Ed. note: Trevor Gardner teaches English and social studies at Envision Academy in Oakland. He also serves as an instructional coach and is a member of the school’s leadership team. Trevor has written for a number of educational journals, including the esteemed Phi Delta Kappan, in which his piece on restorative justice, “Make Students Part of the Solution, Not the Problem,” appears in the October 2014 edition. This is his first post for TEACHER VOICES.
It’s the same conversation every September, repeated dozens of times in the first few weeks of school. In the hallway on the way to class. In the teachers kitchen waiting for your leftover Thai food to heat up. On the walk to the parking lot after school. It begins with the routine question, “How’s your year going?”
Then the inevitable calculation, the mosaic of words, emotions, challenges, and complexities that form the day-to-day reality of teaching in an urban public school.
Such a struggle. Challenging but inspiring. Just wish we had more support. Barely keeping from drowning. Really love the kids but… All of these words have come out of my mouth at some point in the past few years, sometimes in the same breath. And I have heard them repeated multiple times by my fellow teachers, trying to find the right way to characterize the Sisyphean work we do for a living.
But this year, I have found myself in an unusual predicament, one that has me feeling guilty every time I am asked about my year. The question is unleashed, and the solicitor is almost always confounded by the tone and enthusiasm of my response: “I LOVE teaching! My students are amazing!! I am having so much fun!!!”
Now, let me explain. I do love teaching. I am a lifelong teacher and I see it as a gift and a privilege to play such an important role in the lives of so many incredible young people. AND it is by far the most difficult thing I have every done – and one of the most challenging careers I can imagine taking on. Being a good teacher is hard work. For most of my career, I have found myself teetering on the edge of I cannot do this anymore.
Fortunately, equal parts inspiration and empowerment (both my own and that of my students) have kept me in the game.
But, like I said, this year feels different. Yes, the hard work and long hours are inescapable. But joy is the dominant emotion. I am literally LOVING teaching – like I imagine a video game tester (does that job really exist?) or a professional soccer player might love his job. I am having fun every day.
What is unique about this year? you ask. I wish I had a reproducible formula to share with teachers everywhere – but I am still trying to figure it out myself. Here are a few of the factors I have been able to identify so far:
I have been looping for four years with the same group of youngStars (another full post coming soon on that topic). This happened more by coincidence than by design, but it has been an extraordinary journey. Knowing them, teaching them, and learning from the same students since 9th grade created a special bond among us. When I refer to them as “my” kids, I truly mean it.
After fifteen years of teaching English, history and Humanities to high school students in the Bay (8 of them at Envision), maybe I have finally hit my stride. Malcolm Gladwell has hypothesized it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything. Well, 15 years is closer to 20,000 hours of teaching – but maybe I’m just a slow learner.
Is teaching seniors just that much different? I have taught 9th grade for 12 of my 15 years in the classroom, and this is only my second time teaching seniors in my career. Maturity. Determination. Ability to walk to the garbage can without knocking someone else’s pen off of their desk (some are still working on this one). Yes, it’s a luxury, I know. Thanks 9th grade teachers.
The class of 2015 at Envision Academy is a special group of students. If I hadn’t already exceeded by word limit, I would write a brief description of what makes every one of them shine. I’ll just say that the way they take care of each other and hold each other up is a model for what community should look like in our society.
This is how teaching is supposed to feel. There is an energy around the content of the class that makes me excited to create the lessons, then come in and teach them every day. I feel like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society sharing the secrets of life and literature with so many eager pupils. Right now we are reading The Kite Runner and learning literary theory, and often the most significant challenge during class is giving space to all the voices who want to participate in discussions and reading. What a beautiful dilemma to have!
OK, I realize that several of these factors are actually beyond our control as classroom teachers, so maybe what I’m saying is that having a joyous year teaching is just the luck of the draw. No, perhaps it’s about the gold at the end of a lengthy rainbow. Actually, I think I’m just a very thankful educator sharing what too few of us experience on a normal basis – the genuine joy of teaching.