The Frog in the Caldron…

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I teach four high school Advanced Placement courses in two different disciplines, in addition to two other college prep English classes. Starting January I will also teach one undergrad college course on Monday nights, and in February I will teach a Masters’ Degree class on Wednesday evenings. (This is after my day job.) Around that time I will also be giving my final exams to my daytime classes and have to have them graded by the end of the next week.
I have a whole slew of regular essays to grade, in addition to 57 research papers to read and assess which average about 25 pages each. I have to review my notes, plan my lessons, and deliver lectures as well as I can. I still have 14 more college letters of recommendation to write for former students. There are deadlines that if missed will not hurt some company’s profit margin but will hurt real human beings I care deeply about – and I cannot pass any of this work to anyone else. I would rather cut my own arm off than give my AP students less than my very best every day.
I maintain a myriad of sometimes very complex relationships with my students. If deeply rewarding, it is deeply exhausting. If there are many of them, there is only one of me. Give, give, give, give. There is no end to what I could give and still not have it done perfectly.
It seems I have gotten progressively busier over the past few years. Little by little it has accumulated; and as I have been capable of more work through greater expertise and professional experience, I have acquired more work. It is like the frog that will jump out a boiling caldron if submerged all at once, yet will allow itself to be boiled alive if the temperature rises only gradually. And the years they pass each one more quickly until one can hardly believe it. The past classes begin to mix together. “Was Julia in the high school class that are currently sophomores or freshman in college?” “If I taught Eryn in 1998 and she was in middle school at the time, would she almost be graduating from college now? [picture me counting on my fingers..!]”
I remember turning 16 or 21 was a big deal. I sometimes have to check in with my wife about exactly how old I am nowadays. Perhaps it is just that the in the late thirties birthdays are particularly pointless. Who cares? Nothing much changes. And am I really in my twelfth year of teaching already? Or thirteenth? It is all getting a bit blurry… I sometimes see even my very best friends only once or twice a year, if that. How sad! My wondeful wife sometimes complains that all we do is work. A part of me wants to tell her that is what grown up adults do. A part of me is sympathetic.
But one thing seems crystal clear: as I have gotten older, I live less and less for myself and more and more for others. Perhaps that is normal and even the way it should be, but it is so hard to find balance between one’s obligations to others and one’s obligations to oneself. It seems clear that to work oneself to death is easier than it appears. (It all gets a bit beyond one’s control, seemingly.) One tries to juggle more and more as one gets better at juggling. But no one gets more hands with which to juggle, and nobody gets more time in the day to get it all done.
The time it leaves and is lost forever. Sometimes I look back at the year 1978 and it seems so long ago. Other times it seems like just yesterday! Sometimes I look at all the painful moments from middle school until middle age and it has been a very long road. Other times 17 years appears to have passed in a snap of the fingers! Have I spent my time well? Have I squandered it? One realizes life is short, not long. Am I essentially the same person I was then? Or am I a completely different person with maturity? How about when I turn 60?
I remember clearly in 1978 (in seventh grade at the time) that the year 2000 seemed forever in the future. I would be 32 years old! But the celebrations revolving around the milennium and the hubub over the Y2K computer-bug crisis are already in a past epoch of my life. I no longer think 38 years of age is very old, relatively speaking. Seventy years olds speak of a man of fifty having died as a terrible tragedy: “So young!” Yet neither is 38 very young.
So it goes with the World Wide Web, too. Unlike when my personal webpage first debuted nine years ago, the Internet is no longer so young. But have I made the most of my online presence?
My personal webpage now has a new and vastly superior hosting service. My old webhosting company was obscenely expensive and provided horrible service, but (alas!) I was too busy to do much about it – and the years passed by. No longer. In addition, the scourge of Spam e-mail killed any joy I might have gotten out of contact with strangers over the Web: I received hundreds of messages per day with only a very light sprinkling of real e-mail. My “inbox” was overwhelmed. Checking my personal e-mail became unpleasurable and I did it less and less. Checking my e-mail was one long stream of hitting the “delete” key over and over again, and only God knows how much legitimate e-mail got lost in the mix. Yet I checked my work e-mail every hour on the hour. My work webpage took on proportions much larger than my personal one ever did. (How symbolic is that!)
But I have extravagant, complex new anti-Spam strategies that have stopped that plague dead in its tracks! I have this blog installed and up and running. Re-working and updating everything, little by little. Loading files to servers little by little. Navigation bars and CSS sheets where appropriate. Many small steps add up over time. I have some things to say to the world.
Baby steps. Baby steps.
But, by God!, I will get some stuff published onto my re-vamped personal website over these next few weeks! I will make some time for myself – something I have not done in years. “Doctor, heal thyself!”
Just you wait and see.
So let it begin in earnest.


