Can the Smiles and the Enthusiasm of Teachers and Professors Return Once Again?
Are teachers still smiling? Even after five, ten, or twenty years later, do our smiles stretch across the Straits of Gibraltar and the radiant warmth of the Showing results for Mediterranean sun? Does our passion and energy still radiate optimism and hope for our students and our profession?
It’s 2020. Late October.
My smile has faded, like the yellowing leaves of the sweet gum outside the window of my study, but I still want to smile like this photo from 1999.
What can be done?
THE BACK STORY
My wife Mary Jane took this jubilant photo at Storybook Land, just outside of Atlantic City. At the park, there was a “play” One Room Schoolhouse. The time for play was over, for me, at last, as my career as a full-time English teacher was about to commence.
I was thirty.
In the photo, my polo shirt, the color of a September sky, mirrors my eyes. I’m pointing to a future homework assignment, assignments that now must number well over 10,000. It was the summer of 1999, about an hour after I got “the call.” Our daughter Madeline was two.
There were two candidates. A decision was being made that morning. I was expecting a message on my home phone. While my wife and daughter were looping around a mini Ferris-Wheel, I found the closest pay phone (this was before cell phones) and tapped the numbers for the home answering machine.
“Walter, we’re happy to say….”
I was the one. For me, the school was like playing for The Yankees.
I jumped up and down, and screamed, “Mary Jane, I got the job!” I recall others wheeling strollers in the park smiling at my good fortune. I didn’t even listen to the entire message of “what to do next” and “when to sign the papers.” The details could wait.
I was scheduled to teach English I Honors and Journalism at my former high school. I was taking over from my former journalism teacher, Mr. Sundheimmer. An endless whirl of joy and hope encompassed that whole day at the park: wife, daughter, and career.
This photo that had mysteriously appeared one day (was it fate, dear reader) has remained on the foyer table. It was supposed to motivate me, every morning, but now that old, young smile irritates me. It mocks me, too, when I return, tired, overwhelmed, feeling rather unsupported and unappreciated.
Could the old Walter Bowne channel energy into the current Walter Bowne? Could PSEG generate enough electricity for such a charge? Would such a surge knock out the power grid?
Was this photo even needed? If you have been fortunate enough to feel this way, we seem to embody a disembodied moment: combining so much more than a photograph: the tingles, the heart speeding the Indy 500, a weightlessness, a cocktail of euphoria that swirls excitement, optimism, pride, and recognition.
When I enter back into that youthful photograph, or dip my quill into the endless ink of that memory, that euphoria still gurgles like lava beneath the hardened crust. In all confession, such backward glances may occur after a Happy Hour beverage, UnTappd at Home, with my favorite craft beer of the week.
Before “the call,” I had been working in sales. First, at a travel company that worked with teachers and students on packaged tours toEurope. Then, still in Philadelphia, selling VHS duplication services for college admission films in an age that was quickly going digital. This candlemaker in the age of electricity just had to get out.
I had been working, too, as an adjunct professor of English and Composition at area colleges, but that made only enough to buy pork and beans on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Being called “Professor Bowne” sounded great, but that “sound” would not pay for our child who arrived on Halloween in 1997.
My student teaching had been rough; I was twenty-one teaching seniors with no interest in reading and writing (who were almost my age). I was also asked out to their prom. Ah, no. I thought I was hip and cool. The kids would just devour what I was preaching. I even thought jeans and Eddie Vedder Grunge Wear were fine, professional wear.
After that Great Debacle, my eyes were on a Masters in English, and then a PhD, and, of course, writing novels, research, and travel. Would I return to England to resume my studies? Well, something happened, the way John Lennon sings about “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
During grad school, at a dance in Philadelphia, I fell in love. No picture could ever exist again that did not contain Mary Jane.
“You need to get back to your first love,” my wife Mary Jane said after my four years in sales and adjunct teaching. “Be that high school teacher you always wanted to be.”
With that call, twenty-one years ago, I could now take care of my family while also having a blast while “working.”
For me, there have been other moments of euphoria: meeting the One Who ‘Got’ Me; blessing with tears, a type of baptism, the newborn feet of my daughters — Madeline and Nancy, the greenish meconium, be damned.
Hopefully, other moments of euphoria loom on the horizon: the novels finally published, the book readings, the weddings and perhaps, grandchildren, and more walks of the beach and craft beer tastings and kayak adventures and hikes with Mary Jane under the moonlight.
