ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
Like many teachers around the country, Emily Wylie is getting ready for the first day of school. Of course, some have started already, but for Wylie, that first bell has yet to ring, and she can feel the moment approaching.
EMILY WYLIE: If your child is stressed out about school starting soon, he's not alone.
September sends teachers into a tizzy, too. The stakes are so high. What we do this month makes the year great or terribly difficult, so we act a little crazy. For instance, in September, I become obsessed with appearances and this means that early in the morning, on the first day of school, you will find me crabbing along the floor in a pencil skirt and high heels, cutting out bulletin board letters.
I am wearing pearls. It is the only time of year I think it's a good idea to wear pearls, and makeup - again - a seasonal occurrence. I also have marker on my face, but I am not sweating this because I'm too busy sweating the color of the bulletin board paper, the fonts on my syllabus, the placement of my Rosie (unintelligible) poster, my family photos - all of which I am sure will make my new students love or reject me.
Even my voice undergoes a transformation. In September, it's a full octave lower, and I'm using it until I sound sort of like Kathleen Turner. I talk a lot in September, way more than I do in my normal practice. But September demands it. All this hot air is completing a truly vital task - inflating the giant illusion of my authority.
I can't skip this step. My kids' learning in a group depends in part upon them giving me control of the classroom. That sounds sort of fascist. But anyone who's ever learned from a teacher knows that the relationship isn't democratic. And the alternative is worse. Kids are going to give someone leadership, so it's better they give it to me, the adult, rather than to some fellow teenager who can't even govern herself.
I mean, "Avoiding Lord of the Flies," though, I also have to help my students feel good that I'm leading them. They have to come to believe that I'm, well, more than them. They have to believe I have greater capabilities, more knowledge, more patience, more personality than they do. It's an illusion, of course, but I work hard in September to create it for all our sakes.
SIEGEL: collecting gum, cell phones, non-uniform clothing, passed notes, like a medieval friar taking bribes.
I have a lot of talks in the hallway. And I talk on the telephone with parents often in September - for the good stuff and the bad stuff. It feels like I never go home.
It's not a slow burn teaching. You have to paddle really hard in the beginning - not so you can rest on your oars, but so that you can get down to real teaching and learning as soon as possible and actually get somewhere with your kids.
I lose my mind a little every year, and this coming September won't be an exception. Maybe this time, though, I won't wear the pearls.
SIEGEL: Emily Wylie is a public school teacher in East Harlem. Her first day of class is next Tuesday.
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