The Moth in the Jar: Teaching at Midcareer

Polyphemus moth, via http://commons.wikimedia.org

“The mason jar sat on the teacher’s desk; the big moth emerged inside it. The moth had clawed a hole in its hot cocoon and crawled out, as if agonizingly, over the course of an hour, one leg at a time; we children watched around the desk, transfixed. After it emerged, the wet, mashed thing turned around walking on the green jar’s bottom, then painstakingly climbed the twig with which the jar was furnished.

There, at the twig’s top, the moth shook its sodden clumps of wings. When it spread those wings—those beautiful wings—blood would fill their veins, and the birth fluids on the wings’ frail sheets would harden to make them tough as sails. But the moth could not spread its wide wings at all; the jar was too small. The wings could not fill, so they hardened while they were still crumpled from the cocoon.”

Annie Dillard, “The Fixed,” Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I am most likely smack-dab in the middle of my career.  This should be empowering.

But it’s often not.

Sometimes I reminisce about the early teaching days. As a new teacher I was like the caterpillar entering the cocoon–first eating its fill of all the new ideas and advice from mentor teachers, then filled with creative nesting energy of making  a new career.  There was purpose in this frenzy, even if some days it was only frenzy.

Stick around in education long enough and creativity can mature into competence, enthusiasm can mature into knowledge, eagerness can mature into thoughtful deliberation.  Mid-career teachers are ready to metamorphosize into something mature and beautiful. We have outgrown our cocoons.

The system of public education doesn’t know what to do with such educators.  The jar is far too small for us to spread our wings.

Especially if we want to stay in the classroom.

Recently I read this thorough discussion of the options available (or not) for educators who want to lead but do not aspire to become principals or deans. I resonated with so many of the teachers interviewed in this piece.  

Public education is still organized in such a way that often the only way to advance is to leave the classroom and become some type of administrator.

Please hear me: there is nothing wrong with going into administration. We desperately need good principals and central administration, and bless you if this is your calling.

But I don’t think it’s mine.

Administration is a completely different job; all the parts of the job that enervate me–the phone calls, the paperwork, the meetings–would become everyday experiences. I get my energy from being with students and from teaching a subject I love.

So how do teachers who love teaching grow? What happens when we are ready to spread our wings and find the options confining? Perhaps this is why some mid-to-late career teachers appear to be cynical or just phoning it in.  Perhaps they have tried to spread their wings within a too-small jar and have become crippled by the lack of intellectual and creative space.  

Are there alternatives to this path? Are there ways to reclaim the space we need to grow?

In short, absolutely.

The current system (a system that still largely has not acknowledged the end of the Industrial Revolution) of top-down administration and prescriptive professional development creates a jar that is far too small for today’s teachers.   

I believe, however, that the jar is now largely imagined.  

Education is changing, as well it should. Technology is throwing open the doors of our classrooms and our campuses.  In a world where we can network instantly with other educators, even internationally, we no longer need to depend on our local context for professional growth. Today’s culture is one of collaboration and dialogue, and more and more educators are going to expect and demand a voice in their own career development.

I found that growth through joining professional organizations, participating in the National Writing Project, attending conferences, and enrolling in graduate courses.  Through all of these paths, I formed new friendships with mentors and colleagues from all over the country.

I have crawled out of the imaginary jar. I do realize, however, that for some teachers, the jar is less imagined than my own. To teachers who feel trapped or stifled, I admonish you to connect with other educators outside of your context however you can. Join the huge education community on Twitter, follow and converse with other educators in the blogosphere. Get new ideas and make new friends and mentors. Take advantage of the cultural shift toward connection empowered by technology.  

Mid-career teachers,  let’s celebrate the wisdom and confidence that comes from years of experience.  For while I sometimes miss the kudos that new teachers tend to receive, I really don’t miss the long hours it used to take me to accomplish tasks that are easy now. I don’t miss the nerves before I faced each class. I don’t miss not having backup plans for my backup plans. I don’t miss not being able to anticipate nearly every student response.  

Let’s celebrate and share with each other.  We have so much to give.  

Seriously, let’s be friends.  

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4 responses to “The Moth in the Jar: Teaching at Midcareer

  1. Jen, I love how you use that heart wrenching observation by Annie Dillard to illustrate your message. Beautifully stated. Thank you for being part of my PLN. I learn much from our conversations.

  2. Remarkable – I was just telling another retired teacher about the Dillard selection. It was the year-opening reading for my HS juniors, intended for them to reflect upon those unexpected lessons we learn in classrooms. As for mid-career growth, so much depends on teacher initiative to stretch and grab those opportunities, even as we must continue to adapt to new criteria. Fortunately, the local university offered Saturday & summer workshops. Those & NCTE conventions kept MY learning gears sparked, but not without sacrifice of personal time. Good luck!

    • I agree completely with your point about teacher initiative. That seems key to me. I feel sad that so many teachers don’t know where to find the opportunities, but I think that the online community is a great place to start! I just got back from NCTE, and while it takes my time, it’s almost like a vacation in the way I feel so renewed when I get back.

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