English teaching’s mid-life crisis?

A man is riding his bike home from his teaching job. There are dark threatening clouds gathering on the horizon and the air is humid, though he thinks he’ll make it home before the storm breaks.

He is nearly 40 and has been teaching for more than 15 years now. In some ways these last few years have felt like something of a highlight, and yet he feels heavy and troubled. Something is wrong. For reasons he can’t put his finger on, he feels less committed, less driven, less engaged. Other parts of his life have their complications: a marriage that looks like ending, parents nearing the ends of their lives, a body that (despite the daily bike riding and weekly squash) has been showing some disheartening signs of aging. But it’s his work that he’s thinking about now as he rides. It’s no longer his professional passion. He feels disheartened, discouraged, and perhaps even aimless. Suddenly, he knows what he’s going to do, and it’s a completely new and unexpected thought. As soon as he gets home, he’s going to write his letter of resignation. Goodness knows what work he’ll get instead. There’s some accumulated superannuation, which, because it’s 1986 and the superannuation laws are not what they are now, he could spend. Maybe he could write. Study. Get some part-time casual work. Whatever. He needs time out, time to think and re-discover what it’s all about. These last 15 years have felt like a time of unconscious professional evolution and accumulation, and the identity that has been assembled  no longer feels as authentic as it once did. Something vital is missing, and he needs time out to find and reclaim it.

The mid-life crisis begins.

This is (roughly) a true story, of me aged 39. I remember the day, the bike ride, the clouds and the feeling.

I remember, too, the years that followed. They were years full of thinking and feeling, complete with a number of failed attempts to rediscover a sense of direction. I did a lot of reading and writing. Eventually, after about 10 years, having immersed myself in a new career, written two books and done two higher degrees, I returned to school teaching.

This was my mid-life crisis, and I now look back on it with a great deal of gratitude. I can now see how these were years of making sense of my experiences thus far, of searching for (and partly finding, partly creating) new or lost meanings, and of ditching some of the accumulated professional clutter that had assembled itself over the years. To do this, I had needed time, space and distance. The crisis provided these for me. Time to think and feel and write and read.

I’ve been thinking (and feeling) a lot about English teaching a recently. Last month I was at the English Teachers national conference in Sydney, where Bill Green and Jane Mills talked about film and written texts.  Two weeks ago I talked to our local English Teacher’s group about ethics in the English classroom. Last week I followed the tweets of my American friends as they re-connected at the national English teachers conference there, one that I attended this time last year. Yesterday I read Gary Anderson’s blog post about what he’s been thinking about following the conference, and this morning I re-read an article of Linda Reif’s about what, for her, lies at the heart of English teaching. There’s so much thinking and feeling going on amongst English teachers, just as there was so much thinking and feeling going on in me as I rode my bike home that day.

So, last night, I suddenly had this thought.

What might we discover if we thought about English teaching in the early 21st century as being in the midst of a mid-life crisis? We’ve been teaching English for a long, long time. Over that time, there’s been an accumulation of pressures and requirements and a zillion new directions. Perhaps, in the busyness of trying to do the best for our students in an increasingly complex environment, we are struggling to connect with what’s at the heart of our work?

If a mid-life crisis is all about dispensing with accumulations in order to rediscover (or refashion) an authentic identity and direction,

  1. what do we have to let go of?
  2. what are we looking for?
  3. where do we need to search?
  4. what do we need to be doing?
  5. what restores the sense of passion and purpose?

Linda Rief has answers that work for her. Bill Green and Jane Mills are thinking about these questions, as is Gary Anderson and, if my experience at conferences in the USA and Australia are any guide, so are thousands of other English teachers.

I want to read widely and think freshly about this. I want to write about it too, and perhaps prepare something for next year’s English Teachers conference in Brisbane.

But I’m no longer teaching in a classroom. I’d like my thinking and writing to be informed by practising English teachers:  the people I’ve met at the various conferences, or the young English teachers I’ve been teaching at university, or just English teachers doing their best to make their classes conform to what, in their heart of hearts, they believe English teaching to be about.

Are we, as a profession, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, in need of some kind of reconnection to what it is that brought us to English teaching in the first place? Are we able to be what we want to be? Are we needing to stop for a while, rethink, connect with an earlier passion or an emerging vision?

What do you think?

What might you write if you were to play with this idea for a bit?

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2 thoughts on “English teaching’s mid-life crisis?

  1. Pingback: English teaching’s mid-life crisis? | Birds fly, fish swim

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