“Teaching is not a profession. It is a never-ending entry-level vocation, divorced from foundational understandings of training, accountability, and advancement. If we are to enact meaningful reform, we must rescue teaching from its status as vocation and volunteerism, and recast it as a profession of rigor, creativity, and unlimited impact.”
-From “Teaching in the 408”
I had Friday off a couple weeks ago because our district and union couldn’t decide if it should be a paid workday or a furlough. They never made a decision and just told us not to show up. So I went to a Spanish Meet-Up group, to struggle through the language with others just like me. While I was there, I ran into a woman I recognized.
“Didn’t you used to teach at [insert school here]?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she smiled. She had recognized me, but didn’t know from where.
When we established how we knew each other, she introduced me to two of her friends. Our conversation went along nicely, and in the process of it this is what I learned:
She was no longer teaching. She gave that up the year I met her- when I was doing my student teaching. She had moved on to other things. At first she worked for a textbook company working on curriculum. She got into childhood psychology. She is now a school psychologist. She is happier.
The woman, we’ll call her Jo, introduced me to her friends. They were nice, knowledgeable, goal-oriented women who you could tell just from talking to them had achieved a certain amount of success in their lives. They were well-dressed, talked with confidence and swagger, and were good people. What did they all have in common?
All three of them had once been teachers.
When I told them I taught high school, they all frowned at me as if I told them I had a goiter growing in my throat. I’m not trying to say they were aloof, and thought they were above me. Quite the opposite. The three of them were wonderfully supportive. But in the end, they all had to agree- teaching isn’t a profession in the professional sense. It is a sad, volunteer-like day job that stresses you out without compensating you for it.
Jo told me. “I’m back in the classroom, but I’m there helping and observing just a couple kids,” she smiled sadly. “But oh my God, I look at the teacher, and thank my stars I don’t have to be her. I get to go back to my office, use the bathroom, check my email, get a coffee, take an hour lunch, talk to other adults about the job we’re all doing, close my door, and concentrate in silence. It’s weird I even cherish this, because that is what a professional is supposed to do anyway. I just know that isn’t how it is when you’re a teacher.” Jo smiled sadly. “Sometimes after I’m done in a teacher’s classroom, I leave, and I see how the teacher looks at me, and I understand. They have four more hours to go being on their feet, dancing for 34 adolescents. I’ll tell you one thing. I’m just glad I’m not in their shoes anymore.”
I didn’t say much, and nodded politely. What they said didn’t tear me down completely. My year so far is going great, and I’m loving the kids and the job. That doesn’t mean it isn’t stressing me out. But I still get to be in there making a difference in lives, and no matter if Jo gets to pee without calling security, she doesn’t get the satisfaction I do at the end of a hard fought year.
But then again she doesn’t have to. I lay gasping at the end of the year, full of pride with the work I put in for 10 months. But my body is done, and my bank account looks like I didn’t even graduate from high school myself. Jo is relaxed, happy, and compensated all year round.
The quote I used at the beginning of this entry was from one of the most successful blogs about education of all time. But the teacher, TMAO, is no longer teaching either. He has moved on. You can only stare at your tepid pay-scale for so long. If you aren’t feeling what I’m saying, check out what he says about all this.
Here’s my big secret: I took last year off. I had taught for three years, I was burnt out, and I thought I was done with education. My wife and I spent last year in Central and South America. We learned Spanish. I did a lot of writing. It was the kind of year you will remember for always. But a funny thing happened. I began to miss the job. I realized how important the work is. So when I was in Peru, I started blogging about education, and I’m still doing it today.
I’m back in the classroom this year. Things are good, but man the day to day is brutal. I have 34 kids in most of my classes. I’m talking 34 14-year-olds. I’m going to make it through the year. Actually, I’m pretty sure this year is going to be my crowning achievement. I have these kids writing stuff I only dreamed about teaching them a few years ago. Things are great. The problem is, I just don’t think I can keep it up. Not for three more years. Not for five years. Certainly not for a decade.
Isn’t that horrible? To say with such certainty that I will not be teaching a few years from now?
And my buddy at the high school down the street, the one who stays until 7 every day? He told me last week he isn’t going to be able to sustain it. He can’t afford it, both in a monetary sense, and in a quality of life sense. He is doing too much, AND THEY HAVEN’T EVEN TENURED HIM YET. He gets pink-slipped at the end of every year, and even though this is his third year he was hired as temporary again this year. He is an unbelievable teacher, but he will be leaving in a couple years. He just went to an informational session for an Administrative Credential program. Soon, my school district will be losing one of its best teachers.
I don’t mean to get too down on it. When I was talking to Jo and her friends, I did come to a couple valuable conclusions. You know how sometimes you are talking, and in the midst of all the BS you actually blurt out an authentic truth?
I said, “You know, if we just had a little more time to prep. You know, two or three times as much time as we have now, the job would work like it should.” This, I think is a truth. We just need more time. We need prep time. We need time to grade papers. We need time to collaborate with our colleagues. We just need more time to be professionals. Because right now we aren’t. Right now we are chickens running around- our heads were cut off long ago, and we’re so used to being aimless, flapping torsos nobody even notices anymore. We need time to use the bathroom, get a coffee, take a break, check our email, talk to our colleagues, and act like professionals. We need time to just sit and breathe.
I’ll tell you one thing. I am kicking ass this year. But I am also not teaching these kids enough. I am not giving them the feedback they need. I am not doing the job as it should be done. Don’t misunderstand me- I really am kicking ass. I feel like I am doing as good a job as anybody. But with class size, and a lack of prep time, a lack of professional collaboration, with zero professional development, I am willing to admit I should be teaching these kids more. One day I will stop, when my body can’t do it, when my spirit isn’t in it, and when my real kids need new clothes.
Right now the job I have is entry-level vocation. Would you like an example? My district put me through an all-day training for our new textbook from 8-4. At this training, they didn’t even have coffee. Trust me, I wasn’t expecting fruit and bagels- I KNOW how things are in education. But to offer an 8-hour training without coffee, tea, or WATER is unprofessional. I’m sorry, but it is.
But not to worry, because everyone there was a teacher. At the first break we all drove down the street and bought our own coffee with our own money. Hey, we’re used to not being treated like professionals. I guess it’s a good thing we treat ourselves like professionals when we can- even if we know we won’t be doing it forever.