January 06, 2006

Teachers are people too?

After two weeks off, my mind is not on the time I spend in the classroom, but the time I spend out of the classroom. For teachers to be effective, our lives need to be balanced, and our experiences well-rounded. Not well-rounded as in we need to know what it’s like to have been arrested, but well-rounded in that our lives are not completely and wholly about our students and our classrooms. For some teachers it’s natural to take time away from education to educate themselves in their other interests (e.g. writing, tractor operation, and home repair), for other teachers it takes a lot of work to not always work. Know what I mean?

What we do outside of our classrooms, away from education, without students enhances who we are when we are in our classrooms, involved in education, with our students. Having “been there,” and, “done that,” can be as useful a teaching tool as knowing the seven great wonders of the world, or the Pythagoras theorem. Sharing a life experience during a “teachable moment,” can have a greater and more long-lasting impact then an additional nightly reading assignment, or 50 more odd numbered questions. The week before school dismissed for Christmas break I caught five students cheating on an assignment. When they came to class the next afternoon, before enforcing punishment, I shared my own high school experience with cheating, and getting away with it. I cheated on my 10th grade English final. (I know, I know, that should completely disqualify me from education as a profession.) In my own defense, I was given the test answers from a buddy who just happened to be the former mayor’s son. I didn’t understand why we got away with it. The same teacher busted one of our future almost-valedictorians for cheating on a book report. The student picked a Reader’s Digest review at random, transcribed it, and turned it in. When the fraudulent paper was returned, the English teacher noted the Reader’s Digest volume, issue and date along with a giant red “F”. I still don’t know how he figured that one out. But we still got away with cheating on his final. I have carried that guilt around with me for 25 years. It won’t go away. Maybe that’s why he let us “get away with it.” But I digress. I shared my cheating story with the cheaters in my class to reinforce the point that cheating is never ok. I know, because I have “been there.” We’ll see how effective I was when school resumes Monday.

The teacher work schedule of approximately 190 out of 261 potential workdays annoys many other professionals. There’s also the assumed 6-hour workday. Non-educators don’t understand why educators should get so much “time off.” Teachers will argue that most of this “time off” is spent preparing for the “time on” not required by other professions. True, prep time, grading time, field-trip time, in-service time, and professional growth time adds up. But those extra 2 hours every day and 71 days in the year also need to be used for other non-educational educational experiences.

Some teachers like to travel. Travel is an excellent opportunity to gain perspective. Those who have never left the confines of their own town, city, or state miss out on learning what life is like outside of their comfort zone. Living outside one’s comfort zone is important for the teacher to experience and use to relate to students who come from foreign places. Just understanding that the Sun rises and sets in Pakistan the same way it does in Philadelphia is important. Other teachers like to spend time exploring outdoors. Long camping trips, hikes, rock climbing, and even gardening can all be useful when teaching about planet Earth. Understanding the process of nature, death and renewal, stability and change is useful not only in teaching biology, but English, math, and all of the other subjects as well. Some call those with a broad interest and accomplishments in science and the arts “Renaissance men.” Teachers must be “renaissance people.” If you teach Art, you must spend your off time being an artist. You must paint or draw or sculpt regularly. If you teach P.E., you must run, ride, or swim as often as possible. If you teach a foreign language, you must take time to go to places where you can practice. If you don’t “practice what you preach,” you will lose your impact with your students.

I know teachers that spend all of there off time at school preparing to teach. They design wonderful, intricate, complicated lesson plans to “wow” their students. When they are not at school they are at home on the computer conducting research or chatting online about teaching with other teachers. They are completely up to date on all of the most recent teaching techniques and can share with you all of the current data concerning test scores, and demographics, not to mention union issues. Being well prepared is vitally important to successful teaching. But being well prepared also includes taking time for you. Time to rest, time to relax, time to regroup, refocus, and revive. Those non-educators who criticize the teacher schedule fail to understand the stress related to working with kids. My favorites are those little loves that shout out, “I need help.” I respond, “Ask me a question so that I can answer.” Silence. I follow up, “have you read the assignment?” “No.” (Sigh).

One of my favorite books is Stuart B. Palonsky’s 900 Shows a Year. Palonsky writes an excellent account of a year of teaching. Teaching 900 shows a year is one of the most demanding and challenging endeavors one can choose. Spending time away from the classroom relaxing and developing who we are as individuals makes us better and more effective teachers. Sharing our passion and command of the subject matter seasoned with our passion and capacity for living proves to our students that teachers are people too.

Please post your comments below.


  1. I loved this posting. I am just starting to venture into education and I laughed as you mentioned teachers spending time off thinking and reading about teaching because I sit here blog searching about teaching, to get a first-person account. Thanks for the wisdom and book recommendation.

  2. I loved this! Well-written, funny, thoughtful, not preachy (as I tend to get). Your students are truly so lucky to have you! Thank you for reinforcing what i think--there's nothing wrong with need ing "me" time; it can only make you more effective rather than less!

  3. As I get into teaching, I think of your post and how true it is. Well done!

  4. I love this! So true. I think people need to relize the work teachers do for our kids so once in a while it wouldn't be to bad to help them out with class parties and such. I have always thought that it is easy to be a bad teacher but it takes a lot of time and practice to be a great teacher.