I’m a Teacher. I Win.

Follow any current news outlet online and you’ll find at least one article a day, sometimes reposted from other sites, written by a teacher who is sick of it all, who’s thrown in the towel after trying (and trying) to come to terms with a career that doesn’t earn the respect professionals deserve. The pay sucks. The hours are long. The stakes are too high. The pressure is enormous. The parents don’t trust us. The government doesn’t trust us. The public doesn’t think we know what we’re doing. It’s enough to drive a teacher to drink – or worse: to quit teaching.

But I’m not doing that.

Twenty years ago, I was an English major with hopes of becoming the next great novelist and short story writer. I had started college two years before as an elementary education major, but surviving the first education class (Music in the Classroom) secured my belief that I wanted to be anything in the world EXCEPT a teacher. There was NO way I was going to play piano, guitar, or recorder in my classroom; and there was certainly no way I was going to sing nursery rhymes and math concepts with my students. There was absolutely no way I was going to deal with snotty noses and peed pants or someone who sucked his six year-old thumb. So I changed schools and majors as fast as I could.

What does one do with a degree in English, I was asked several times. Law school, maybe? Yeah. Maybe. Journalism? Eh. Perhaps, though I’d have to switch majors again. Teach college English? Probably not unless I went on to an advanced degree. But, at age nineteen, I liked reading and writing, and I was good at both. Needless to say, my fallback became my eventual career even though it was the last thing I wanted to do.

Now, seventeen years into that career, I see articles about republican candidates wanting to “punch” teachers’ unions “in the mouth,” and states like Kansas killing teachers’ due process rights in favor of getting “rid” of “ineffective” or “bad” teachers. I read daily about another way the federal and state legislatures are making it more difficult for teachers to do their jobs; and behind the scenes, we see students with greater needs every year. From poverty to mental illness, our classrooms are filled with a range of issues affecting more and more children, both diagnosed and not.

A teacher’s job is not simply teaching the curriculum these days, though I don’t think it ever has been just about teaching the curriculum. Good teachers – which are MOST teachers – will tell you that they wear many hats in the classroom: mentor, mother, father, counselor, social worker, mediator, nurse, advocate, and on good days, teacher.

Teaching has never been a Monday-Friday, 9-5 job. It is a twenty-four hour, seven days a week, 365 days a year job. If we aren’t in direct contact with present or past students, we are thinking about them. We dream about them, we watch for them in the news, we drop off books they forgot to pick up for summer reading, we bring them food because we know they will not have eaten any breakfast this morning and may not eat any dinner tonight. We coach and sponsor their teams and clubs – sometimes for absolutely no money at all – and we stay late to help them with academic and social problems whenever they need us. Sometimes we forego our own family time to help them out because we think of them as our kids, too.

And for all these reasons, teaching is exhausting.

Teaching is thankless at times, too. It’s rare to get a thank-you note from a student or parent when we’ve gone above and beyond our duty, but we don’t expect one. We do our best because we know 160+ someones a year are counting on us to do it.

We join teacher unions and professional associations to have our own and our kids’ voices heard. We pay for the peace of mind that an organization has our backs if we run into a snag. We also know that this organization will NOT protect us if we are the ones who do something stupid to jeopardize our jobs and reputations. Unions do not help protect “bad” teachers; they protect the good ones whose voices aren’t heard over the bloviating of those who would see our public schools turned into privatized money-makers.

We drudge through the muck of ever-rotating reform movements in curriculum and administration. We suffer through endless trash-talking from political “experts” and government officials. We listen at school board meetings when cuts are being made in the classroom but another top-level administrative position worth a six-figure salary is created. We watch good teachers leave the profession at staggering rates with early retirement incentives or when they just can’t handle the demands anymore.

But I refuse to leave.

