How one teacher fights back against the perception that teachers cease to exist outside the classroom.
The other day, I overheard one of my female students say that on weekends and summers, teachers cease to exist. “It was like so weird,” she was telling her classmate, “I was at the mall and I saw Mrs. Halls at Anthropologie looking at skirts or something and I was like, 'No way.' I mean, I kind of thought teachers just went into a closet or something at the end of school and then came out in time for class. It was weird.”
As her friend laughed in agreement, I realized that although she was kidding, I couldn't really relate—and not just because, as a professional educator, I had fairly incontrovertible evidence that teachers do not disappear the moment students stop looking at them. I grew up attending a cozy little school in the Amazon, in a small community made up primarily of American expats, whose lives were so intertwined that it never occurred to me to wonder where my teachers went at the end of the day because I knew them. They were my teachers, yes, but they were also part of the network of adults that made up my life.
Although it is abnormal that I grew up barefoot and hiding boa constrictors in the drawer of my school desk, as far as my relationships with teachers went, the interconnected world of my childhood was not all that different from that of rural kids everywhere. My students, on the other hand, live in wealthy suburban North America, where their parents seem to have literally interpreted the old English proverb that “a man’s home is his castle.” In these climate controlled McMansions, the moats may be metaphorical, but the manicured lawns and theater-sized entertainment systems perform the equivalent function of isolating the inhabitants from his and her neighbors.
The soulless, community-disintegrating nature of suburban living is a hobby horse of mine, so I am aware that when I start writing about it you most likely hear my tone and begin to picture me standing on a soapbox in an old flannel coat, foaming at the mouth. But just because I am a zealot does not necessarily mean I am wrong. In this age of “cheap” gasoline, we teach our children early on to accept a lifestyle where school, work, play, commerce and habitation are separated by distances commutable only by automobile. Although they yearn for connection, they come to believe that it is normal and even virtuous to make for yourself a lonely island of stuff.
My students’ comments about the life I apparently do not have outside the doors of the school are just another symptom of the way in which this disjointed lifestyle has dismantled our sense of each other—and of our community. While I am aware that not everyone can live in a small town, or a clump of expats in the Amazon rainforest, or even in the (perhaps) less-isolating world of the city, I do think it is important for us to stop seeing our disassociated way of life as inevitable.
Personally, I drive 40 minutes to get to work each day and if I want to keep teaching, I am going to keep on doing it. So I have no right to lecture and no easy solutions to offer. Perhaps there are none. Perhaps we are so far down this path that all we can really hope for is to make tiny steps back towards connecting with our fellow humans. I have argued previously for increased teacher vulnerability and for teacher-student interaction on Facebook. As a moderate technophobe and lover of all things tangible and raw, I am aware that the internet and a little human-to-human interaction in class are a poor substitute for the sort of community lost as we have created our current culture of isolation.
I cannot fix the situation and I certainly cannot make my students raze their homes and talk their parents into building co-housing units over on the school soccer field. But perhaps, by showing them as much as possible that I do exist when the day is done, I can help them begin to believe that maybe—just maybe—it doesn't have to be like this.
Josh Barkey is a high school art teacher in North Carolina.