My father always told me to make myself indispensable. To prove to my employers, in whatever positions I held, that they needed me and wanted me and couldn't do without me. It's been pretty good advice through the years. The idea of indispensability is always at the back of my mind when I take on a new task or have to approach a situation in a different way. For me, determination and diligence are bred from the goal of becoming irreplaceable.
And yet, my father also always told me to remember that I am not indispensable. That my employer could always replace me, that I wasn't the only one who could do my job, that others were similarly qualified and equally skilled. It was a dose of reality from a disciplined man whose every decision, every command, seemed grounded in what was real and logical and sensible.
When I was a kid, I didn't see these two contradictory pieces of advice as the yin and yang of achievement, but rather, as a weird juxtaposition that confused me quite a lot. On one hand, who wouldn't work really, really hard given the underlying implication that if you don't, you become disposable? And on the other, why would you work really, really hard at anything if, in the end, you are just that: disposable?
But striving toward indispensability and knowing the truth about my dispensability actually make sense if I am truly driven by my own internal motivations. The idea of being irreplaceable - or replaceable, frankly - is less about my employer and how he or she thinks of me, and more about how I view myself. Do I have the confidence to take risks? Do I have the conviction to stand by my decisions? And are those decisions based in what I know about both my craft and my capabilities? In education, as in most jobs I would presume, if we don't innovate with confidence and conviction and skill, we won't last long.
It's a truth that we should both embrace in our professional lives and instill in our students, as my father instilled in me: a seemingly harsh reality to be avoided, perhaps, only by ambition, dedication, talent, and expertise.
Sometimes learning creeps up on us, taps us on the shoulder, and slowly envelopes us. Some lessons are learned this way, like warm blankets of understanding. Then there are those that are the sledgehammers of learning: the ones that we usually recognize only just as or just after we are slammed upside the head. And some lessons we somehow have simply assimilated, not knowing the how or when, but knowing nonetheless.
This week I attended a Board of Education meeting in the small city where I live. I listened to one Board member comment on nearly every issue. That he commandeered every discussion and domineered other Board members was rough enough. What made his diatribes worse, though, were his too-frequent references to the time he's served on the Board, how things used to be done, what happened ten years ago...and all the concomitant emotions, misjudgments, and failures to recognize progress that are associated with one who uses history only to form opinions and make decisions.
The next day, driving home from school, I was still processing the experience. And from some deep recess, I realized that I knew something that that guy hadn't ever learned: despite what everyone says, starting with Edmund Burke and then George Santayana, history just may be irrelevant. Maybe it's more that history must be kept in context, as History (capitalization intended), the facts and the what-happened.
But does history have bearing on what is happening now, besides its power to inform? I don't think so. I think of raising my daughters as they entered their teen years and then headed to college. Those were the years during which I made my parents' lives pretty much hell. I was scared beyond belief that my kids would do what I did (and what I didn't). But I let them be, for the most part. Because what I knew about the possibilities and probabilities, based on my history, was balanced by, often eclipsed by, what I currently knew about them.
I approach the kids in my classroom the same way. I learn little about them, intentionally, before they get to me. I stress that every day is a new day. Misbehave on Tuesday; expect a fresh start on Wednesday (or maybe even later in the class period on Tuesday). Your brother was brilliant at grammar; I don't expect you to be, too, nor do I expect you not to be. And most definitely, what kinds of kids sat in my classroom or what happened in my classroom ten years ago is irrelevant, crazily out-of-date, not worth a mention.
It's a lesson I hope to pass on to my children, my students, my colleagues. Does that make it history?
It's been a year since I started this blog, and a month since I last posted. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by either fact. Years seems to speed by faster as I age, and this past month has been one of both slow contemplation and frenzied task completion. And in retrospect, that is exactly how the teacher's life goes, I think.
I know I wasn't the only teacher (parent, human) who struggled with wandering thoughts of what-ifs, if-onlys, and what-would-I-dos since December 14. Once the initial despair wore off (or did it?), I was left with waves of sadness and worry and anger that ambushed me when I least expected it: driving through town to work, reading the morning news, walking to lunch, teaching a grammar lesson, composing an email, checking Facebook, waiting for sleep in the dark hours. I thought of the Newtown kids, the Newtown teachers and staff, the Newtown families, those who lost, those who lived, then: my kids, my colleagues, my families. I am willing to bet I will remember best the faces of the students who sit in my golden chairs this year more than any other; they are with me in every waking - and dreaming - moment.
And to some extent, these thoughts sort of paralyzed me. I couldn't think of what to write here. I didn't want to bustle about my house, sprucing up or cleaning up. I didn't connect with friends far away to chat about life and love. I didn't work out. I simply focused on what was most important for me, at that time - being at work and working.
And so, the month became filled with vocabulary and grammar and writing and literature, with essays and quizzes and reader responses, with writing lab and extra help and email conversations and video conferences. My accordion folders of correcting filled up, emptied, and filled up again. I carried them to and from work in my pretty new school bag, which got heavier and lighter and heavier and lighter.
Now, it's time to reclaim the balance. This will be slow work, I know. But I've made some calls, I'm back on the NordicTrack, and I'm interested in writing again. Of course, the work is important, but so am I. I can only be as good for my students and my school as I am to myself, and I don't want to be simply good. I want to be better.