By Kip Téllez
When The Plenary editors invited me to submit a post on what I’ve been doing on my sabbatical, I immediately said yes. Of course I wanted to contribute to this exciting new space for sharing our thoughts on “Pedagogy, Practice, and Policy” but self-doubt soon overcame me. I feared that my report would hold no one’s attention. Maybe I should write about something else, something more exciting. I thought about asking the editors if I could switch my topic, but I eventually decided that the exercise might help me to reflect, and that at least one of my activities would be interesting.
I have three primary tasks for my sabbatical, which roughly form my weekly schedule. The first is the writing of a book, the title of which is “The Teaching Instinct: Explorations Into What Makes Us Human.” The manuscript is about 80% finished, but I fear the last 20% will be the toughest, and I wish I could snap my fingers and have it done. Make no mistake, I like to write, but it’s intellectually challenging, difficult work. It’s also lonely, but there is no other way to write than to keep distractions (i.e., other people) at bay and live inside your mind, considering and reconsidering that idea, this phrase, that paragraph. Of course, I can share drafts and get feedback from colleagues, but in the end I have to put the words on the page. My sabbatical has given me the time to write, a time to be lonely and convince myself that the world needs another book. I still don’t know that it does, but it will get one nonetheless.
Task 2: I was selected to edit the journal Teacher Education Quarterly about a year ago. I’ve enjoyed it for the most part, and thanks to a new manuscript submission system, I can handle the work with about 8-14 hours per week. But I also find it emotionally challenging, primarily because I have to tell authors that their work will not be published. Only about 15-20% of all the manuscripts submitted make it into the journal, so the vast majority are rejected. A cadre of 412 reviewers rate the papers (2-3 reviewers per manuscript), but I am the one who has to make the final decision.
On the other hand, I also work with the authors of the papers found worthy of publication. This part is pure joy, because, for academics, receiving news that your paper will be published can be quite emotional, a validation of one’s ideas and hard work. In addition, I get to help put the final touches on the paper, refining the writing and argumentation.
The third task for my sabbatical is substitute teaching, and I wish I had more time for it, but…see above. Why have I taken on this work? I’m not entirely sure myself, but I began my career as an elementary school teacher in a 5th grade class. I remember feeling so alive, and it was the students who inspired me. The majority of the students were native Spanish speakers, about five were recent immigrants from Vietnam; others represented various language backgrounds (e.g, Samoan, Egyptian Arabic). I recall my early teaching years each day I work in education. I have worked in hundreds of classrooms and with thousands of K12 students since, but those first years were the catalyzing and animating force behind all I do, and I developed a passion for education that remains with me still. But I’ve been a professor in higher education for many years, and although I’ve worked to develop many new programs and curricula for schools, I wondered to myself, “Could I still get the kids to line up for lunch?” “Did I still have the ‘eyes in the back of my head’ required to keep an elementary classroom humming?”
I am happy to report that the answer is yes, but teaching is never easy. In one classroom, a particular third grader named Jason, smelling of tobacco smoke, who kept his oversized jacket on all day and just could not stay focused on his assignment, gave me fits. And I freely admit to bribing each class with my guitar: if they stayed on task and were kind to each other, we would sing songs at the end of the day. I don’t know if substitute teaching has been a more valuable sabbatical exercise than writing a book, but it certainly isn’t as lonely.