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Into the “Great Beyond” — Opportunities for Living, Learning and Making a Difference After the Classroom

Last year, near the end of the school year, when my days as a teacher were numbered, one of my colleagues said to me, “Well ten more days until you go into the great beyond.” At the time it struck me as an odd statement and I thought about it all summer. Every day that I’d lay out in the sun, reading a book, I’d think, so this is the beyond. In September, it really hit me… being in the beyond. That’s when I realized that the life I had known for all of my adult life had come to an end.

It has been both frightening and liberating to be outside of the classroom. The first part of September was relatively easy. My son, my first born, got married to the love of his life on a beautiful Indian Summer day overlooking the Hudson River. In a scene borrowed from Washington Irving, 120 friends and family gathered in the warm sunlight as Mike and Danielle gazed lovingly into each other’s eyes and promised to love, honor and cherish each other for ever. It’s safe to say that I didn’t miss teaching at that moment.

Nor did I miss teaching a couple of weeks later when my husband and I traveled to Europe for the very first time. We chose Italy because we had heard that it was a very special almost magical place. We had never been able to travel in the past– my schedule as a teacher only made it possible for us to travel during high volume times. Besides, we had made a decision that our children’s education was the top priority, so there really wasn’t a whole lot of money left over for us to travel much further than the Jersey shore or Disney World. So the trip to Italy was both relaxing and eye-opening — and again, I really didn’t miss teaching very much at all.

That is until I returned home, slept off my jet lag, unpacked and realized that I didn’t really have anywhere I needed to be for the foreseeable future. I didn’t have a group of people I would see every single day — start my day with in home room, end my day with in Drama class and inquire together into literature and writing throughout the day. I was particularly bereft during the final days of the presidential campaign and the election of Barack Obama when I couldn’t be in the company of young people hearing the ways in which they were making sense of this historic event.

So how have I been spending my time in the “great beyond” and what I have I learned so far about life after teaching?

First thing I’ve learned is that it’s great not to have to get up at 6 AM every day. And it’s wonderful to be able to have a leisurely cup of coffee while reading the newspaper in the morning.

The other thing I’ve learned is that it’s much easier to take care of your health when you can actually make doctor’s appointments at any time of day.

I have also learned that the Internet can be a great big vacuum that sucks all of your time and energy if you let it. It takes a great deal of disicpline to turn off the Internet connection and just use the computer to write.

I have been spending much of my time reconnecting with former students — some from almost thirty years ago, others from last year.,, Google and Facebook have made it easy for people to reconnect and many of my former students have been finding me through these web-sites.

I have been giving a lot of thought to the ways in which I can create a forum as well as opportunities for my former students — many of them educators — to do professional development work and give talks and presentations about the impact of a progressive, student-centered, inquiry-based and writing-centered curriculum on their lives. I started this blog as another way to reconnect to former students and to engage them in the conversation about the meaning they made of their high school education and the impact that education has had on their lives. I think this is especially important at this particular time when NCLB has caused administrators to put pressure on teachers to teach to the test and not to the children in front of them. If my former students can tell the story of the long range impact of their high school education then that can begin to counter the arguments for test-driven pedagogies and describe an alternative pedagogy of possibilities.

So that’s one project in the great beyond.

Another is working with After School Practitioners in a Seminar that teaches them how to engage in practitioner research and develop as professionals. Building on what I have learned and done as a teacher researcher, I am now working with the National Writing Project and the National Institute for Out of School Time Studies to adapt that work for people working with children in out of school or after school settings. Today, for instance, I am spending my afternoon visiting two programs at Philadelphia playgrounds with one of the seminar fellows and I will be helping her focus her research question.

Yesterday I attended a meeting between the Center for Evidence-Based Education and the principals and other administrators of Camden City Public Schools for the purpose of launching a professional development initiative in Camden that intends to bring about systemic reform. I was brought in by CEBE as a member of their team as a expert in teacher development and leadership and my role in this project will be to coach teams of teacher leaders in 3 Camden middle schools ( and possibly two high schools in the future) to be better teachers and to become teacher leaders in their buildings based on their knowledge and abilities as teachers. At the meeting yesterday, I expressed my hope that this program would enable and encourage good teachers to find career satisfaction within the classroom. I also expressed my hope that it would counter the popular view that teaching is an “entry level” position and in order to move up one needs to move out.

The other project that I have initiated since returning from vacation is a continuity group for Teacher for America teachers who went through Penn’s Urban Education Master’s program and who have chosen to stay beyond their 2 year TFA commitment. These teachers are in dire need of support — they no longer have the TFA community nor the Penn community to mentor them and in some cases depending on the ages and experiences of the teachers at their schools, they are being looked to as veteran teachers and teacher leaders. They need a place where they can critically examine their own practice and continue to grow and learn as a professional. I first met these teachers when Dina Portnoy asked me to design a course in Inquiry into Practice for 2nd year Master’s students ( who by the way are teaching full time throughout their certification program!) and despite what I think of Teach for America itself ( not much.. a topic for another post) I have come to admire and respect many of the young people who are teaching in some of the most difficult schools in the country. One of my reasons for creating this continuity group is not only to support them in their teaching but to thank them for staying when so many others (ncluding myself) have left.

These are the projects that I am working on in the “great beyond.” And there’s so much more I want to do. More and more I am realizing that I have to write…. about my teaching, about my life…. I am just about finished a chapter for a book about student choice and voice which documents my struggles during my final year of teaching with one particular class and all that I did as the teacher to “make it matter” to the students. I have a computer full of other papers, chapters, half-finished essays that could possibly be shaped into a book.

When I retired, I promised myself that I wouldn’t work for six months and allow myself time to figure it out. I couldn’t keep that promise of course — I became way too bored. So I’ve taken on these projects — all of which feel very connected to my life’s project — being a teacher and a person who makes a positive difference in the lives of others.

Marsha Pincus is a post-mid life woman, riding the Age Wave and writing for her life.

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