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Feeling Stuck in the 'Right Field' of Teaching? How Teachers Can Get 'Unstuck' This Summer

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By Sarah Brown Wessling

For the last several years, spring has carried a predictable cadence for my family: the less time the kids spend in school, the more time we spend at the ball diamonds. There are three children, five baseball or softball teams, and roughly ten games a week. That's a whole lot of America's favorite pastime. While the games themselves seem to fall into indiscriminate wins and losses, the real value is the way they open up opportunities for conversations about life, about work worth doing.

 After a recent string of mediocre performances, my eldest son found himself moved to right-field. After 18 straight innings of this new "home" we had a car ride. Which is to say we had a car talk. "This is horrible," he thundered. "I'll never be able to prove that I should get back into the infield if I'm in the outfield." Frustration became anger, anger became disappointment: "Why am I even playing if all I do is stand out there?"

I cautiously pressed, "Well, what if you are in right-field for the rest of the season? What if this is the position you've earned right now? What are the two ways you can react to it?"

"You make absolutely no sense, Mom!" he grumbled. "Can't you see I'm upset here? That I'm stuck and there's nothing I can do about it?"

Enter extended parental pause for gratuitous eye-rolling and deep sighs of indignation.

"Let me just suggest something here, Evan. Let's say you are in right-field for the rest of the season. Your worth as a baseball player doesn't come from your position; it comes from how you play it. It's true, you can stand out there for 18 innings and put in your time and think the world is unfair. Or you can move. You can back up third or second, you can gauge the batter and you can encourage your teammates. Standing is a choice. Moving is a choice. You're only as stuck as you want to be if you can believe that every position on your team is important."

As a teacher, there undoubtedly, have been times when I've felt stuck in the right field too. Even as I step out of a school year and into summer, this perceived sense of immobility has, at times, kept its grip. There was the time I was stuck in guilt-- that we hadn't covered as much ground as I felt like I was supposed to. Another time, I was stuck in standards; The end of the year forced me to realize I had spent 10 months so caught up in standards, I didn't know my students as well as I should have. Yet another year, it was the accumulation of a year's worth of oppressive paperwork. Regardless of how I landed in the right field of teaching, I had to figure out how to either maneuver within that position or work differently enough to reorient my place on the field. 

And as easily as baseball becomes a metaphor for life, it's just as sure a pathway towards reflecting upon the what has happened within the classrooms that we're packing up at this time of year. How did we play this year? Did we move or were we stuck? Did we get burdened by the things we couldn't control? Did we choose differently?

The value of our game is in the choosing. One of my favorite stories about choosing comes from David Foster Wallace's incredible commencement address to Kenyon University. He begins with a story about two fish.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit and eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?" The point of the fish story is that the most obvious realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.

He reminds us that we have to choose to see what's right in front of us. Whether it's the position we're placed in, the water we swim in or the classrooms we work in, it's movement that matters. It's all vantage points and perspectives, angles and aspects. Movement, even the slightest, can make the most obvious go from overlooked to honored. So I'm beginning my summer reflection with Wallace's proposition: What were my hardest to see, most obvious realities this year? How will I choose to react to them?

Three hours after my best effort at trying to offer some insight to my son's existential malaise, I'm turning off his bedroom light and saying good-night. "Mom? Guess what kind of a son you're going to have tomorrow? One who has a glass half-full."

As David Foster Wallace reminds: This is water. This is water.

 

Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa. She is also the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and Laureate Emeritus for Teaching Channel. You can follow her on Twitter @SarahWessling or catch her weekly advice column for teachers on her website, Open Teaching, at sarahbrownwessling.com

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