I am a classroom teacher and I just turned forty years old.
No one will let me whine about it out loud. You see, my teenage students will tease me endlessly—albeit lovingly—if I let on about this vast chasm of insecurity pertaining to my age. My elders, of course, won’t offer a single modicum of empathy for obvious reasons.
But here’s the truth: I hated turning forty. And there is no qualification to my disdain and absolutely no way to pacify this sensation of dread. Yes, I know, I know. It’s hip and vogue and empowering to embrace one’s age. I had a boisterous birthday dinner. I took a once-in-a-lifetime summer trip with my extraordinary family.
But nothing mollified the jaggedness of my entry to middle age.
“Forty is the new….” Right? No. Forty is forty and I have become keenly aware this summer that my life is probably half over. I am vain enough to let this bother me, greedy enough that it saddens me, and most tragically, shallow enough that I slightly resent it. My late thirties certainly adumbrated what was to come. Losing weight all of a sudden required quasi-starvation. My body no longer took mental cues very well. My hearing has become suspect lately; I find myself asking students to repeat themselves more than I used to as I lean towards them and cup my ears à la Dumbo.
No, forty isn’t much fun thus far.
But at least I’m not lying about it. I’m not in denial. Call it a begrudging if stupefying acceptance.
But as the August calendar crescendos towards the opening of yet another school year and I face the daunting reality of teaching students as a forty-year-old man for the very first time, something splendid and unexpected has occurred. From this newly entrenched perch of middle age I can now look back on my teaching career from a different perspective, a vantage point which has afforded me embers of hope about the decades that lie ahead.
Teachers in their twenties are simply trying to orient themselves to the voracious responsibilities of the teaching profession—from the mundane (credentialing, school policies, grading procedures) to the consequential (what do I want to teach, do I want to stay in this profession, how do I actually have the impact I hope to have). Teaching in my twenties was a circuitous journey of creation and refinement ad infinitum until the artifice of professionalism began to solidify beneath my feet.
Teachers in their thirties begin to sharpen the clay of their careers into something more distinct and personal. They begin to lay the foundation for the totem of their careers. How do they want to define themselves as educational professionals? Do they want to become mentors to younger teachers? Do they want to go to state conferences and work on writing new curriculum? Do they want to eventually leave the classroom and enter administration? Do they want to become consultants or educational speakers? Do they want to be known more as a “coach” than as a teacher? The beauty of education is there are a plethora of nooks from which to plant professional seeds.
So what about teachers in their forties?
They’ve mastered the orientation process, they’ve chosen their clay, so now what? This is the good news I’ve stumbled upon this summer: broadly speaking, teachers in their forties are at the peak of their powers, their prime, their apex and apogee. Survey the National and State Teachers of the Year. Think back to your best teachers when you were a student. Read a best-selling book about teaching or classroom instruction. Chances are, you’ll encounter someone in their forties.
We teachers in our forties have experience aplenty, but we also have energy and verve and vim to reach and redefine. We still feel the electrification of grand ambition. Whatever goals we set and whatever dreams we construct in our thirties, will come to fruition—if they ever do—in our forties. It is here where we enter the Golden Age of our careers, a decade, hopefully, of our teaching corpus from which we will extract our greatest lessons and have a truly enduring impact on our students.
On this score, we teachers are a fortunate brood. Female gymnasts peak as teenagers. Physicists are passé by the time they reach thirty. Just ask Einstein who couldn’t accept the cosmological consequences of his own youthful insights. Carl Jung labeled the years around one’s fortieth birthday as the “noon of life” and he argued that they were decisive in the psychological journey of any human being. This decade sets the trajectory for the second half of life. If one decides to bemoan the loss of youth, wallow in the reality of wrinkles and caterwaul about low testosterone levels, then the rest of one’s journey is likely to be an extended exercise of excessive and even fictitious sentimentality.
A great many of my friends are in their fifties and the topic of retirement is never far from their lips. And maybe, just maybe, a decade from now I will understand their eagerness for the splendors of a pension. But for now, I still want to be a better teacher. I want to create anew. I want to write words that make a difference, teach lessons that edify, and contribute to my community in a way that is both significant and substantial.
But this much is certain: in the days ahead, I will try to remember just how lucky I am to be forty in a classroom.
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