  • Julea

    Hi Rich, I found your site while doing a google search on “Venice” images. You’ve got a lovely image of a couple romancing on a gondola – I think. But I was captured by your eloquent writing much more. I too am a teacher and, though I have only been teaching 9 months, I completely understand the piles (and therefore hours) of homework to grade, the special care that goes into communicating with each student, and the seemingly dire and endless search for balance with one’s personal life, to find a place to fuel the inner fire. You’ve got quite a bit of admiral stamina in taking on all that you do. I wish you luck in finding a way to that work/home balance. Life is indeed short and should not be taken for granted.
    Thanks for the insight and perspective. It’s comforting to know that I am not alone in my feelings as a teacher and also as a person who wants to make sure that I spend this life in the best way possible.
    Warm regards, Julea

  • Sean

    Upon reading the name on this comment, you may become slightly disgruntled I’ve found your blog. Please trust, however, that I won’t fill it up with random questions about chapter packets or DBQ’s.
    When reading this last post, different things struck me different ways. Firstly, it is quite hard to miss the daunting list of what tasks you are entrusted with (essays, Jefferson Papers, college classes). I realize that while writing that, a certain “sinking” feeling arose, did it not? Keep in mind that your work is far from “in vain”. Do you realize what book I purchased directly after I turned the “__________ Project”? Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis! Not many people can get me so interested that I want to keep learning about a topic after writing a 25-page paper. Also, the college recommendation letters are testaments to your effects on students past. I guarantee you “other” teachers on the campus don’t receive that many, if any at all.
    The second piece that entrapped my attention was your line, “as I have gotten older, I live less and less for myself and more and more for others”, which got me thinking about our group of students. These kids are already living more and more for other people. Obligations such as school, work, and sports all place trust on the shoulders of these students – and trust and expectations, can be one of the heaviest burdens to bare. Having people expect the world out of you means you have to deliver the world. For example, my Thanksgiving break has become virtually non-existent. I quite literally work every day (Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Peet’s, and Thursday [Thanksgiving, no less] at County Memorial Hospital). I am in no way saying that your students have just as much to accomplish as you, but I think a lot of us have already begun that phase of maturation, to begin living for others, as you have noted. So why? Why do we place such obligations upon ourselves? After all, we do determine what is expected of us, do we not? It’s all a matter of choice and character. Both of us can surly leave all of our expectations and burn many bridges, but would that be in anyone’s interest? I have made a clear decision, that in my life, I do not want to be one thing. I do not want to “grow up” to be a doctor, but rather, see what the entire world has to offer. In eighth grade, I actually had dreams of owning a sandwich shop. Imagine that? What if I followed that one dream? If I grew up, did “okay” in school, and owned a mediocre sandwich shops. Alexander Hamilton, The Newburgh Conspiracy and Shay’s Rebellion would all be replaced with pastrami, wheat bread and chopped tomatoes. The reason I have moved on from the notion of owning a sandwich shop is because I have set higher goals for MYSELF. The expectations put upon ourselves by other people are relative to the expectations we put upon ourselves. Mr. Geib, we work hard, because we WANT to do so, for whatever reason (success, appreciation, self-fulfillment…).
    At any rate, this is simply what I believe. You may disagree or fully support, but either way, keep these thoughts in mind. Is there an end to what you can do? Has it been perfect? Maybe, maybe not. But every student you help out adds up. Do you realize you’ve had almost 200 American Experience students? How intelligent a flock, you have…
    -Sean Campos

