Calling an end to the day

In contrast with Andy Rotherham, who lauds efforts to create round-the-clock schools, I write here about the importance of calling an end to the day. (In all fairness, he didn’t say that individual teachers should be working around the clock—but one wonders how such a school could get by without a cadre of late-night and early-morning teachers. Sleep goes by the wayside, as do the rhythms of the day.)

Today my spring break begins (I don’t teach on Fridays). This morning I started clearing the clutter off of my desk. It was a fairly straightforward matter, yet in the rush of the past two months or so, other things took priority, and the piles mounted higher.

I had neglected meals, dental work, basic home repairs, correspondence, friends, family, musical instruments, and book upon book that I hadn’t had time to read.

Most of the teachers I know work longer and harder than I do, from what I can see. They spend evenings and weekends at school. They get to school before dawn. They spend hours at home grading homework and tests. They take on additional school duties and activities.

We live in a society that places high priority on work. Few professions have reasonable hours; most of them sprawl over one’s life. Many European countries take a different approach to work (though this might be changing): their work days are shorter, their vacations longer, and their work duties more contained. Here, in the U.S., long work days are a fact of life.

Teaching, though, goes a bit farther. It requires your soul (or whatever you would like to call it). It takes most of what you have: intellect, wit, emotion, presence of mind, physical stamina and agility, character, intensity of intention, and much more. There are days when lessons seem to go effortlessly—but on other days, you must throw yourself into the lesson in order to get things going or quell disruption. You have to be alert and responsive, minute after minute, and then do the same in the next lesson, and the next.

Unless you exercise caution, and unless you have made something of a fortress in your life, you can end up with nothing but school. I don’t just mean that you spend all your time on it; I mean that you lose even the sunset, even the sense of a meal. To have an hour to yourself (or with others), to enjoy the rhythms of the day, becomes taboo. The dedicated teacher is the one running down the hall with papers to photocopy while wolfing down a power bar.

To resist such sprawl, one needs a stronghold outside of school, an obligation to call an end to the day at some point—maybe not every day, but on certain days. For some, this may be religious observance. For others, it may be their children. For others still, it may be a commitment (not having to do with school) or a self-imposed routine. Some may have combinations of the three. It must be something sacred (in a religious or secular sense), something that cannot be eroded.

Why is it important to have a stronghold? For one thing, it makes life more interesting; you have a retreat, a chance to put together the many events of the day and gain some perspective on them. For another, it means you have more to bring your students. Teachers about to drop of exhaustion cannot be good role models—or maybe they can for a little while, until they actually drop. Students need to be around adults with interesting and varied lives, whether or not they know about these lives.

I don’t tell my students much about my life, but now and then I let them in on a special occasion. For instance, last week I went to my high school in Boston to attend an alumnae (girls’ school) book discussion led by two of my former English teachers. My students were excited to hear about this and asked me about it afterward.

No matter what the pressure to do “whatever it takes,” teachers need a counterweight: a time and place that does not and will not belong to school. It is good for everyone: for the teachers themselves, for the students, and for our rude and ragged world.

There is still another benefit: the twilight gets a larger audience.