Sunday, December 02, 2007

Schedules… my nine p.m. is your midnight. Thus, my 4:27 a.m. is your 7:30, which is still too early to be awake on a Sunday. I fell asleep during the Mizzou game last night and was thankfully not awake for much of the blowout. I have several coworkers who are Mizzou alum and I imagine that there will be much weeping in Mudville come Monday.

I’ve been thinking a lot of late about the tortoise and the hare. I’ve lived my life like the hare, I race through things and then wait for the world to catch up; inevitably, the steady pace of the world always passes me by. I have resolved to be more tortoise-like, but habituated behavior is a tough nut to crack.

I used to refer to my procrastination/ dynamism under pressure as a kind of punctuated equilibrium; the term comes from geology and describes how plate tectonics work: you have a gradual build up of pressure and then a radical event like an earthquake, resulting in a great deal of geologic change. There are several problems that result from living one’s life like this, and the “earthquakes” aren’t the worst part. The stress that I accumulate, and then live under the pressure of, is far worse than any geologic shifting might be. Our “earthquakes” (marriage, child, work) have meant good changes in our lives, but I haven’t been honest with myself about how those stressors (together with all of our mutual everyday concerns) have affected me and my health. My weight and blood pressure are both higher than I would like.

I know that many people feel that their lives have become too complicated and that the pace of modern life is too much. When I moved back to St. Louis from Kirksville I felt like it took me six months or more to adjust to the shift in pace. I had to relearn city driving, incorporating increased travel and traffic time into every plan; that’s old news, in my current phase I notice things like the magazines that I subscribe to rarely get read, I don’t have time to cook like I like to, and some of my high-maintenance plants are dying from lack of regular attention. As Linda Loman oft observed, attention must be paid (Death of a Salesman-Miller).

Children can’t be raised well by hares, they need tortoises. Plate tectonics: my priorities are shifting.

I was listening to NPR the other day and there was a story about a youngish physicist surfer who has come up with a new universal theory that accounts for how everything works, including gravity, “better” than string theory. More than the theory, the interesting part of the coverage to me was the discussion of intellectual creativity involved in coming up with the theory; they repeatedly made the point that relaxing is necessary for creative intellectual growth. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Relaxed creativity promoting intellectual growth is what I want for Christmas. How do I create the space for that while still meeting my responsibilities?

I couldn’t tell you when the last time I was truly relaxed was. Jes woke me from a dream yesterday in which I was writing up a discipline report for a student who had misbehaved in my dream classroom. I said to her, “It’s not fair that even in my dreams I have to do paperwork.” The stress of having to not only educate, but to discipline and parent the children I teach is unbelievable and impossible to leave at work. I wear it.

I am prevented by FERPA (Family Education Rights and Privacy Act) from discussing much of what I am vaguely alluding to, but I’m sure you can infer from films you’ve seen what it is like to teach the population that I teach. In their essays I read what they live. Teaching is a profession in crises as a direct result of the social crises in our cities. Everyday as I work I am unsettled by the thought that our current approach to education in America is somehow fundamentally flawed. The architecture of it is all wrong.

It’s a truism that the primary goal of any institution, no matter what other idealistic flags are flown, is the self perpetuation of that institution. High schools, educational institutions in general, have perpetuated themselves in innumerable ways that haven’t kept pace with the changes in our society. Everyone points to technology, but the real crises points are far more basic and have to do with identity.

Perhaps with some relaxed creativity I could come up with some solutions – but most educators know that substantive solutions need to be applied not just to schools, but to other social institutions over which we teachers have no control. Schools are failing because families are failing. I am not a neo-con with a narrow definition of family, but I do feel that no matter who is filling the role of parent, parenting must occur for the culture to work.

That word “work” is key to the problem, because even parents who try to parent are often prevented from really being a part of their children’s lives by sixty hour work weeks. Children who haven’t been parented suffer from a lack of respect for self and other, combined with a bizarre pairing of apathy and entitlement – it’s the do nothing, get everything conditioning of a television dominated culture. There’s something to that, beyond a general finger pointing at lowbrow culture, in that television promotes a kind of isolated passivity. Theoretically, the interactive nature of computing should be revolutionizing the passive nature of entertainment, but there is linearity of narrative and an ethic of the reset/off button that are still fundamentally passive and consequence free. The technology won’t blossom until the mindsets that produce it shift.

I was discussing returning to college level teaching with some of my recent mentors at U.M.S.L., both of whom had done just that for individual reasons. They said that the grass isn’t necessarily greener if you consider all the committee work that college instructors get roped into, but they agreed that the money/time trade off was worth it. Nancy told me that as a high school teacher she realized that she was spending more time with other people’s children than with her own. I don’t want to make that mistake.

Here’s the odd thing, you wouldn’t think that the money and job security would be better teaching high school, but often it is. Jane was telling me that if she’d retired from a Missouri high school rather than U.M.S.L. she’d be taking home 15,000 more a year. I am making significantly more now than I did at Truman. Part of that is age, experience, and additional certifications, but not all of it. If I made a shift to the community college system right now, assuming that I could get a job at one given the competition, I would see a slight raise; but the step raises in my district look like they will greatly outpace the percentile raises at the community college level. On the other hand, what good is a better retirement if I get a stress disorder and I don’t live to retirement age?

If I do shift to a college I can get back all the money I’ve put into retirement already and pay off our credit card debt. That almost sounds like a plan. Now that we have that all sorted out, I guess I’ll make breakfast and pick a spot from which to watch the sun rise.


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