When Morton students convene for the first day of school Wednesday, Jan Martin won't be there to greet a new batch of students in her classroom. She's a retired Lettie Brown Elementary School teacher now, a description that Martin is still adjusting to after 27 years of being known as the first or second grade teacher at the Morton school.
Across the river on that same day, Hayden McMahon will oversee his own classroom for the first time when students at Harrison Community Learning Center file into music class. The 27-year-old Georgia native was hired this summer to teach music from kindergarten through sixth grade at the South Peoria school, following a move to the area with his fiancee, a dietetic intern with OSF HealthCare.
The dawn of a new school year introduces dozens of fresh-faced new students to every school, replacing the ones who departed only a few months earlier. Teachers come and go at those same schools every year, too.
Martin, 62, called the responsibility of educating and looking after children for nearly 30 years an "awesome" one that required dedication and perseverance. Each day also had its humor and surprises and encouragement. McMahon doesn't quite know what to expect yet entering his first year as a teacher, but his guiding principle is to not leave the next generation worse off than the ones that preceded them.
It all starts Wednesday.
"Nothing beats the first day of school," Martin said.
Class back in session
Every year, the night before the school year started wasn't a restful one for Martin.
"I never slept before the first day of school," Martin said. "I was just so nervous."
For teachers, the weeks leading up to the first day are anxiety-wracked days of preparation that don't compare to many other professions. In essence, Martin said, a teacher goes on vacation for a few months and then returns to work with people they know virtually nothing about. Every name tag assigned to a desk represented a brand new person she would learn about for the next nine months.
But it didn't take long on that first day to discern the nature of her new students.
"I knew in about a half-hour what type of year I was going to have," Martin said.
McMahon won't even have a half-hour with his class on Wednesday — the heat schedule in Peoria Public Schools dismisses one hour earlier for the first two weeks of the year, reducing class time to 25 minutes.
For weeks, he has planned out exactly what he wants to do in those first 25 minutes. The students will enter the classroom to the sound of music. He'll have them say their names, something about themselves and what music or individual artist they like. They'll go over the rules of the classroom and then finish with a fun musical exercise.
McMahon also expressed some nervousness in anticipation of Wednesday, particularly about it being his first time as a teacher. He was around academics in his time as the graduate assistant with two college marching bands — at the University of Mississippi and University of Alabama — and volunteered in elementary school classrooms during that time.
"It will be different being on my own," McMahon said.
His morning routine includes a two-mile run and a post-run breakfast of a banana and glass of milk. He doesn't plan to deviate from that regiment Wednesday.
"As long as I get two miles in, I should be good," McMahon said.
Changes over time
The current educational landscape that McMahon is inheriting has incrementally transformed over the past three decades of Martin's career.
She has observed the workload of teachers expand as state mandates on student test scores and other achievement standards have increased. And technological advances have become more and more intertwined with the classroom, though that's something she never shied away from.
But the advent of email might have fomented the most change. With emails pouring in around the clock amid lesson plans and grading, Martin said teaching can almost be considered a 24-7 occupation, especially as the recent trend of being more available to parents has gained momentum. Martin marveled at the time stamps of some of the emails from parents late at night or in the wee hours of the morning.
The pressure on a teacher mounts over time, and then erupts at some point during the school year.
"When I felt overwhelmed, I took small heart in seeing the younger teachers looking the same," Martin admitted.
Martin tries to stress to younger colleagues an ethos of self-care as well as seeking out experienced teachers to be mentors. In prioritizing their students — or "their kids" as teachers affectionately and tellingly refer to them sometimes — the inclination is to continue the instruction and care for the students well after the final bell rings at the end of the day.
"You do what you can do with that child during the day," Martin said. "But you can't follow them home. That's easier said than done."
At least initially, McMahon won't be letting too many of those concerns follow him home after the school day. He's in the final stages of planning his Sept. 1 wedding in Alabama, and most of his free time has been dedicated toward the never-ending checklist intrinsic to that big day. But he knows the impulse of wanting the best for students.
"I want to be able to help them and not necessarily just in music," McMahon said. "A teacher isn't just a teacher — you have to put on many hats."
Grappling with the prospect of a school shooting has emerged as the newest burden for teachers. Martin doesn't recall schools performing lockdown training in her early years of teaching; now it's part of the annual calendar. She knows how to lock the door, jam the handle and then barricade the entrance to the classroom as preventative measures.
And she's noticed a change in the children, too. Instead of the squirming that occurs in fire and tornado drills, the students quietly and seriously huddle to one side of the room for the lockdown training, seemingly knowing the importance of the exercise.
In the first week of training, McMahon learned some of the procedures in place for PPS schools and noticed the many signs posted around the school. Mostly, he's prepared himself to act decisively and calmly if any emergency were to arise.
"No matter what the situation, I don't want the students to panic because I don't know what to do," McMahon said.
A teacher's legacy
Martin compared the school year to a treadmill, stepping on in August and stepping off in May after jogging at faster and slower paces. It's difficult to know what impression a teacher made on their students while that treadmill keeps churning.
McMahon can remember the ones from his formative years in school. His third grade teacher sent his class home every weekend with a riddle to solve, and those with the correct answers received a prize upon returning Monday. In high school, the final of his three school band directors instilled in McMahon a love of music and may well be the reason he's now a music teacher and not a veterinarian. He wants to pass on that same appreciation to at least some of his new students.
In her final year of teaching, Martin discovered some of impressions she left over the years. It started from the outset last August when one of her former pupils from her first grade class took a position as the sixth grade teacher at Lettie Brown. Lacey Scholl vividly recalled how loving and kind Martin was as her first grade teacher and how that warmth extended throughout the rest of her elementary years at Lettie Brown.
When she returned as a teacher, Scholl found that little had changed. Mrs. Martin — Scholl insisted on calling her that instead of Jan, out of respect — supported her in subtle ways. Sometimes it was a small gift that popped up on her desk, sometimes it was a smile in the hallway when she was having a bad day.
"And she always made me feel like I was doing a good job," Scholl said.
On the final day of school last May, an all-school assembly was called to honor her. Her pupils wrote down and then said aloud the things they remembered about here. The responses ranged from "I always liked your jewelry" to "You made me feel better when my dog died."
"You never realize in the moment what impression you're making on the kids," Martin said, acknowledging how many tears were shed that day.
She gave serious thought to skipping town for the week to distance herself from the first day of school festivities. But she decided against that tact and will now be subscribing to the self-care she might have neglected in years past — by treating herself to a spa day on Wednesday.
Thomas Bruch can be reached at 686-3262 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasBruch.