“Is it June yet?”
These were the first words I heard when I started teaching middle school English in Brooklyn in 2000. One of my colleagues, Mr. N, a veteran math teacher of 32 years, started every September asking,”Is it June yet?” and then repeating the joke throughout the year. Of course, the joke was actually a complaint about having to work, and it spoke a truth internalized by most people: vacation is better than work, and work is drudgery. It’s an idea that I myself internalized long before I started working: taking time off is fun and school is hard. I ignored the many times I was engaged and having fun at school or work, and the many times I complained while on vacation.
What has shifted for me over the past few years is learning how to be fully engaged wherever I am, whether it’s at work or whether it’s at play. Taking seminars and listening to podcasts by Ariel and Shya Kane, I’ve learned to be present during work rather than looking forward to an imaginary weekend or vacation that isn’t here yet. And when I’m resting or on vacation, I’ve learned how to be where I am rather than thinking about work, or finding new complaints about my vacation. The Kanes’ Being Here podcasts like “Work as Play” have changed the way I approach both my work and my time off.
I had the experience of “work as play” the other day. Around the time I was ready to leave, a math teacher came into my office. “Can I ask you about something?” she asked.
“Of course,” I said, having no idea what to expect. Did she have a personal issue? A problem with a student? A request for time off?
“OK.” She sat down and opened up her computer to some recent lesson plans. “My geometry students are having trouble solving problems with angles where a line intersects a parallelogram.”
I was definitely not expecting this. My mind initially went to “I never taught geometry. How could I possibly help?”
The thought quickly passed and I saw my truth: although I have never taught geometry, I was intrigued by the problem and felt honored to be asked for help. We sat at a table and started looking at the problems together. I asked questions about how the students approached the work and where they got stuck, and we got engaged in fun ways to help the students see the problems differently. We created a silly acronym to help students memorize different lines and angles. I felt like I was getting to play. The experience reawakened my own passion for teaching.
Mr. N, the “Is it June yet?” teacher, also had a passion for teaching. As a first-year teacher, I saw his passion when I visited his classroom: he made the students laugh, he found simple ways to break down complex math problems, and all of his students were on-task and working. Yes, Mr. N was also a “joking” complainer in the classroom with a gruff exterior, but at the same time, he was a gifted teacher. As a new teacher, I remember wishing my class was as productive as his. When he retired two years later, the school community gave him a standing ovation at graduation.
I don’t know that Mr. N was ever fully able to enjoy his gifts as a teacher or see the difference he made with students– or with me. Despite my novice state as a teacher, I always felt respected by him. When Mr. N retired, we kept in touch and I saw him find a new set of complaints about retirement. He was normal. I’m grateful to have known Mr. N, and I’m also grateful that I have discovered a “new normal” in which I can fully enjoy work anytime of year, without wishing that it’s June.