Take a good look at this pic. Your eyes do not deceive you. Indeed, that round red tag says “I’m a stroller strap” (and in French, too). But don’t get too excited, I will not be buying a stroller anytime soon. It’s just that, as it turns out, the best bags for teachers who travel are diaper bags. Think of it: lots of pockets, easy-to-clean fabric, a changing pad to protect your laptop, bottle holders for coffee and water, not to mention padded shoulder straps for comfort.
My announcement is related to this bag, and it is about change, but I’m not having a baby: I am just going part-time.
For the past seven years, I have been teaching junior high ELA full time while either working on a doctorate or adjuncting at local universities. In other words, a full-time job, which we all know is way beyond 40 hours, and a part-time job. It was not for financial reasons but by choice and a desperate need to understanding teaching better that I took on this extra work for so long.
Developing and teaching courses for pre-service teachers is the best professional development out there. Consider the process of developing a ten or fifteen-week syllabus: reviewing professional teaching standards, selecting and sequencing texts (and rereading them), creating assignments, integrating technology, imagining how to prepare and support teachers for this very important work. Consider the weekly discussions of those texts and the synthesizing, questioning, and reflecting that happens in the experiences — not to mention the privilege of bearing witness to the excitement, fears, and whispers of self-doubt pre-service teachers feel.
Reading and writing alongside teens each day is a way to ensure that teacher-training is authentic and anchored in the realities of students, teachers, and schools. I would leave school at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, drive to the university, meet with undergrad and grad students before class (office hours), and facilitate a three-hour class all the while holding tight to who we serve –the kids — and all the whys. And when I latched the chain on our condo door and heard the news signing off “Jimmy Fallon is next,” I would sit beside my husband on our sofa and say, “I am so fortunate — and overwhelmed.” Many evenings I’d stay up with Jimmy on mute just processing the day until my eyes would grow heavy from the stories.
The relationship between both places was, it seemed to me, mutually beneficial, reciprocal.
After a few years of hoping that either my junior high job might find a way for me to both teach teens and work with teachers or my university job would offer me a position that would include teaching teens in the morning and pre-service teachers in the afternoon, I gave up hoping for my health and sanity and turned down the part-time offers from the universities. My financial security was at my junior high job, and without teens, I was pretty sure I’d lose my purpose in higher ed.
And then, a few weeks ago, I learned of a part-time position (67%, or 4 instead of 6 classes) in my district and started hoping again. What if I could teach part-time at the junior high and not lose my tenure? Sure it would be a pay-cut (33%), but I could make up some of it if I could teach more at the university? After talking it over with my husband, human resources at the junior high, and university department chairs, we agreed we could make it work (at least for a year).
So that’s the big announcement. I am creating my close-to-dream job of teaching part-time junior high and part-time higher ed. I will spend my mornings writing, afternoons at the junior high, and a couple evenings at the universities. With this change, of course, comes others.
Change #1 (that’s number not hashtag): Access to Books
For the past fifteen years, I have curated a classroom library of well over 1,000 books, many passed down to me from mentors. I did not mind packing up my books because I enjoyed actually holding each one knowing that they’d be in the hands of readers, but access to them would be compromised. I knew, in accepting the part-time position, that these books would no longer have their own classroom. My new school was gracious enough to accept my shipment of 18 boxes of books and house them in a storage closet until I figured out what to do.
It turns out that a part-time teacher in junior high is not all that different from a university professor. In college, did your professor have her own classroom? No, she rushed in with her well-worn bag, unpacked papers (maybe coffee-stained but certainly tattered), rolled up her sleeves, grabbed a dried-dry-erase marker, and got to work. That will be me, only add connecting and projecting a laptop and take away the stack of papers. I will be teaching 4 classes at the junior high in 4 different rooms and 2 classes at 2 universities. I’ll be okay. There are many traveling teachers out, and certainly, higher ed people have been doing this for a long time.
But the books. Access to the books. I am not so minimalist and brilliant as some college professors who just need a marker (or chalk) and a dazzling lecture to edify students. Sure, I will have markers, sticky notes, note cards, a journal, a laptop, and water (planning to actually hydrate this year), but I need something that I cannot fit into the diaper bag: my co-teachers, a.k.a., books. Here is some good news: many junior high teachers still do, in fact, have their “own” classrooms, and the ones who have to let me borrow theirs have made space for a bookcase. So, I will divide up my books and periodically rotate them among the rooms.
I know that there will come a time when I am conferring with a student and will not have the book that I want to give her in that moment — that it will be in box 13 — but I will just retrieve it that night and offer it the next day. I will make it work.
Change #2: Sense of Place
The aesthetics of the classroom that I could control were very much part of our learning community, its ecology.
- The smell. I used an oil diffuser.
- The lights I turned off the fluorescent, illuminating with lamps and twinkle lights.
- The seats. I moved them all the time- varied, flexible seating.
- The book cases. I surrounded us with stories as our only decor.
- The teacher desk. I hid it in a closet wanting to minimize symbols of power.
Space, I believe, influences the community and learning — where students read influences how they read, where students write shapes how they write. The aesthetic of the place does impact the aesthetic response, which is why teachers invest so much money in their classrooms. We want students to have a positive aesthetic response in our classrooms — comfort, safety, joy. Now I am wondering: Does the particular classroom community change if the place is not deliberate for that teacher, those students?
Rosenblatt’s ecological perspective on reading — that students’ reading transactions are affected by the interplay of numerous personal, textual, and contextual factors which account for diversity of reader response — has me thinking about the place in which the experiences happen. And sociocultural theory of learning is such that learning is a social practice — that students take their resources and knowledge and recontextualize them in the classroom. Now I am also wondering: Is the classroom aesthetic situated within the actual walls or is the aesthetic within the beings who share that space, whatever space it is?
I am at the beginning of this change, so I am just starting to pull on this thought thread. I will have a group of students for 41 minutes, and then we will leave one room and move to another for another 41 minutes — same people, new space. How will the change of space impact us — will the changing change us?
We’ll make it work, and while we will be sharing the space, visiting other people’s classrooms, we will still be a we, and our transitions and adjustment will become part of our community identity.
Perhaps not having a “my” classroom is even more symbolic of sharing power than not having my teacher’s desk. Maybe, since it will not be “my” classroom, our learning space will, in fact, be more ontologically ours.
Now I am off to spend some time with dear friends who will become my co-night-teachers this term.