that is being perpetrated now, while testing and evaluation corporations grow rich.
I need to be playful; to be a play-er. That’s who I am. That’s what I’ve been since my earliest years, when it comes to teaching.
Bring on retirement from full-time public school teaching. As a lifelong learner, I’m not done having fun. I’m not in the grave yet. It’s time to find another game to play.
I leave behind a prayer that sanity and humanity will return to education. Let the teachers teach in human ways that provide a light, a spark, a fire that illumines and burns brighter with the joy of playfulness and laughter. Amen.
What kind of darkness, if any, have you experienced in your occupation?