R. Brandon Horner
It is almost 9:00 at night when my wife sits down at our dining room table to begin the homework I assigned that morning. Just to be clear, she’s not a member of my seventh-grade Literature class— she’s a teacher at the same school, and she’s taken it upon herself to complete a project I’ve given my students as we read The Tempest.
I’ve taught the play for over a decade, and each year I try to keep it fresh by working in or swapping out an assignment or two. This year, I ordered a few hundred tiny wooden ﬁgures from Amazon and planned to have each student assemble her or his own cast of characters by painting and dressing each one as they are introduced in the play. In my mind, it would be a fun, creative thing for them to do, a lower-stakes assignment that might allow for some of them to earn a high grade during a difﬁcult unit of study. And as we block out scenes, they can have them out on their desks and arrange them as necessary. Something that will distract them when necessary and turn a daunting text into an opportunity for creativity. I don’t want to stiﬂe them.
Fun, right? Just order the ﬁgures, give them the general idea, let them run with it.
My wife disagreed. They needed a model, she told me, an exemplar. So, during a free period, I took one of the ﬁgures down to the art room and created my own little wooden Prospero. When I showed it to her, she took a moment before she responded.
“That’s nice,” she said. “But maybe I should make the rest.”
She spent hours crafting a set of ten characters that I’d keep on my desk, all for an assignment on a play she’s never taught. The difference between my work and hers was laughable. I had drawn what was supposed to be a cape on my Prospero, coloring it in with a fading purple marker, the colors bleeding sloppily; her Miranda wore a gown with a sheer overlay, her hair in a French braid made from gift wrapping twine.
It did not take long for my students to tell which Horner had made which.
“That’s terrible,” they said, pointing to my Prospero. “Those are Mrs. Horner’s,” pointing to the rest. These are the things that good teachers do, this is the behind-the-scenes work that they often speak of with pride and determination, the long weekend hours spent grading papers, the early mornings they meet with students to offer extra help. The job, when done by the best of us, can only be entirely consuming. My wife takes it to the level where she’s working on assignments for other teacher’s students.
As a middle school teacher married to another middle school teacher (who teaches in the same department, often with the same students), it’s difﬁcult to ﬁnd a time when we’re not talking or thinking about school. It’s been the setting for our entire lives together; we ﬁrst met when she interviewed at our school almost ten years ago. Our oldest child just ﬁnished his ﬁrst year in the school’s nursery program. Our classrooms are separated by a short hallway. We’re as entrenched as you can be.
Given how close we work with one another and how similar our jobs can be, we’re remarkably different teachers. Usually, students have me ﬁrst, in seventh grade, before my wife teaches them in eighth grade. I do my best to get them ready for her, but one of the things I’ve learned over the years is how we each have different learning priorities when it comes to our students, and that’s okay.
The students ask if we talk about them at home. Of course we do! The most rewarding of these conversations are when we get excited about passing students to each other. “You’re going to love her,” I say. And often, she does. But our differences as teachers and advisors go far beyond our approach to the arts and crafts of the Tempest ﬁgures. There are other times when students who click with me don’t gel with my wife, or when a student will take to the structure of my wife’s classes more than the loose, conversational tone of mine. I get a kick out of students who throw their weight around a bit—the ones who push back and challenge, who have a bit of an attitude. (I could never imagine being that way in middle school, and so I ﬁnd it fascinating.) She admires curiosity and earnestness, the ones who embrace the challenge of every assignment, who get excited.
At a teacher’s conference, I once heard an alarming anecdote: that a recent study found that, of all jobs, teaching requires more “critical decisions” than any other profession save one, air trafﬁc controller. And there are times when I’m in the classroom and I feel as if I’m a conductor, leading a kind of orchestra but without any musical arrangements in front of me, directing and nudging and steering a literature conversation in a way that makes my students want to listen and be heard at the same time. When this goes well, it’s exhilarating and the 50-minute period passes in a moment. But there are days when it doesn’t go well, because of things I can control or things I cannot, and it takes all my energy to keep an honest face because no one spots a fake better than a 13-year- old. On these occasions, I power through, and as soon as the period is over, I walk down the hall to my wife’s room, and she’s nice enough to let me vent for a few minutes.
Being married to another teacher gives our lives an odd quality; it can be isolating. Neither of us knows what it’s like to work 12 months of the year. Last week, we had dinner with friends and I asked the husband what he had done that day. “I went to work,” he said, a little confused by my question. It was a Friday in July. It never would have occurred to me.
Certainly, there are times when we have to put down a dinner table decree and agree to set aside any talk of school. But it never lasts long. We love school! We love the rhythms of the calendar. We love the children. We still believe we are remarkably lucky that money appears in our bank account because we get to talk to them about stories. That we get to do that around each other, to collaborate and bounce ideas off each other, and that we also get to see plainly the differences in our approach to the job—these are perks on top of it all.
Yes, there are nights when we’re up late preparing for our classes, or for each other’s. But it’s well worth it.
Editor’s Note: Brandon Horner teaches middle school English at The Rumson Country Day School along with his wife, Cara. He also serves as Head of Secondary School Placement for RCDS.