So where do they go, all the teachers, when the bell rings at 3 o'clock?
When you're a kid, you don't really think they go anywhere. Except home, maybe, to grade papers and plan lessons and think up pop quizzes.
And when you find out otherwise, it's a strange experience. Many people remember it vividly: the disorienting feeling of encountering your teacher in the grocery store, or in the line at McDonald's, talking and acting just like other grownups. A jarring reminder that they have lives outside the classroom.
But of course teachers go off and do all sorts of things: They write books and play music and run for office and start businesses. For some, a life outside the classroom is an economic necessity. In many states, more than 1 in 5 teachers has a second job.
For others, it's a natural outgrowth of their lives as educators: the drama teacher performing in community theater, the history teacher/Civil War re-enactor, the music teacher onstage at open-mic night.
And still others have some private passion that has nothing to do with teaching or school — it may be the thing that keeps them fresh and fired up when they are in the classroom.
So where do they go when the 3:00 bell rings? To answer that, we begin today our new project, The Secret Lives of Teachers.
'Art Brings Me Back'
For Mathias "Spider" Schergen, his Secret Life plays out in a one-car garage out back of his house in Southwest Chicago.
He turned it into a studio, a crowded place full of lumber and wood and paint and scrap metal and odd things like shoes and fabric. Stuff that he fashions into art.
"The art brings me back to my thinking and reflection," he says.
Schergen, 61, is slender and muscular — his most notable feature, perhaps, his tattoos of spiders. They're part of a persona that he has created — "Mr. Spider" — that year after year his students at Jenner Elementary Academy of the Arts find mysterious and fascinating.
He has taught there for 21 years, through good times and bad. Once, the school stood in the shadow of the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects in one of the city's most violent and dangerous neighborhoods. Now, the projects are gone and the school is surrounded by new developments.
Still, it draws many children from the surrounding neighborhood: 98 percent African-American, 96 percent (low income) free and reduced lunch.
I first met Schergen seven years ago, on a reporting trip for a story about great teachers and how they keep their teaching fresh year after year. In class, he has a persona: He exudes coolness and confidence, joking with the students, firmly keeping them on task.
Over dinner at his home, he's a different guy. Quiet, soft-spoken, deferential.
"I'm a loner kind of guy," he says. And he needs the time in his studio to square those two sides of his personality.
"As my life has changed, and I've found I'm not so harried, my interest and my aesthetic have reflected that." He's now making work that's more colorful and more connected to other people.
He recently started transforming objects that other people have discarded or overlooked. He wants to tell the stories that might be hidden in a forgotten shoe or a child's headboard covered in stickers.
He says he can't remember a day when he didn't spend time in his studio. When he's there, cutting and clipping and gluing and assembling, time doesn't exist. "If we didn't call him inside, he would never come in," says his wife, Vanessa.
He says his time in the studio has a strong connection to his time in the classroom.
"The relationship is symbiotic," he explains, "they both affect one another and they both affect me."
He carries his thoughts from Jenner with him when he works out back. "I can usually work out issues I've been having during school," he says. "I think of different ways to look at something, and I often realize there's a completely difference approach I should be taking with a student."
NPR's Elissa Nadworny contributed to this report.