Keith Dodge walked swiftly and confidently down the halls of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School to his tidy classroom, where he welcomed first-year teacher Emma Mushnick.
The two English teachers — one retiring, one beginning — sat down with the Gazette to talk about the challenges, joys and journey of teaching.
“The only teaching job I ever applied for was at this high school,” said Mr. Dodge. “I got it and it’s been 26 years.”
His story of moving to the Vineyard is not unusual; he came to visit a friend and fell in love with the place. For 10 summers he waited tables in Edgartown, traveling in the off-season to cities like New York and London, and eventually transitioning from waiter to manager.
“One day I was teaching some bus boys their job, and I realized that maybe I’d rather be a teacher than a restaurateur.”
So at 36 he began his teaching career. Looking back, he feels lucky to have started with so much life experience under his belt.
“I had managed restaurants. I knew how to deal with people. I had staffs of 100. Classroom management, while it’s never easy, it wasn’t as hard at 36 as it would have been at 21.”
Although a few years older than that, Ms. Mushnick is a recent graduate of the University of New Hampshire, where she received both her undergraduate and master’s degrees.
The combination of psychology, English literature and writing classes she chose to take in college paved the way for her decision to seek a teaching degree.
It wasn’t the ocean, the poets or the quaint towns that brought Ms. Mushnick to the Island. It was the position of English teacher in the alternative program at the high school.
“There are not a lot of programs out there like this one, so as a young teacher, this is really appealing,” said Ms. Mushnick.
“It takes someone young and ambitious and willing to uproot themselves, and who finds the Vineyard beautiful,” said Mr. Dodge. “We have had people accept but then say ‘No, I can’t make this work. It’s too expensive. It’s too far away.’ It takes a special person to want to move here.”
Ms. Mushnick laughed and admitted she had never been to the Island before, hailing from Sudbury, Mass.
“I’m from Belmont, a little closer than that,” said Mr. Dodge.
“That’s where my mom grew up,” replied Ms. Mushnick.
“We might have gone to school together. Did she go to Belmont High?” asked Mr. Dodge.
“Yes!” said Ms. Mushnick.
While Mr. Dodge may have rubbed shoulders with Ms. Mushnick’s mother in high school, the two colleagues have much in common despite their age difference, as is evident when they speak of symbolism in The Great Gatsby, Emerson’s transcendentalism and the challenges of teaching.
“Teachers definitely don’t go into teaching for money, that’s for sure,” Ms. Mushnick said. Mr. Dodge recalled the salary drop he experienced as he switched from restaurant manager to teacher.
The race against the clock, too, has both teachers wishing for more hours in a day.
In addition to the daily grading of papers after school, Mr. Dodge has written 44 college recommendations so far this year, each one taking at least an hour and half to finish.
“That’s an extra two weeks worth of work. But it’s a pleasure because it’s such a positive thing you can do for a student,” he said.
“I think that’s the theme of teaching,” said Ms. Mushnick. “It’s time-consuming, but it’s worth it in the end.”
In the alternative program, Ms. Mushnick works with about ten kids in a class at a time, creating project-based lessons for the students. Right now they are working with MVTV to produce personal video essays.
Both teachers stressed the importance of going beyond literature classics and diving into creative writing and communication studies.
“I’m a big believer that writing is the most important skill you teach,” said Mr. Dodge. “I think a lot of people become English teachers because they love books and want to share the love of books with other people. And it’s true. But the skill the students will take with them all their lives is how to express themselves.”
“And the two are so interconnected,” said Ms. Mushnick. “You become better at writing by reading and vice versa.”
The same goes for becoming a better teacher, said Mr. Dodge.
“Get the opportunity to observe other teachers,” he told Ms. Mushnick. In his first few years, Mr. Dodge shared a classroom with other more experienced high school teachers.
“I mostly should have been grading papers, but I was watching them, taking away what was best for me,” he remembered.
Ms. Mushnick replied; “Just like a football or basketball player reflects not just on their own playing, but also on watching the best of the best.”
While Mr. Dodge may be a pro these days, he still remembers his early career.
“The first year is the hardest,” he said. “You don’t hit your stride until 10 years. And you don’t hit your peak for 20 years. It takes that long to feel like you’ve seen most everything.”
But now it seems he’s almost seen enough, as he will be retiring at the end of the school year.
“The last year thing is fun because every time I do something, I savor it a little bit more, even though I’ve always enjoyed my job. But if it’s something I don’t enjoy, I can say, ‘That’s the last time I have to do that!’”
“I thought it would be bittersweet, but mostly it’s sweet,” he added, laughing. “I don’t mean that I won’t miss it. Of course I will miss the kids and the classroom. But I won’t miss correcting papers on the airplane or ferry.”