"That sounds nice. But, does all that really matter?" he said. "I made it to being a principal, and I didn't really learn anything like that in middle or high school. Did you?"
"No," I replied honestly. Where was he going with this?
"So what makes you think it's going to be any different for these kids?"
Is this conversation really happening? I thought. Is he seriously suggesting that how his faculty teaches doesn't matter? "But it doesn't have to be that way!" was all the thousand red flags waving in my brain would allow me to muster up as an answer.
"You just know too much," he smiled, as if complimenting an annoying over-acheiver to get her off his back. "You need to not take your job so seriously, you're just going to stress yourself out."
My husband says he loves that I am not quick to react (mostly because he is), but boy do I wish I had a quick comeback that day. The best I can do when this happens is mull the situation over and over in my mind and come up with what I wish I had said. Here's my favorite do-over-that-will-never-happen:
Principal: "So what makes you think it's going to be any different for these kids?"
Me: "Any different?!? The amount we have discovered about effective teaching and learning since we've been in school is immense! There is no excuse for secondary teachers to be spending their 45 minutes lecturing to a group of students who robotically copy notes off the board! There is no reason why students should go through an entire school day without reading or writing for a real reason besides writing a note or text to their friends!" And that's when I burst from my chair and make a dramatic exit from his office, leaving him to think about that.
If only it had happened that way.
Maybe I should have let his words go in one ear and out the other. But, being me, I took them personally, as so many of us in this field do when someone questions our passion for our job. Does a student's middle school experience in my classroom really matter? Do I just take my job too seriously and "know too much," which may be starting to slowly drive me insane?
YES. To both questions.
The experiences in my classroom, albeit one puny year in a student's grand educational career, does matter. Every single day is an opportunity to strengthen a reader and writer that really can make a difference. Just one book can change the way a bigoted young mind views the world. Just one connection with a book can create a lifelong reader who then reads to his or her child and finally knocks loose a pulley on the conveyor belt of poverty that illiteracy creates. Just one spark of a writer hearing how she's connected to a reader can forever change the way she communicates to the world. These experiences are more than a score on a test or an "I survived school" attitude.
Seemingly obvious answers to those of us who teach it, but what about to somebody like my principal who sees no worth in it? A person who believes he is successful in spite of his lousy education. Who still views school as a place where young people go to watch old people work?
I suppose that's the whole reason why many of us take our jobs so seriously, and slowly go insane. For me, it goes back to what my principal was talking about when he asked what I learned in school. I was honest in my answer with him. I hated school. Hated it. I was bored all the time, did what I needed to do, and moved on. No teachers ever connected with me. No subject sparked my interest or made me love to learn. What makes me most angry about those years is that it didn't need to be that way. I can't imagine the doors that would've opened for me if my teachers had "known too much" or "taken their jobs too seriously." I can only imagine an education where I wasn't allowed to zone out for most of my classes and still pull off a B average. My experiences in classrooms could've been better, and because of that, I make it my goal to know as much as I can and take my job as seriously as possible. If my sanity suffers a bit because I'm caught up in a system that fights me being this way, then so be it.
Maybe someday one of my students will be a principal. I imagine the conversation in my mind:
"But it is different for these kids. Our students need rich experiences in reading and writing in all their classes, and it's our job to provide them with the platform to have those experiences. Everything you do in your classroom matters! Our jobs as educators can make all the difference in these young lives, whose doors of opportunity are all open."