I refuse to bow down to the name-calling, the mudslinging, of those who think they know what education is all about because they once went to school and have a skewed idea of what it looked like thirty or forty years ago – you know, about the time Pink Floyd was telling teachers to “leave them kids alone” because we are so awful and full of spite and have a sickening grudge against the very kids we teach.

Teachers aren’t like that. Maybe in the UK in the 1940s and ’50s they were, but here in America in the 21st Century? Teaching is the most nurturing profession you’ll find. We aren’t here for the money; we aren’t looking to climb any corporate ladder and stepping on others to get there; we aren’t competing for promotions or accolades or, well, anything. Yet we’ve got legislators and reformers who think we should be competing, that our wages (especially if we teach in the high-demand areas of STEM) should be competitive and based on our “effectiveness” in the classroom (i.e. test scores).

Some teachers are leaving because they see the writing on the wall: teaching is turning into a competitive blood bath. Just like the corporate world, district officials would rather have “fresh” blood than pay an experienced teacher’s salary. In fact, many pop-up online schools are outsourcing teachers. Why have a building to maintain when all you need is one teacher teaching five different preps to 200+ students online? And charter schools? Oh, lawdy. We can hire non-certified teachers to teach low-income students who’ve been “chosen” to attend this school, use federal and state taxpayer dollars to deliver sub-standard teaching and then close up shop when those legislators who paved the way catch wind that your students aren’t scoring better or even as well as the kids in the regular public schools.

Teaching is a tough profession, and it isn’t for the faint of heart. You cannot be a milquetoast teacher and survive more than a week. I’ve seen it happen on more than one occasion that a first-year teacher runs crying from the job within days or weeks of starting. The expectations are endless, and there’s no room for major screw-ups. You can’t leave a class of thirty ninth graders to go use the restroom even if you’re about to pee your pants. Better call and wait for someone to pinch hit. You can’t tell a kid what you really think; you’d have the parents and an administrator calling for your head on a platter faster than you can blink. Think about how fast a text message is sent. That’s about how long it will take for your job to be gone, even if you do have due process (what some like to refer to as “tenure”).

But I’m not leaving until I am darn good and ready. I’m not scared of the pundits. I’m not scared of big money. I’m not scared of the parents who threaten to sue me because I mentioned a book that alludes to controversial subjects. I’m not scared of lawmakers who want to do away with all my supposed power as a teacher. I’m not scared of new curriculum or new tests. I’m not scared of possible school shootings. I’m not scared of the students who have a juvenile criminal record longer than their arm. I’m not scared of the reputation raping corporate American interests have committed in order to push their agenda. I’m not scared of union-busting thugs that think they can bully their way into our schools.

And I’m not scared of losing my job because I write and speak out about it.

I’m a teacher. I do my job despite, and IN SPITE of all of those who make my job harder to do. I’m one stubborn woman, and I will not kowtow to the pressure. I will not play their game. I will not be coerced or threatened by ignorance and greed. I am a teacher. I fight ignorance and greed every day, and you know what? I win.

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Thank Goodness My Husband Chases Storms…?

I knew on Thursday that my trip home from Little Rock today might be dicey. I considered, very briefly, to come home last night to avoid the potential danger I could face driving up the Missouri/Kansas border to my home in Kansas City. That (would-be) 7-hour drive (6 hours for ol’ Lead Foot here) was supposed to be smack-dab in the middle of the moderate risk area. Anyone who follows storms like my husband does (literally, he follows them, the fool), will tell you that moderate risk days are not to be trifled with. [ugh, dangling participle]

Mother Nature wasn’t playing around today either.

I made the fortuitous, and educated, decision to leave Little Rock before nine this morning. I only drove through one moderate downpour, and had virtually no issues with rain otherwise, except leaving my gas cap off for 120 miles during said downpour .

Around 1:30, my husband contacted me to ask where I was. “Lamar (MO),” I told him.

“Don’t stop,” he replied. “There’s a storm coming up behind you going about 60 miles per hour.”

“Not a problem. It’ll never catch me!”

