Every spring I re-read the poem, Prayers of a Mad Farmer by Wendell Berry:
At the start of spring I open a trench
In the ground. I put into it
The winter’s accumulation of paper,
Pages I do not want to read
Again, useless words, fragments,
Errors. And I put into it
The contents of the outhouse:
Light of the sun, growth of the ground,
Finished with one of their journeys.
To the sky, to the wind, then,
And to the faithful trees, I confess
My sins: that I have not been happy
Enough, considering my good luck;
Have listened to too much noise;
Have been inattentive to wonders;
Have lusted after praise.
And then upon the gathered refuse
Of mind and body, I close the trench.
Folding shut against the dark,
The deathless earth. Beneath that seal
The old escapes into the new
Teaching, like farming is a seasonal activity. That is not by coincidence. The school calendar is of course a holdover from the agrarian calendar. There is often talk of changing schooling to a year-round calendar. I don’t know if that will ever happen, nor do I know if that would be a good thing or not. And this post isn’t intended to be a post one way or the other about that issue.
For my rhythm and habits, I have a hard time imagining the school calendar not following the agrarian calendar. I’m not even advocating that it is the best system. But I know this. When spring comes, I feel as though I have turned a corner. When the chickadees start singing their territorial call, which I hear as an announcement of “spriiiing-time,” the snow melts (usually), the green patches appear, and the migratory birds appear, I review the Wendell Berry poem. Good teaching requires good reflection.
This poem causes me to explore my “sins” as described by Berry. In particular, I reflect upon these in reference to my teaching. Without that reflection I don’t know that I would continue to improve as a teacher. Good teaching is emotionally exhausting. Caring for and worrying about the needs of dozens, maybe even hundreds of individuals, done well can’t not be emotionally exhausting. And anything this difficult can’t be done without making some errors that one would like to bury away in a trench. Some years I need trench large enough to warrant a backhoe!
So spring is threatening to appear—it hasn’t quite fought off winter yet here in the north, but the days are longer, and the chickadees are singing for mates already—so that is something anyway. And it is time to begin trench-digging and reflection. For me, it begins in the spring, and culminates during the summer. The summer is not about taking time off, but about taking time on to reflect, rebuild, and recharge. Reflect on what went well and what did not, rebuild curriculum and courses to continually improve, and recharge emotionally so that I can care and worry about all my students as individuals come fall.
Now, come on spring, let’s see some green.