carrying Burned In and whether #NCTE11 carries it, too

I will likely have a book review coming out soon.  Based on recommendations from the English Companion Ning, I ordered and started reading a copy of Burned In: Fueling the Fire to Teach.  The book is a collection of essays from educators who consider the tests of their personal constitution when it comes to teaching.  (I figured that it’s November now, and I better start bulking up on wisdom before the Midwest weather and time change bogs me down too much.)

I truly believe I have had guided many strides toward facilitating better learning this year.  There is no doubt, however, that some of my struggles this year have backed me into a corner and faced me up against the question: How do I make light of that?  Last week, after dealing with one situation, a student (who struggles and is now finally not shutting down in environments that frustrate her) quietly gave me a verbal nudge by saying, “Don’t let these kids and that stupid comment get to you, Mr. Babocck.  It’s not worth it.”  The therapeutic advice (from a teenager) made it into my positives journal; that’s for sure.  I look forward to sharing it at my school’s five-minute, “Positive Friday” meeting (a meeting I do genuinely look forward to otherwise).

This weekend, NCTE 2011 brought a few new ideas for projects and peaked my interest in some efforts around the country (the National Writing Project, for example).  But I had hoped the conference would light fire of passion in me and focus on my path for the rest of the year.  My travel approval came late, and I was only able to attend Saturday and part of Sunday before returning to work today.  I rushed into the middle of the conference and tried my best to focus on getting the most out of it.  However, the more I got into the conference, the more I realized there is an ever-looming cloud of doubt surrounding many teachers I ran into and reconnected with or met for the first time.

In the first chapter of Burned In, I read last night about Jim Burke’s worst year.  Mind you, Burke wrote many of the texts I use to guide my practice.  His worst year is the one he’s facing now and he illustrates it frighteningly clearly.  What’s even more troubling for me is that he suspects that his 20 years of teaching have not granted him the experience, wisdom or magic touch that makes this year or his job easier.  Yet, his perseverance re-focuses his attention on a bigger goal than what the day-to-day grind appears to be: “Our goal is the learning, not the teaching, and our ultimate prize is when we see our students standing confident and independent and free, doing it all without any more help from us.”  It’s true, we don’t show up to “just teach”, yet we are continually interrupted by outside forces beyond our control that distract us away from student learning.

As I read this book (that I’m now dedicated to carrying with me until I finish it), I’m left knowing I experience many of the same obstacles, frustrations and feelings of wandering now that even the elders face, too.  That is comforting in some ways, but knowing that NCTE also did not rekindle the spark and interest for us is something that I have a hard time digesting.  So, does the rest of NCTE carry Burned In, too?

As no critique of the format or the execution, I am left wondering (and frighteningly so) how many of the great, noble minds on stage presenting at NCTE are also in similar fogs as I am reading about now.  (I thought it was just young/new teacher blues.)  Are we celebrating what we want to celebrate?  And I ask that question especially when the texts receiving quite a bit of attention and promotion this year in English teaching have to do with burnout (Burned In) or with re-connecting our heart to the profession (Teaching Literacy for Love and Wisdom).

Burned In is a book I am fascinated by and one that I will reflect a lot on in order to guide what might be called my “tombstone priorities” (in other words, what we want to be remembered by).  In the meantime, I hope that my experience at NCTE 2011 does not reflect that of many other colleagues.  In the meantime, I know where to look first for my drive, and that’s in my students’ learning.

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