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Virginia Journal of Education

On Point

Coming home to teaching

by Rich Follett

I am a teacher. I love my life. I also loved the life I had for 36 years before I decided to become a teacher. When I made my decision, I was not disenfranchised, displaced, disillusioned, dissatisfied or any other of the 'dis' adjectives that disgruntled (there it is again) folks use as a rationalization for making major life changes. For me, becoming a teacher was less about turning to something new than returning to something I already knew.

My mother is a retired English teacher who served one school faithfully for 35 years. Many of my happiest childhood memories revolve around helping her grade papers or listening to her stories about school life. She instilled in me a love of learning and of the English language; gradually, her passion became my own.

My father has held many jobs in his lifetime; perhaps the most interesting was a modestly successful tenure as a nightclub singer and pianist in the halcyon post-WWII days of eastern Long Island in the glamorous and absurdly excessive Hamptons. He was (and still is) handsome, talented and appealing in the way that only personalities born to entertain can be. His passion also became mine.

Show business won the first volley. I attended a collegiate acting program on a full scholarship and 15 years later I was still working constantly. I was never a 'starving actor' for even one day! True, I never became a household name, but I was well respected in the business, financially solvent and always employed.

For those of you attuned to plot devices, this is where the first reversal kicks in. In my 36th year, right in the middle of a six-month performing contract in the exotic environs of Denali National Park, I woke up one morning and the other me had taken over. Suddenly, my mother's passion was speaking to me more powerfully than ever before. I had aged, seemingly overnight, into my other self. I heeded my inner voice, enrolled in teacher training courses back home in Virginia and began what would turn out to be a labored metamorphosis.

The open doors of my performing days quickly gave way to suspicious glances and endless obstacles. In 1996, career switching to the teaching profession - especially for Caucasian middle-class males - was a new enough idea to be both overtly and covertly suspect. My every move was scrutinized and the Virginia Department of Education did not seem to want to award me a certificate. Three times in two years, I completed what I had been told was the required list of courses for English certification only to be informed that the list had changed. I suffered the setbacks stoically enough that the college's Dean of Education took pity on me and acted as a negotiator to plead my case. In June of 1998 I finally became a certified teacher and was hired by our local school district.

I'd love to say things got easier after that. I can't. I was an artsy kind of guy in a town where the focus was squarely on athletics. I was told that all of my students had to pass standardized tests and was promptly assigned every student in the county who had never passed a standardized test. I was politely 'encouraged' to inflate the grades of students who were 'really needed' by one team or another and was even informally rebuked by the superintendent because a Saturday evening performance of the musical that I had staged (against incredible odds) drew a bigger audience than the basketball game on the same night. My ideals really took a beating. At the end of two years, I was called to one of those 'perhaps you might like to explore other options' meetings with the powers-that-be and found myself wondering if show business wasn't so bad after all.

Time for another reversal: a sympathetic colleague referred me to a new school in a neighboring district with a more contemporary view of education. This was a teaching community based on possibilities rather than limitations. I am still here eight years later and I once again love my life. I have earned both my Masters degree and my National Board Certification. I feel appreciated by my students, my colleagues and our administrators. It's everything I hoped for.

The road to the classroom was rougher than I ever imagined it would be. Learning to manage it effectively once I got there was even rougher. Dealing with the day-to-day struggles of classroom life has been and continues to be an exercise in patience. My old 'show business' skills still help me, though -- usually, when I need to engage my students by making literary characters come to life or when I have to remind myself that teaching, like acting, is best suited to those who value intrinsic over extrinsic benefits (paychecks and applause are hard won in either profession). Underscoring my day-to-day travails, however, is the realization that I am completely in my element. Talk about reversals - who could have guessed that being a teacher would turn out to be my role of a lifetime?

Follett, a member of the Warren County Education Association, teaches English and Theatre Arts at Skyline High School.


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