  • Mr. Geib

    Sean – I do see how busy (overwhelmed?) so many high school students are today. Perhaps that is why “The American Experience” works – an intense and stressed out instructor can connect with intense and stressed out students. Everyone is on the same page. Teacher and students want to learn; teacher and student care deeply about reading and writing at a deep level; teacher and students CHOSE to take the hardest path. As Jyoti wrote in her poem last week, “Stress is my caffeine!” Amen, sister! Boredom, and classes that are too easy and full of “busy work,” equals death. One always needs a challenge.
    My motto always seems to have been, “If you are going to be a bear, be a grizzly!” If I jointed the Army, I would be a Ranger. If you are going to commit to something, you might as well do it the very best you can. If not, what is the point? (Why be on a losing team?) But if students have to do their homework, so do teachers. I could hardly ask students to work harder than I myself am willing to work! There is only one place to lead: from the front, from one’s example. As Emerson once said, “Who you are screams so loudly I cannot hear what you say.” Huzzah!
    Yet you may have noted when I tell students in my e-mails to do nothing during a certain weekend but rest with family and laugh with friends, I might also be trying to talk to myself. I sometimes worry in Advanced Placement classes that I am “modeling” unhealthy and unbalanced approaches to working and living. Many things I do as a teacher I do not necessarily because I believe in them but because “the system” forces me to… I make my compromises, without selling my soul. (Perhaps no veteran teacher can say otherwise.)
    And the whole hyper-competitive college application circus makes me angrier and angrier every year. I sometimes feel in playing a part in it I am participating in something I think is not in my student’s ultimate best interests; but that finally would be a very complex conversation…. Despite all the compromises, teaching “The American Experience” and watching students learn feels “right” to me in my gut. I cannot say so much for the seventh through twelfth grade rat race for ambitious students and GPAs and SATs and ACTs and APs and competing to get into Stanford. Too often, students learn not because they want to know more or think deeply but to garner grades and jump through hoops – that is not real learning. It is resume padding.
    Getting an “A” in a class does not mean one has really learned.
    But the bottom line is I so enjoy my days in the classroom, and ninety minutes each day seems to fly by as the weeks and months blur byr….well, there just never is enough time. I often leave meetings with other adults dealing with school politics and policy issues with a sigh of relief to close my door so I can just be with my students – I prefer the latter so much more to the former —
    — because students like yourself chose to take my class, that is.
    All the enthusiastic scouting reports Chadd gave to me last spring about you have proven true, Mr. Campos.
    Enjoy the rest of your weekend.
    Mr. Geib
    P.S. Believe me when I tell you that if AP classes are the most rewarding I have ever taught, that they are always intellectual exciting for me, and I will stop teaching them one day only with great reluctance – I sometimes fantasize about that day when I give them up.
    The release from the constant pressure year after year, the stack after stack of essays to assess… and my wife would go plenty further than that! She would dance for joy the day I gave those classes up!
    And/but where would I go from there?

  • Chelsea

    “Because Mister when you’re up there rattling on heaven’s gate, all they’ll want to know is what you gave.”
    -Ben Harper
    I am positive that your offerings will be returned tenfold, Geib. If knowledge is life, and you are a teacher, I believe that would qualify you as a giver of life Mr. Geib. You give life to us!!! You’re an amazing teacher Geib, definitely THE best I’ve had. And I think that the entire AP class will agree with me that you’ve become more than just a teacher, but you’ve also become a friend. Perhaps everything you’ve given, are giving, and will give is how you must live your life. I would hope that you recieve just as much as you put into your work, Geib; because you’ve amazed us all. You are amazing Geib-AMAZING. You seriously kick major ass…and if that doesnt describe how awesome you are (in teenage terms) then I just don’t know what.
    Anyway, I’m glad to see that your site is up and running; here’s to getting lost in the wwg! (world wide geib)