By Adrin Fisher
The start of a new decade is a natural time to pause and take stock of life. Once in a while (like today) I sit back and marvel at the choices that have led me to this career—teaching high school English at my alma mater. Thirty years have passed since I first sat down in a scarred, wooden desk in the same classroom where I teach today. The time has passed—more quickly than I’d have ever imagined—yet, I’m still in high school.
Every Graduation Day, I’m as excited as my seniors in their stiff button-down shirts and high-heeled sandals. They’re worried about many challenges ahead, but mostly they worry about tripping as they walk across the stage. I know. I was too.
Sometimes being in high school gets monotonous for those of us who never leave. Good students and poor ones alike come and then go, replaced by younger versions of the same. Your favorites—the kids you really connected with—never choose to linger with you for an extra year or two. And you are still answering the same questions that teachers have been answering since the beginning of time: Why do we have to read this? Can’t we just watch the movie? Why do we have to write again? Can’t you just give us a break, Miss Fish?
Yet still I remain, a constant in their high school days, a reliable fixture on the third floor. I hope that I’m high-energy and fun-ish, and fair, respectful and kind. I hope I don’t give up on them and don’t give them too many breaks and maintain a constant stream of positive answers:
Read to become a better human.
Read to learn from the mistakes of others.
Read to see yourself in a mirror.
Write because if you don’t think you’ll make all the mistakes instead of some mistakes.
Write because humanity is built on story and on memory.
It’s this year-in-year-out redundancy—cheerfully indomitable though I strive to be—that forces me to challenge myself.
You may think you have plenty of challenges, so there’s no need to add more, and you may be absolutely right. But what if challenge is the bedrock of happiness? What if the best way to fight the stagnation of an exhausting job is to cultivate challenge?
Best-selling author Mark Manson writes, “Happiness comes from solving problems….To be happy we need something to solve. Happiness is a form of action; it’s an activity, not something that is passively bestowed upon you.”
One of the most consistent aspects of teacher persona across grade levels and disciplines is the desire to solve problems. Conscientious practitioners always have a problem simmering in the back of their minds—like when you pick up a conch shell on vacation because you know it will help kids see a story, or when you’re running through different ways to motivate a struggling student while grocery shopping, or when you’re re-thinking peer-editing groups while doing the dishes. Teachers routinely create and implement, but in the middle of our implementation, we’re creating for next week or next month. We are problem-solvers by inclination and by necessity.
Sometimes we need to add a challenge just for ourselves, not for the sake of our students, but a spark to remind us that we enjoy this wild gift called life.
Maybe start small.
- Wear a different scarf every day or choose one color as a signature for the week.
- Try a diet change: maybe add something (like more water) instead of taking foods away.
- What about a challenge not to complain about school for one whole day?
- What if you add new vocabulary to your vernacular—like maybe some Shakespearean insults? “You Banbury cheese” is my current favorite.
- Or a reading challenge? My friend Sarah challenged herself to expand her reading list last year and only read POCs in translation.
- Try journaling every day, making paper, training your palate to be a coffee critic, writing reviews on Amazon, knitting for kangaroos, creating a fake sorority with your friends and holding regular meetings…the possibilities are endless.
- Or maybe if you are already functioning at the edge of yourself, challenge yourself to tweak one action or one attitude.
The point is that you take the time to challenge yourself, to cultivate something that’s for you personally, not professionally. Research shows that a habit only takes 21 days to form, if you’re interested in sticking to your challenge. Three weeks is no time at all for people who think in nine-week increments.
I, for one, have set myself a daunting challenge for this year.
Ian Doescher, the bestselling author who re-envisions popular movies (maybe you’ve heard of Star Wars) in iambic pentameter, set a challenge for himself this year, and he invited the reading world to join him. He calls it Shakespeare 2020. The challenge is to read the complete works of Shakespeare in one year. That, as it turns out, is a lot of reading.
I decided to go for it.
Even thinking about all the essay correcting, planning, grading, prepping, record-keeping, and the extras I already do. Even thinking about the books that I’ll read this year and the after-school meetings I’ll facilitate. Even thinking about my family and friends and obligations and opportunities that will crop up in the course of 365 days. It’s certainly a challenge.
So here I am, this morning, smack in the middle of Henry VI, Part 1 and still on schedule. I’ve never read this play before—and these roses tracing the linage of England’s monarchy are dizzying. And Joan of Arc is here in all her single-combat glory. Who knew?
There’s a large group on Facebook (#Shakespeare2020) full of people smarter than me who have insights and prompts and resources that I’ve never heard of (though I’ve been teaching Shakespeare lo these many years) and on Twitter. I’m cracking open my old Riverside Shakespeare and putting in my headphones to listen along, and I’m doing it.
I’m not sure how close I’ll stick to the schedule or how much I’ll add to the conversation, but I know I’ll feel that happiness that comes from solving problems—and from learning!
After all, challenge begets challenge. I boiled a pudding for my after-school student Book Club today. The first Shakespeare2020 play was Twelfth Night, and even though the Christmas season has nothing to do with cross garters or cross-dressing, it was a good excuse to feel British. Boiling cake batter for six hours was, indeed, a challenge. We’ll see which brave students will taste it!
It’s not too late for you to join #Shakespeare2020, by the way. No one’s keeping score or passing out grades. There’s no test. This is the real world.
So, finally, my challenge to you, teacher friend, is to challenge yourself. Cultivate and care for yourself—because your life is demanding. Spark your interest and remember why you’re still in the room.
WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. What challenges do you cultivate? Leave us a question or comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you grace. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher smack in the middle of her twenty-second year of teaching and currently working with seniors in co-teaches and dual-credit classes, and honors-level sophomores. When she’s not surrounded with her prep calendars and a pile of essays, encouraging and supporting her colleagues, or teaching Shakespeare “like a boss,” you can find her reading Shakespeare with the audiobook blasting, tree bathing in a wintry park with her kids, or writing in drips and drabs. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin