On Not Returning to School After Thirty-Five Years in the Classroom: What Did the Teacher Learn After All That Time in the Classroom?

Jim Burke, a former English teacher at Middle College at the College of San Mateo, taught for over thirty-five years, and has written more than twenty-five books about teaching and literacy. He has received numerous awards, including the Exemplary Leadership Award from the National Council of Teachers of English and the Distinguished Service Award from the California Association of Teachers of English. In addition to his commitment to his own classroom, he has served as an advisor for the College Board’s Advanced Placement English Language and Literature Courses and Exams Review Commission.  

Author: Jim Burke

Every August for the last thirty-five years, I have spent the weeks leading up to the first day of school in my office, out on the deck in our backyard, or (more likely) at a cafe in our neighborhood in San Francisco where we live in a house my wife’s grandfather bought in 1916 for less than my last official paycheck as a teacher in 2022.  

The title of my Norton anthology, Uncharted Territory, has proven to be a rather fitting description of the educational landscape of our profession and my experience within it over these years. Looking back at those years, I am reminded of Antonio Machado’s poem in which he declares, “Traveler, there is no path. We make the path by walking it.” As the “The Path” illustration (p. 698 of Uncharted 2e) reminds us, though, things rarely go the way we think they will; or, as I would sometimes tell my students, the story we want our lives to tell is rarely the one we end up living. 

If you were to look at my transcript from high school (pg. 7 in Uncharted), it would require a great leap of faith and imagination to accept the possibility that that student who, in 1979, graduated near the bottom of his class would become an English teacher and, over time, an author, and, eventually, the editor of a Norton anthology titled Uncharted Territory. I have made an effort throughout my career in the classroom to keep the student that I was in mind, for we all need to remember that who our students are now does not necessarily determine or even hint at what they might go on to do. Thus I did my best to teach every student as if they might go on to do great things, for though not all of them will, we cannot know which ones will. Each student is on their own timeline in life. 

Not having classes to prepare for or students to get to know before the first day back puts me in a bit of a reflective mood about what it means to be a teacher now (in my specific case, an English teacher), so many years after I taught my first class in 1988 as a student teacher at Lowell High School and San Francisco State University, where I earned my teaching credential. It’s hard to resist the impulse to draw some conclusions (as indicated by the bold formatting) what I learned along the way that might be of some use to you in the year to come. 

During my semester of student teaching, we still used ditto machines, the electric-powered model if you got there early and were lucky. There was a photocopy machine, but each teacher received one ream of paper per semester to use in the copy machine (and student teachers received neither paper nor permission to use the copy machine). Computers were mostly the original Apple 2e models or the MacPlus, which had no hard drive and thus required a tiresome process of swapping floppy disks to save, format, or print documents. Nor, of course, did we have the Internet. Or cell phones. I did, however, have the tremendous blessing of having Pat Hanlon as my mentor teacher. Despite the limits of her little Apple IIc, she showed me early on what technology could do through her multimedia project Grapevine: An Excursion into Steinbeck Country, which she created using the program HyperCard and then assembled onto a laser disc. No one would be impressed today if they saw it; in 1988 it was a revelation. She showed me what it meant to be driven by your own curiosity to learn and bring your students along for the ride. She taught me through her example that, whatever we are doing as teachers, we are always teaching, because the students are always watching, listening, and learning. 

Had you told me in 1989 when I took my first job at Castro Valley High School (starting salary: $16,000) that I would spend most of my penultimate year “online” using a device called a “laptop” or an “iPad” or even a “smartphone,” to teach through a program called Zoom on a thing called the “internet” to meet with my students, most of whom were 16-year-old girls, while they were in their bedroom, often in bed, during a global pandemic—well, I would have thought you were just nuts or had been reading too many Philip K. Dick novels or watched the Matrix movies one too many times. Had you told me that in the last year of my career our country would endure an unprecedented number of school shootings, I would not have believed you. Yet all of these events and so many others—too often tragedies, but real triumphs as well—have taught me that our work calls us to be there for our kids above all else, whether that means comforting them during times of loss or celebrating their achievements and growth, creating units that inspire and choosing texts that invite them to explore the world as well as themselves and each other. 

I have also learned, often the hard way, to accept and learn from failure: it has important lessons to teach you if you can muster the courage needed to look at and listen to those moments or the people involved. The very first time I ever taught, I failed utterly. I don’t mean I was bad; I mean that when I turned toward the chalkboard (yes, a chalkboard) to write the subject for that day’s class, I froze, I blanked, was erased like people in the old Men in Black movies. The harder and longer I stared at the chalkboard, as if I could summon by sheer will the lesson I had spent over a week developing with such care, the more apparent it was that it was gone, at least for that day’s class. Behind me, I heard the quiet, somewhat appalled voice of my master teacher and head of the composition program, Bill Robinson, say, “That will be all for today, class. We will reconvene on Thursday.” Returning to take another shot at the lesson two days later, I succeeded in teaching it; however, when I asked Bill Robinson what he thought, he just shook his head, looked at the floor as we walked down the crowded hall, and said, “You have a lot to learn.”  

And I did. And I still do. And I always will. 

Because one of the other lessons that I learned early on, from all of my many mentors, was to stay alive to my own learning, to embrace the idea that perfection is not possible for teachers, though moments of great teaching are always around the corner. That lesson that becomes an exploding clown cigar in one period may evolve into a beautiful bouquet the next, often for no specific reason that you can identify. As a mentor once wrote to me after I had been in the classroom for a few years, “Isn’t it amazing that we get to do this job that we know we will never quite get right no matter how hard we try or how long we work at it?!” I knew exactly what she meant and agreed entirely. For me, though, this idea of staying alive to and protecting my own love of learning has manifested itself for the most part through my commitment to keep reading over the years, for to be reading is to be in conversation with ourselves, our profession, our culture, our colleagues, and, of course, our kids. Want a great example of what it looks like to commit to always improving your practice? Read this remarkable essay by Atul Gawande in which he writes about hiring his old medical school professor to observe and critique his technique in the operating room years later. 

This commitment to reading has a very specific source, though, one that has stayed with me since my earliest days in the profession: mentors. Whether they are found in the books we read, online forums we turn to, or colleagues in our own departments or schools, we all need mentors at every step of our journey—even after we have begun to mentor others on theirs. People like Carol Jago would ask me early on what I was reading and I would reply: “No time! All those papers!” But she would give me a look, say something like, “People find time for what is important to them.” Soon I subscribed to the New Yorker so that when she asked me if I had read some essay by Jamaica Kincaid or David Denby I could say I had and feel how much I had learned, how hungry I was to read and grow more. As Diane McClain, one of my other mentors for years at Burlingame High School, would say, “Everyone needs a few people they cannot stand the idea of disappointing.”  

Such mentors, and I have been blessed with many at every stage of my own career, show us what is possible, challenge us to do more (if we listen to and let them), to do better because they see the potential in us that we too often cannot see in ourselves. I should add here that I have always trusted my students to be among my most important teachers; to that end, I have always asked for their thoughts about what they need, how I can improve, and so on. 

Of course all that I have said so far demands a tremendous investment of time and energy. Each year comes with its own demands that accompany that stage of your life. Teachers need time to have fun, find love, make friends, enjoy family. My wife and I had three kids (who are now 30, 27, and 23!). The second of these, Whitman, was born a month early, each of our fathers dying (as we knew they would) only weeks before and after his birth. All of that happened within the first weeks of school. Years later, my wife’s mother moved in with us, so my wife left the classroom to care for her up till the present day (she will turn 96 soon!). Our kids all played sports, danced, took up instruments, and had all the playdates and birthday parties and sleepovers that go along with those years. I caught a bit of cancer one year that we had not exactly planned for. But through it all, we made family and fun a priority. This meant sometimes grading papers in the bleachers during the Little League game so we could be there or spending a little less time on a lesson here or there so we could spend a little more time reading bedtime stories or helping with homework. My point is that you cannot teach well if you are not well, which is to say that your job is not just to make a living but to make a life for yourself and those in your care. As Regie Routman, another mentor of mine, told me years ago: Do interesting things! Interesting people make interesting teachers! The papers will still be there when you get back from the dinner, the play, the lecture, the baseball game! 

But you also want to find those areas of the profession to which you can contribute what is yours to offer. Before I wrote, I took on responsibilities as legislative liaison for English teachers in California; accepted early invitations to participate in the discussions that led to the NCTE English Language Arts Standards; helped evaluate state tests and other documents for equity and access issues to remove bias. All of that happened because I got involved in professional organizations and joined the larger professional conversations. Whether it was the College Board inviting me to contribute to the new AP English frameworks or the Pre-AP English program, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards asking me to help develop those guidelines, people on the California Association of Teachers of English asking me to join the board, or people at NCTE inviting me to join a conversation about how to engage the next generation of teachers—whatever it was, I tried to find a way to say Yes, please! Why? Because it deepened my experience as a teacher, validated my own learning by giving me ways to share it, and always improved my teaching in some important way that benefited my students. 

One year, that summer when our fathers were dying and our second son was on his way, I was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) fellowship at the University of Wisconsin. Over the course of that summer, sitting around a table at the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh with mostly nuns (who knew there could be so many different types and personalities?!), I studied the Book of Psalms as poetry. During that time, we read the work of Walter Brueggemann, who sorted the psalms into three types: psalms of Orientation (thank You for all You have given me), psalms of Disorientation (please help me to get through these trials), and psalms of New Orientation (thank You for helping me get through that period of trials).  

My own study of the psalms that summer was very personal and secular. Still, sitting most days in the library of the apartment we were renting from a professor whose parents had endured the Nazi occupation, I would read the psalms while I looked at the yellow star his mother had been forced to wear, now encased in glass on his desk. And I would think of our fathers slipping into the last months of their lives, both of whom had insisted we go to Wisconsin, that we live our lives, enjoy our children. And I would think of my own work as a teacher and how those three stages of Orientation-Disorientation-New Orientation (ODONO) captured so perfectly my journey those first five years of teaching (and the subsequent thirty). Eventually, I adapted Brueggemann’s ideas into my own model, one I have continued to think about and use in my classes and my own life as a compass of sorts to help me make sense of life, literature, and learning.  

I thought I would end by including my version of the ODONO cycle here as a way to sum up what I have learned along the way and share what has helped me love the work that it has been my great blessing to spend my life doing and enjoying up until the last day I did it, on May 26, 2022. 

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