I watch the 1993 movie Groundhog Day every year on...Groundhog Day. I know I am not alone in this ritual.
But Groundhog Day is more than a movie for many of us. It is a touchstone of sorts, albeit a very funny one. And as a teacher, Groundhog Day may be one of several things (books, people, events, students, movies, and songs, among others) that allowed me to get through my first year of teaching. Well, my second first year of teaching. I had one year at a high school before being laid off the week before my wife and I got married. After two years of substituting and holding down about eight part time jobs, I finally landed a second job at a very rural school in August of 1993, a few months after Groundhog Day came out. It was like starting my career all over again, and the reboot wasn't pretty.
I had a group of ninth grade students who informed me that they had gotten a teacher to quit or get fired every year since Kindergarten-- and they had decided that I was next. They almost succeeded in getting me to quit. Anyone who thinks that every child in America is waiting for Superman, is ready and eager to learn if only a committed teacher would come along, should be forced to relive that year. I asked their previous teacher, "How did you handle them last year?"
"I went home and cried every night."
"Oh," I said. "I've been doing that, but it hasn't really helped."
This group of students had an arsenal of anti-teacher weapons that included stink bombs, hogs urine (used in hunting, but also sprinkled liberally around my classroom on more than one occasion), and, one day, a severed chicken head left on my floor. I was spit on; my grade book was stolen and thrown in a boys' room toilet; my license plate was taken off my car and thrown into a ditch. I fell into a fairly serious bout of depression. I would wake up feeling sick to my stomach. On more than one occasion I arrived at school, opened my car door, and threw up in the parking lot. And then went into the building to attempt to teach for the day.
Don't get me wrong-- there were some good students there, too. They were part of what kept me going. One of those students is now the parent of one of the students at my current school, and has turned out to be a delightful grown-up person. But boy, it was tough. How could I keep going, day after day after day after day after day?
And then I saw Groundhog Day on VHS. I had missed it in theaters.
Groundhog Day is not a "teacher movie." Not remotely. But I immediately identified with Phil Connors, who for some inexplicable reason, is forced to relive the same humdrum day on the job over and over again. Some people have estimated he relives it three thousand times, while others estimate he relives it for thousands of years, until he finally gets that one day right. Isn't every day for a teacher somewhat the same as Groundhog Day? Same students all year, same class periods, same procedures? And like Phil, you begin to realize that you can't really change other people-- you can only change you.
I suppose it's a cliche by now, but I don't care: I had just stumbled on the then-new Seven Habits of Highly Effective People at the time, and I realized that Groundhog Day was in part about being "Proactive." I realized that I had to stop reacting, and start acting.
I could use the sameness of the days to my advantage, to experiment, to try to get to know these very strange students in my charge, to try new things, to attempt to keep my sense of humor. I suppose that like Phil, I discovered you can't trick people into responding to you. You end up getting rebuffed repeatedly, as Phil finds out in his initial attempts to woo Rita, his producer.
What Phil discovers is that you can't change other people: only change yourself, but one of the best ways to change yourself is to start helping other people.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie takes place on Phil's last Groundhog Day, when he finally gets the day right. He is coming down the sidewalk checking his watch. He begins running. He arrives under a tree just in time to catch a boy falling from one of its limbs. The kid runs off as soon as Phil places him safely on the ground, and Phil yells after him, "You have never thanked me!"
We only see this event once, but Phil has obviously saved this boy numerous times on numerous identical Groundhog Days. Isn't that kind of what teaching is like? Not a lot of gratitude, and we have to keep catching them when they make the same stupid mistakes over and over again.
But eventually they learn, and we finally get to move onto February third, and a new set of lessons.
Groundhog Day helped me keep my sense of perspective and my sense of humor, and, I suppose, my teaching career. I'd like to say it was like a teacher movie where I triumphantly won over the hearts and minds of all those students. It wasn't like that. But I survived to teach another day, and another, and another, and another. Twenty-one years later, I'm still at it. Some classes still frustrate me, but I no longer throw up in the parking lot or come home and cry.
And all these years later, no matter what school I teach at, what grade levels, students, or materials I teach, on some level I am teaching that same day over and over again, and hoping I get better at it.