I've been fortunate enough to have had some terrific honors bestowed upon me. Fifth-grade spelling bee champion. Sixth-grade student council president. I mean, do I have to go on? We're talking biggies here.
It was just about this time of year in 2017 that, perhaps, the one that means the most to me came around. The Billings Education Association—the union for public school teachers in the place I call home—honored me as its Friend of Education.
It was deeply meaningful to me for several reasons. One, I'm a child of public education (thank you, Birdville Independent School District and Smithfield Elementary, Smithfield Junior High (now middle school) and Richland High School). Two, public school teachers have had a profound effect on me at every stage of life. They've been mentors and influencers and friends. I was born to one. I married one. Three, I truly believe that public education is a compact we must hold with each other, no matter how fraught things get (I'm not terribly optimistic about how things are going in that department, but I still believe in the compact). Public education is the ultimate investment in our future, together.
I could go on and on. I have, in fact.
Whatever the teachers in my town felt in calling me their friend five years ago, I send it back in triplicate to them. English teachers at West High School here in Billings were instrumental in getting 600 Hours of Edward on the approved curriculum list at the high school level, and for years now, some of them have been teaching it. It blows my mind, still. And the bargain I've made, straight along, is that if you want me to visit the classroom, to talk about writing and creativity and life beyond high school, tell me when and where and I'll be there.
The pandemic, as you might imagine, took a bite out of that bargain.
And yet, there we were last week, a handful of English classes at West—juniors and seniors—and a creative writing club, and we were working through one of my favorite writing exercises, The Word (I am not its inventor, by the way, just an enthusiastic adopter). Each class, I'd have the kids tell me their name and give me a word. We then ran a random-number generator to choose a single word that the entire class had to use as inspiration for a short story. Writing time: 20 minutes.
It's a hell of a thing, I'm sure, to show up one day at school and hear that some dude you've never met before wants you to spend most of a period writing. But these kids did it, and their enthusiasm, generosity, and talent leave me hopeful for their futures and my own. For every period, I wrote alongside them, ending up with nearly 3,000 words of material, by far a busier day than I usually have.
I'll spare you the whole passel of short stories (unless you really want to read them), but here's a taste:
When we got the dog—a 48-pound, 40-inch-long, 14-year-old basset hound—I named him Lightning because, among other things, I was into irony.
Lightning’s name was Dexter when he was stuffed in a kennel at the humane society, on account of his previous owner, an 84-year-old woman named Mildred, up and died one day and Dexter was found sleeping in the small of the back of her tumbled-over carcass, and Mildred’s kinfolk didn’t want him. And you might say that if a dog has borne a name, any name, for 14 years, he ought to be allowed to keep it for the rest of whatever time he has left. And, OK, that’s a fair point, but Dexter is a crappy name and no more fitting the hound he was than Lightning was. So I changed it. My prerogative.
We didn’t get off to a good start, Lightning and me. First night, I put him up on the bed, and he walked around behind my shoulder, I thought he was snuggling in, and he lifted a leg on me. New house, new bed, new people—I guess I can’t blame him, but come on, man. He pooped on the rug the next day—the good rug, that was the problem, not that frayed thing in the den—and I thought, well, Lightning, you ain’t long for us if you don’t straighten up and fly right soon.
I needn’t have worried, as it turned out. I’ve come to believe, in the looking back, that the speed of him—opposite the name we’d hung on him—was the secret to his longevity. That dog just wasn’t in a hurry for anything, which kept his heart rate low and his blood moving agreeably. “Lightning, dinner,” we’d say, and we’d wait for the lumbering, this long dog who could have two feet on different sides of a corner, and he’d come into view and he’d eat at a luxurious pace, like a cow working its cud. “Lightning, let’s get in the car!” Same thing. That dog moved in a way that would make a sloth say, “Damn, that’s one slow-moving animal.”
Ironic, then, that the event for which he gained his fame around our house, the reason Judy would grip him by those jowls, unbidden, and say, “You’re the best dog ever, yes you are,” was a moment of alacrity. Megan, our youngest, just a baby, crawling for the curb and the traffic beyond, we’re bound up in watching Mitchell show us his batting stance there in the front yard, and she’s nearly to the asphalt, and here’s Lightning, moving at his bah-doop-dee-doo pace and he snags her diaper in his teeth and pulls her back.
That’s a good boy.
We said goodbye to him last night, the fadeout that we’d seen coming and were still flabbergasted by when it arrived. Lightning, staring up at us, our expectant faces in his, our tears surfacing, and here’s that old floppy-tongued kiss, the one we’d had a thousand times and would never have again, and he’s gone, gone, gone, not so much a flashing discharge of electricity but a shattered star lighting up our days and nights.
After writing and sharing—the kids were great about that, too—we talked about what I like so much about this exercise, that in the letters and meaning of a single word, there's a fuse that can be lit and burned down into a burst of creativity. It's one of the most magical things I know of, how you can tap into memory, word association, imagination and pull a story right out of yourself. It's entirely egalitarian. You don't need permission. You don't have to wait for someone to judge you worthy. You just need time and inclination. You need a pencil and a piece of paper and the willingness to get busy.
