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.