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Teacher Brain

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I retired this year, after 39 years in the classroom. So I am now on Day Twenty-five of my retirement.

"Well, your retirement doesn't really start until September- you're just on summer vacation now."

I've heard this one often since my retirement officially began fourteen days ago, and to some extent I agree that retirement does not hit now with the same force that it will when the school buses are running and I'm not walking the school doors at 7 AM.

But still.

Every summer in my career, I had a big fat To Do List. Usually it involved re-reading works of literature from my course curriculum. The list also included designing and developing unit ideas, or tweaking and re-configuring materials I already had. I've never taught exactly the same stuff the same way in any two years, and a big part of keeping fresh and refreshed and on top of my game was that summer prep. To be certain, these past several years a lot of the planning has centered on how to do more with less, which corners to cut to accommodate the most recent cuts in the year and the day. But there was always a stack of things I had to do for the fall; like most teachers, I had summer vacations that were not entirely vacations at all.

So yes, my retirement has started as witnessed by the fact that a week or so ago, I was finishing up Lego Batman II story mode and not rereading Light in August. A god working teacher's summer vacation is not entirely vacation.

But even I have been surprised to notice that it's even more than that. I hadn't really appreciated how much of my summer has always been taken up with teacher brain.

Teacher brain is the part of a teacher's brain that never turns off, and it is relentless. It's the part of your brain that is always alert to learning aspects of your students' world. Maybe I'll sample this podcast that my students were talking about all year. I think I'll try to use my snapchat account for a week so that I get my students' references to that app. I have watched The Hill and read Twilight because at the time, my students talked about these things incessantly, and I couldn't put them in context without knowing what they were.

It is also the part of your brain that looks at every single experience from a classroom point of view. In summers when I work a part time job, I didn't just work the job-- I made mental notes of what the job was like and what the work involved and consider that as part of the bigger questions of what I should be teaching these days, or even being able to convincingly and accurately complete the sentence, "You know, when some of you guys get a job, you may well find...." Watching a movie? I'd be thinking about how it might be connected to some of the themes and works I usually teach. Read a book? Every book is not just read, but considered as a possible a recommendation to students. I scanned constantly for real-live examples of various writing and usage issues that come up in the year.Every fall I would go back with my box full of tools, and all year, but especially in the summer while I had the time, I considered every bit of the world I encountered as a possible tool. My Uncle Frank, a history teacher for 50 years in Connecticut, traveled all over creating in his "vacation" time-- and he brought back photographs he took of all the places he went to use in his classroom (and for several years to line the halls of his school). Even when teachers vacation, they don't really vacation. The teacher brain is hard to get to rest. (Are there teachers who don't experience teacher brain? Sure-- the lack of teacher brain is a distinguishing characteristic of most bad and many mediocre teachers.)


I knew I did this, but I didn't appreciate just how much I did it. I bring it up not to convince civilians that honest teachers really do work hard in the summer, because honestly, people either believe teachers spend the summer eating bon-bons while they play the slots in Vegas, or they understand that teachers still work, and I'm not sure minds can be changed.

No, I send this observation out to teachers themselves. Note to you-- you work way harder in the summer than you even realize. More than that, you don't stop viewing the world like a teacher rather than a civilian. Your teacher brain is always running, and your so used to it permeating your entire life that you don't even realize it's happening. Yes, teacher summer vacation is far cushier than what many other folks get, but at the same time, there are so many jobs that do not permeate someone's life 24/7/365. Give yourself credit for that, and maybe figure out how to turn it off now and then before you retire.

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Peter Greene has been a classroom teacher of secondary English for thirty-many years. He lives and works in a small town in northwestern Pennsylvania where he plays ni a town band, works in community theater, and writes for the local paper.

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Guest Sunday, 23 September 2018