And the thing is, long before I ever thought about these things, long before I ever knew what a writing prompt was, long before I ever imagined trying to build a life around words, I had teachers who pushed me, who had lamplight and were willing to show the way, who truly and honestly believed that each child in their care had purpose and something to offer. On the surface, I don't have much in common with those kids I met last week—I'm older than their parents, in many cases, and from a generation that must seem decrepit and dated to them. And yet, the successors of those teachers I remember with such fondness and admiration are in the classroom now. Still pushing. Still guiding. Still believing.
How lucky we are. What a shame it would be if we lost it.
Originally published March 25, 2021
The most attention-getting thing I’ve read in the past week is this piece by Anne Helen Petersen, titled “What Demoralization Does to Teachers.”
It took hold of me not just because I’m friends with a lot of teachers (I am) or because I see the factors outlined in the article playing out among those friends (I do). What stopped me cold was the distinction between burnout and what’s really happening to teachers:
From the piece:
What educators are feeling right now — what they’ve felt over the last year — is not just frustration and fear inspired by the pandemic. It’s not just burnout. It’s way beyond that. It’s chronic burnout and deep demoralization as their labor is increasingly under-funded, under-valued, and under-resourced.
Wait, there’s more. In an article cited by Petersen, which you can read here, Doris A. Santoro writes:
One reason people are not attracted to teaching, and why some are leaving teaching, is that they do not see it as a place where they can enact their values.
I daresay demoralization is a destructive force whatever your line of work. What makes it so alarming in the teaching realm, of course, is that education is the bedrock for everything that follows. If we’re torching teachers—not just working them hard but also causing that work to have no meaning to them—who pays on the back end? The answer is obvious. If you think we have a problem with chronic ignorance now (and, yeah, I think we do), what happens when we’re chasing teachers out of the profession and, consequently, are unable to attract the sort of folks who have historically flocked to it?
I don’t have to look far to see the worrying signs.
I have a dear friend who is leaving teaching at the end of this school year. She’s not ready for retirement; indeed, she’ll have to continue working to pay the bills, retain health insurance, put gas in the car, etc. But she’s done teaching, after a long, distinguished career of doing it, after a long time of feeling called to it. But she can no longer take the misplaced priorities, the undercutting, the under-funding, the many obstacles that are lined up to stand between her and what she knows will get results in the classroom.
She’s done, and it’s her community’s loss. Our community’s loss. And I suppose that would mean so much more if our community even understood what’s happening to her and, by extension, to all of us.
Several years ago, I taught a semester-long honors fiction-writing course at Montana State University Billings. It was harder than I ever imagined it would be, and I have a pretty vivid imagination for such things. But I threw myself into it, and indemnified as I was against the more tedious aspects of being an instructor there—I was a visiting writer, so I didn’t have committee assignments or faculty meetings or anything else of that nature—I tried my best to make connections with the self-starting students who’d chosen the course, to impart what I’ve learned but mostly to help them find ways into expressing their art.
At the end of the semester, I gave a public lecture, and I chose public education as my topic, focused through the lens of my uneven relationship with it. As part of that, I asked my teacher friends to tell me what they wished their communities knew about their jobs.
Some of those responses:
How deeply I loved each and every student that came into my classroom. Even the ostensibly unlovable ones, I worked until I could love them, until I could see their unique and spectacular gifts. I want people to know the system is designed to use that love against you, pencil after pencil, lost planning period after lost planning period. I burned out so fast, and I wish there had been a system interested in retaining me.
I think people need to know how functionally illiterate most college students are … and how unsurprising it is, given how teachers at lower levels lack any sort of empowerment or incentive or respect.
All I want to do is teach in the way that I know is developmentally appropriate for kids. That is all my colleagues want, too.
This was pre-pandemic, far enough back to be a memory and close enough to touch us. We’re in trouble, folks. We have been for a long time. The pandemic accelerated matters, but the trajectory has been disastrous for a while.
Empathy for the demoralized is not hard to come by. I spent twenty-five years as a newspaper journalist, the very definition of “been there, done that.” At the end, amid quarterly staff purges, scaled-back coverage, “doing more with less” and other assorted bullshit, I walked away and into an uncertain future working life. I left not because my pay was low (it was, relative to other jobs I had the skill to do) or because it was hard work (it was ever thus). I left because the work that had been so important to me for so long didn’t seem to matter anymore, because I’d been implicitly told by the powers that be that I didn’t matter. I was a cost center, one that was aggressively being pared back. (And now, the vultures that have control of much of that line of work argue that people who do what I did for all those years aren’t journalists at all. It’s as if the business model is degradation.)
And you know what? Maybe I didn’t matter at the end. If that’s so, I cut them before they could cut me. That’s a decidedly different outlook than the one I had when I entered the profession. Twenty-five years of steady erosion and declining standards beat me up pretty good. I have great affection and nothing but good wishes for those who keep answering the call at local newspapers. They are doing what I could not.
Setting my own experience aside, I think it’s fair to say that when the folks develop a feeling Santoro widely ascribes to teachers—“Demoralization occurs when teachers cannot reap the moral rewards that they previously were able to access in their work”—it’s not something that can be soothed with a little time away, some breathing exercises, and some cinched-up self-care. At some point, the demoralized give up and leave, and nobody who cares the way they once did can be compelled to step in, and then what?
I’ll say it again: We’re in trouble.
Craig Lancaster is an author, an editor, a publication designer, a layabout, a largely frustrated Dallas Mavericks fan, an eater of breakfast, a dreamer of dreams, a husband, a brother, a son, an uncle. And most of all, a man who values a T-shirt.