(Please don’t tell the cops, but my speed was between 83 and 88 miles per hour nearly the entire trip. I’m not bragging, and if my mother ever reads this, she will no doubt reprimand her 40 year-old daughter, but I am admitting my guilt. Like I said, please don’t tell the highway patrol.)

I was right. I missed all the weather. I missed the tornadoes (plural) that ran along Highway 40 on which I had just sped, my satellite radio blasting, just a few hours prior. I missed the mayhem, the disaster, the lives lost, the property destroyed.

And for that, I thank my crazy, adrenaline-riddled husband who chases storms and worries me constantly every spring. That dumbass (and I mean that lovingly) kept me from harm’s way. Guess he wants to keep me around a little longer.

Probably because he needed clean socks.

What Does A Writer Feel Like?

Today was a spectacular day. I met, spoke with, shook hands with, and ultimately became a fan of 7 different authors. As each one spoke, I felt myself lifting out of the body of a sometimes bitter high school teacher and settling into the writer I know I am. Highlights are as follows:

10:00am – Panel with Curtis Sittenfield, author of Prep, American Wife, and Sisterland, and Mona Simpson, author of Anywhere But Here and Casebook. Each spoke frankly about writing when trying to raise kids and have a “normal” life. Sittenfield seemed so down-to-earth, as if she would be the mom who reluctantly volunteers for able sales and PTA events because she feels guilty her kids are often under-represented in the social stratosphere of suburbia. Mona Simpson, whose children are older, is a professor whose students probably hang on every word. Of course, these are assumptions based on the panel discussion, but I can understand Sittenfield’s balancing act as she tries to carve out time for her young children while sticking to publishing deadlines and book tours like she is on now.

11:30am – Mary Beth Keane, author of Fever (fictionalized account of Typhoid Mary that I cannot wait to read) and Wiley Cash, author of This Dark Road to Mercy. Both authors are new to me. Unlike Simpson and Sittenfield, whose books I’ve read most of, these are two writers whose work has flown beneath my radar, but I attended the panel because both novels sounded interesting, and so did the blurb about the discussion on the festival website. I was enthralled. Absolutely enraptured with their discussion. Cash has a smart, Southern boy charm; Keane is intelligent, and I could tell she wasn’t entirely comfortable with speaking before crowds. Fortunately, it wasn’t a large one, and she warmed to our little audience quickly when talking about her book. One could tell she had much to say about class, about social mobility and construction in the Victorian Era, and how we are so quick to make villains out of people who, through no fault of their own, become public enemy number one. Cash’s description of North Carolina and of his characters left me wanting more. When I handed my copy of his book to him to sign, I was terribly tongue-tied, but was able to squeak out my name and the correct spelling of it. Just a little literary crush. Nothing to see here. Move along.

2:30pm – Panel of authors and editor of The Shoe Burnin’, stories written by a group of Southern writers who gather annually to sit by the fire, burn shoes, and share stories. This was the most entertaining panel of the day, as married writers Joe Formichella and Suzanne Hudson, along with Shari Smith, discussed the inception of the book and musical CD that accompanies it. They spoke with humor about things great and small, and I became an instant fan. None of them had I ever heard of before today, but I will purposefully seek out their writings from now on. That Suzanne Hudson is a quietly dark writer with whom I feel the upmost literary and professional connection. She has just retired from teaching high school English and Spanish, and I could just tell we would have much in common discussing the problems of public education today. Her husband Joe kept the discussion light, and Shari Smith cracked us all up with her Southern flair for everything funny. Their stories could have gone on all day and I would have stayed until my bladder burst or my ears bled.

I spent far too much money on books, and I need a new bookshelf to hold all of my autographed copies so I don’t mistreat or lend them to others. I just couldn’t!

My reader’s cup overfloweth, but my inkwell is freshly filled, and I am ready to get down and dirty with writing. Maybe one day I will be invited to be a panelist. That is my sincerest wish. Hopefully I won’t have to wait until retirement.