THE NOW STORY
And for twenty-one years, this has largely been the case. I’ve been teaching English III Honors, AP Lang and Comp, and journalism for most of my career. The newspaper that has earned many state and national awards. Many of my former students are now in successful careers, many even in journalism.
I have stacks of cherished thank you cards, some even framed. When I need a shot of encouragement, like every day, I read these. And I know that I’ve been lucky to have found my niche in a subject, like English, that is largely respected and required. I’ve also had the liberty to teach like a professional, like my own medical practice. It has also helped that I’ve been male.
Yes, sexism (and so many other “isms”) still exist in schools. Surprise.
I hope we, as educators, all have such a picture. Do you? Were you as excited?
I know not everyone had that feeling for that job in education. Perhaps you treated that first job in education like a first apartment, or small “starter” home that eventually became, for good or ill, our residence for our career.
After all, tenure has many benefits, but one drawback, one must concede, is being chained to what seems like a losing team with no hope for the playoffs. The Yankees to the Bad News Bears. The risk of switching teams may be too great.
For many educators, I feel we share that feeling (or at least we did). It’s what made us enter into education, right? It was not to make money. It was not to impress the friends of our parents. “Oh, so your Johnny is a 3rd grade teacher? How nice!” It was not to show off at gala functions and social gatherings.
So what was the reason? Was it the ability to make a difference, as cliche, hackneyed, banal, and corny, as that sounds?
The reasons are twofold, perhaps, maybe even threefold: to channel our passion for our subject, for me it was English, which included writing and acting and history and music and public speaking.
But it was also our way to connect with youth, still impressionable, still reachable, and still optimistic.
It was also our way to stay Forever Young (cue song), our students graduating, marrying, having children, and yet there we are: forever on the edge of seventeen, (sorry, Stevie Nicks) or on the cusp of just learning to read in preschool.
THE GOING FORWARD STORY
There’s all this nostalgia to that photograph: the root of that word implies, ache, pain, and melancholy. I was only thirty, then. I thought I knew so much.
It’s been the best of careers, and I know I have been fortunate, but how many teachers are still happy? Hopeful? Glad they chose education? Feel supported? Feel appreciated?
How many teachers who “got that call” and were “euphoric” look back at those photos or tap back into that keg of euphoria now feel sad or even depressed?
I know that the state of the world is depressing. Ask those on Broadway or the New York Metropolitan Opera. Ask the millions across the globe who have lost income, jobs, hope, loved ones, due to COVID-19.
And I know that I’m fortunate to still teach the subject I love, reaching out on Spotify and YouTube to students all over the world (getting an email thank you for students in China, Morocco, and India is especially pleasing ), but I have also seen too many teachers turn away from education that has nothing to do with COVID-19.
I never thought of retiring from my great love before I reached my mid-sixties, but now, with so much in education that is wrong, and again, this has nothing to do with COVID-19, hybrid, remote, synchronous and asynchronous learning, why should I stay?
Would I have ever dreamed of this number back then: 25/55?
Once the vaccine is available, and the world returns to the stage and to the restaurants and to the concerts, and to the family reunions, perhaps it would be a great time to reevaluate the State of Education in the United States.
Maybe we can’t wait that long for Bill Gates and the World Health Organization.
There are too many of us who want to remain. And there are too many new teachers who need to feel the joy of getting “that call.” It is a calling. No doubt about that. But the forces converging on intelligent and gifted teachers everywhere are numerous, and far too many to enumerate here. Let’s have real discussions on teacher shortages and why enrollment at teacher colleges are down and why the “smartest” students in college are largely not entering our classrooms.
So teachers: take out that picture, if you have one. Don’t be embarrassed by the “Big Hair” of the 80s or the Swing Wear of 1996.
Share that photo of your first day. Post those smiles on this link. Tweet them out. Share on Facebook. Look at yourself closely. What has changed? How have you changed? What has changed in the profession? Do we feel like professionals?
Or do we feel like something else? What can we do to return to that youthful optimism? Can you send me your suggestions?
What can we do to have a voice in our profession? What changes, no matter how radical, could make a difference?
For those who had been teachers, and have left for wider fields, look at the photo, too.
Why did you leave?
What could have been done to save you?
Would you encourage your child to enter into education?
Why? Why not?
After all, what do we have to lose except the soul and heart of the country. Let’s feel that euphoria again: for our students, for our families, and for ourselves.
No corporation or “educrat” or politician can save this profession.
It’s up to us. The smile cannot be forced; it needs to come from deep, deep inside.
#FirstDayTeaching #TeacherReBoot #TeacherRefresh