A workplace where people are kind – too much to ask for?

I’ve written about my bittersweet leaving of Longwood – but not about my new adventure in education.   Too busy working, I guess.  And the wound was raw last fall – in ways I didn’t realize until I landed in a new teaching job and found myself looking over my shoulder, reminiscent of a war vet with PTSD.  It was as if I was waiting for an IED to blow, for someone to knock my legs out from under me the way my Longwood colleagues did.

But secondary education is not higher education.   People are kinder to each other in secondary education.  I don’t know why, but I’ve worked for two universities and four high schools and it holds true throughout my work experience.

Maybe I do know why – in secondary education, teachers teach.  Almost all day, five days a week.  K-12 teachers log hours and hours with students, relentless, in-the-trenches.  It’s demanding work, work not well-respected or remunerated in our culture.  There are very few professors from American universities who could hang with the pace of preparation, face-time teaching, and feedback/assessment that effective high school teachers pull off.

University professors aren’t generally rewarded for being skilled teachers.  They are rewarded for doing other things well – but the effective teaching of undergraduates is not why they are hired or promoted.

I think this is the reason American higher education is destined to implode, probably in the near future unless this country deals with unsustainable student debt and undergraduates who wake up to find that their ordinary degrees don’t get them anywhere they want to be.

Kevin Carey overstates his case in The End of College, but some of his points make sense.  Especially that students have to plan for where they want to go.  It’s no longer good enough to simply get a degree and know that meaningful and relatively well-paid work is going to be waiting for you.  A college degree is not a ticket anywhere if you don’t use the time earning it well.

Which is what I told students at Longwood, and some of them disliked me for it.  But better to tell them the truth while they could still do something about it. I do think I helped a few prepare themselves for meaningful careers in communications.  One thing I know how to do is teach.

Unfortunately, universities aren’t especially interested in hiring effective teachers.  They want young scholars who will publish and make them look good.  I wasn’t young enough, and I wasn’t a man.  Despite what was said when they hired me, and no matter how hard I had worked for them and how effective I’d been teaching students, I wasn’t who they wanted around for the long haul.  Sucker punch.

But here’s the good news – and perhaps what the forces of the universe had in mind anyway.  I landed in Chesterfield County, teaching at their largest high school, and I feel valued there. I’m paid better, I have some job security and excellent benefits, my commute is less than half what it was to Longwood – really a better situation all around.  I like my students, I like what I’ve been asked to teach and the way they’ve asked me to teach it, and I like and respect most of the people I work with.

This year, they’ve asked me to take over the school’s journalism program and help students produce a digital-first student newspaper.  It’s going to be great – a digital-first web-based publication with a quarterly news magazine.  I’m excited by the possibilities.  Why not create one of the best high school journalism programs in the country?  Why not at Thomas Dale?

Sometimes people ask if I miss teaching college?  And sometimes I do.  But mostly I feel grateful to have found a teaching home.  A place where I can settle in and do my best without looking over my shoulder, a place to take some risks to see what works, pick myself up if I fail, a place where people are basically kind to one another.

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beginning the oral history

In an hour or so, I’ll be leaving for the Eastern Shore to really begin my oral history project. I’ve written a proposal and talked with lots of people about it – including my parents and a possible funder – but it’s all been in the abstract so far. Today it gets real.

That’s probably why I’m anxious – I’m still not sure what information I hope to get. I’ve got two interviews set, and a couple of appointments, but no finalized list of questions. That’s one reason I’m going now. I want to give this a trial run, to shape the questions, and to compile a list of interviewees. I think I need to write a one-page introduction to the project to give to folks. Maybe I’ll do that tonight after my first conversation.

My first conversation is with my father’s first cousin; I think the questions will begin to firm up for me while I listen to him tell me stories of his boyhood and young adult experience on my great-grandparent’s and great-uncle’s farms.

I feel young with this project, and not in a carefree way. Would I feel this way if the people I was interviewing were complete strangers? Both of the people I’m interviewing on this trip have known me since I was born. And they’ve known my family, both sides of my family, their entire lives. How many people have a place to return to where they are “known” in this way? Ironically, I also don’t feel “known” there at all. I am part of a weaving, a piece of a whole, and less of an individual there. I am not just myself, but a daughter, granddaughter, niece, cousin. The woman I spoke with last night quickly told me that I sounded like my mother, someone she’s known a lifetime. I also know her sons. There’s a history between us even though we are essentially strangers.