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Arkansas Drivers Don’t Yield

Sweeping generalization, I know, but after being cut off mercilessly no fewer than 5 times between Conway and Little Rock (a span of about 25 highway miles, nearly all of which are currently under construction) by four semi trucks and one bright green Kia with no hubcaps and sporting the name Torres across the back windshield in a “Traditional Gothic” font (I looked that shit up), I can make this generalization with a slight bit of authority, however hyperbolic it may be.

Despite the six-point-five hour drive, I made it to downtown Little Rock for the literary festival. As I write this, my forty year-old feet are propped up to bring the blood back into the reaches of my circulatory system and out of my ankles. That is a long-ass drive.

The area around my downtown hotel is filled with people – thriving, one might say. I circled the block before arriving (because I honestly did not know where to park) and saw two restaurant patios full of almost middle-aged people like myself and baby boomers. (Technically, I realize I am middle-aged, but I still think of my parents when someone says the term, so give me a few more months to get used to it, OK?)

I am here on a quest of self-discovery. The festival is an excuse to step out of my comfort zone. I booked the hotel and pre-paid months ago so I couldn’t back out. Last night and this morning, I probably would have had I not paid our hard-earned money on the reservation.

My anxiety level is tremendously high – or it was this morning before I left and last night before I finally fell asleep. I know I have issues with crowds and with being by myself in a crowd and with doing things alone in general. A few years ago I had an anxiety attack trying to register at a Jazzercise convention. Too many other women around, too little air to breathe. I didn’t make it into the convention room before I was out of breath and sweating as if I had just worked out with Judi Sheppard Missett herself. I went to my car and drove home from the hotel where it was held in tears. I lost money on the registration at the convention, and that pissed me off.

Last summer I suffered one trying to find a parking spot to meet a friend for an outdoor Shakespearean play. I texted my friend, told her I was sick, and I went home instead of getting out of the car. I sobbed all the way to the house then, too. My husband consoled me, but I felt like a loser. Such simple tasks, and I couldn’t do them.

Turning forty probably wasn’t the catalyst for this sudden desire to finally put on my big girl pants and do something on my own, but it certainly is a motivator. I am learning about anxiety, and my need to overcome it without medicating myself into the blue nothingness (as antidepressant drugs made me feel when I had postpartum depression years ago). I will conquer this shit, and I’m starting today. Now.

I need to do this, to step out into the evening air in downtown Little Rock and see the sights, to taste what it has to offer. Only then can I get up again tomorrow and navigate the city streets to listen and learn from writers with more guts than I currently have with the hope of gaining some of my own.

Fortunately, it is all within walking distance, and I won’t have to deal with those crazy Arkansas drivers until Sunday.

Big Girl Trips

I haven’t ever been on my own. Not really. I had roommates in college, a live-in boyfriend during and after (who eventually became my husband), and a baby a year after getting my degree. When baby daddy and I separated for a little while while we both got our shit together, I still had the baby almost every night, so I can confidently say that I have spent maybe a dozen nights alone in my life.

What is an independent woman of 40 supposed to do when she wants to be alone – truly alone – for a few days?

She takes a road trip by her ever-loving self, that’s what.

In fewer than two days, I will get in my car and drive away, far away, from my family and job. I will spend most of the daylight hours in the car, but when I arrive, I will check into a hotel, grab my laptop and my purse, and head outdoors to a literary festival. I’m going to go pick the brains of writers I’ve never heard of. I’m going to listen and soak up the literary genius and the hackneyed advice alike. I am going to sit in caf├ęs, visit a presidential library, and write. No laundry, no dishes, no papers to grade. Just me, myself, and my thoughts…along with a few thousand other people attending the same festival.

I will be on my own for the first time in 40 years, if only for a couple days, and I couldn’t be more excited.

Stay tuned…

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Overworked and Underpaid but Livin' It Up Anyway