On Being Back in Harness

I read this phrase once: to be “back in harness.” I liked it — even if it sounded as though it was missing a “the” — and now that I’m back full-time teaching again this year, I find the phrase fits me.

Last year I wasn’t “in harness” — or at least, I was in a different kind of harness — and it was surprisingly uncomfortable. We always talk about how we’d love to make our own schedules, come and go as we please. But would we really?

Last year I was lucky enough to receive a fellowship from the Rowland Foundation of Vermont, a program that gifts teachers money (and therefore time) to drive change projects within their schools. Oh for the gift of time — last year I had it. I hired a (spectacular) long-term substitute to teach my classes. I only taught one class all year, and that was just during the spring. The rest of my time was free from the regular, cumbersome daily responsibilities of the busy teacher. Instead, I read, wrote, studied, coached, collaborated, researched, interviewed, presented, filmed, traveled, and generally tried to strike a that delicate balance between being an advocate but not an obnoxious one.

Although I was busy, I wasn’t “in harness.” What I like about that metaphor is that it implies pulling a great weight, sometimes collectively, as just another cart horse doing the work of someone else. There’s a selflessness implied, even a mindlessness. Free agents aren’t in harness. Self-schedulers aren’t in harness.

Last year, my days weren’t regimented. I came and went. I worked from home. In many ways, I worked harder and longer than ever before. But I always felt a nagging guilt that my colleagues were now one horse down, pulling the real weight, the familiar weight of teaching: preparing, grading, teaching, conferring and advising. Their schedules were dictated: when the bell rang, teenagers flooded into their rooms, testing them, trying them, questioning them, looking to them for guidance. Meanwhile, I sat in my office and read John Hattie and Don Murray with my feet up, taking real lunch breaks, unmolested by bells or teenagers, weekend grading, last-second sprints to the copy machine, no lesson prep to whip up during lunch. It was freeing but also disconcerting, like I didn’t exist, like I wasn’t pulling my full weight. There I was, “out of harness,” watching my friends toil and sweat.

It was strange because for so many years all I wanted was time off from the daily grind to breathe and think and take a look at the big picture. I get sick of being so focused on the minutia of a thousand microscopic details necessary to run a classroom that I have no time to consider larger questions of educational philosophy and technique. One of the great ironies of becoming an English teacher is that you lose time you once had — barring great effort — to do your own reading and writing. It’s easy to look up and realize you’ve just spent the last two years putting out one fire after another rather than advancing your thinking about the science of learning. This sense that I was to micro-focused on taking better attendance or desiging a smoother system for collecting essays would really hit me every time our school would lurch from one initiative to another and I’d get the strong sense that not only was I not steering the very cart I was pulling, but I was often the last to know where I was even pulling it. In the classic Platonic sense, my classroom had begun to feel like a cave, and I longed to escape into the light of above-ground, to finally understand just what was going on higher up. The fellowship was my chance, and I took it. It was enlightening but disconcerting.

Like it or not, there’s a part of us — teachers — that actually *likes* being overly busy. Deep down I think we like commiserating around the proverbial water cooler about our (digital) mountains of papers to grade, our marathon late-night planning sessions, our unrelenting teaching schedules, our huge classes, our problem students, our endless meetings. It’s fun to be in the action, and fun, in a way to be under the gun — the same way it was fun to pull all-nighters to cram for college exams. We’re all familiar with the ways that work can plug the holes in empty or dysfunctional lives; teaching can do this better than most jobs. It’s an endless profession. I learned early on, during Saturdays and Sundays in an empty, overheated school in Bethel, Vermont, that you could spend all of your waking hours working and still manage to fall short of even the most modest measures of teaching success. The work’s important — and limitless — and there’s something about good teachers that I believe enjoys that work load.

There’s also something comforting about the regimentation of teaching. The bell rings every 75 minutes and you better be ready because a whole new group of angsty, bleery-eyed, hormonal teenagers is about to saunter in that door and let you know exactly how they feel about you and your homework assignments. The last bell rings on Friday, but better hurry up over the weekend and get those 60 essays graded and those classes prepped — because the first bell’s coming right up Monday morning. Actually, first there’s the meeting before school (better get prepped), then off to your first class. Enjoy your 30 minute lunch — after you run down to the copier — because once the bell rings, those teenagers don’t care if you’re not done with your chicken salad. Better wrap it up and finish it after school.

To teach is to triage. It’s to learn to cut bait with your junior writing class that’s not going well because you have to move on, mentally, to those seniors coming in in five minutes. You catch up with your colleagues quickly, you don’t get pulled into anything because you’ve only got a minute before you have to run to the bathroom, then up to the copy machine, then back down to finish the slideshow for next class. Make sure to move the desks into groups before they get to class. Don’t let that needy 9th grader linger — she’ll be telling you her whole life story, and even though you really, really want to hear it, you’ve only got the next ten minutes to check in with that science teacher about how Johnny’s doing and is using the same excuses in Bio as in English? In teaching, every day’s a race against time — too much to do, not enough time to do it, and a constant battle to figure out where to cut things off and move on to the next thing.

There’s comfort in that pace. It’s exciting, it’s engrossing, and most of all, it’s real. Everything you do needs doing. You’re not shipping cereal, or adding up abstract numbers on a computer. You’re dealing with real kids’ futures. You’re working with families. Those are real faces in front of you in the first row. All of the work comes back to that — it’s concrete, urgent, pressing, needed, noble. At a good school like mine, it feels like you and your colleagues are all in it together. It’s a mission. You’re all in harness.

But sometimes you’re not.

Because there are bigger questions out there. My time away from the classroom last year opened up a whole new world for me — that broad, great open expanse of country up on the surface of the earth, up where decisions are made — theories, policy, management, advocacy, historical precedent.

I wanted to go to the place where those trends that ripple like waves across our classrooms come from. I found it.

I wanted to understand where those words that we seem to use every day — “scaffolding,” “flexible grouping,” “project-based learning” — come from. I learned.

I wanted to learn if I was in fact stumbling around in the darkness of my own cave, talking only with colleagues who knew only their own caves. I was. And I did.

But the problem is — as good as it felt to go back down into the cave — as good as it felt to be back buckled into the harness . . . it’s hard to go back.

So that’s where I find myself at the start of 2020. Last year I have a feeling changed everything for me — in a good way. And while I’m enjoying being back in the grind of daily teaching, I find myself wondering every day what the next step will be, and I don’t have any clear answers.

In the meantime, it’s good to be back in harness.