I always seem to be surrounded by teachers. My mom is a teacher. Some of my best friends are teachers. Many of my other relatives—aunts, uncles, cousins, grandmother—are or were teachers.
I am not a teacher, although there was a time as a kid when I thought I might like to be. You know why I’m not? Because I know I couldn’t handle it. And after talking with the teachers I know as school starts up again this year, I’m even more convinced that I wouldn’t survive a week as a teacher.
So you can imagine how much I hate it when I hear people insult teachers or talk as if their jobs are easy. You want to know what teachers have to deal with on a daily basis? Here’s just a small sample of it:
-I have fond memories of reading books as a class—we read Stone Fox in third grade, The Witch of Blackbird Pond in fifth grade, etc. In a lot of school districts, this is no longer part of the curriculum. Why, you ask? Effing MCAS. That’s Massachusetts’ state testing, but every state has state-wide testing, and since performance on it reflects on the district, everything revolves around it. Creative writing, which was my favorite part of elementary school? Forget it. My friend’s curriculum director actually said to her once, “Why would you teach the students to connect with what they’re reading? That’s not going to be on MCAS.” The same friend’s superintendent greeted all the teachers on their first day of school by yelling at them that they still weren’t at the highest MCAS level. Oh, and in that same school system, they eliminated an entire year of social studies due to, you guessed it, MCAS.
-Teachers all need to get their master’s degree. If they get it before they start teaching, districts have to pay them more, which makes them less hirable. However, if they get it while they’re working, they have to work full time while also taking classes. And once teachers have their teaching licenses and master’s degrees, they’re not anywhere near done taking classes. They have to take all kinds of classes to keep their licenses up-to-date, some of questionable value. One certain relative of mine spent months whining about a class she was taking on brain-based education (quoth another certain relative: “As opposed to what? Ass-based?”). And these aren’t quick, two-hour seminars—they’re multi-week, 30+ hour classes that teachers take while working full-time.
-Another thing teachers have to deal with now that wasn’t as much of an issue when I was a kid is an increasing number of students with special needs. Full inclusion wasn’t as big of a movement when I was a kid, but there’s a big push for it now. I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of inclusion, but I will say that teachers now have to deal with more students with autism, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, ADHD, mental health issues, the works. Even with help from special education teachers, it can create a lot of challenges. My friend had to evacuate her classroom multiple times when a kid with severe behavioral problems started throwing chairs. If a student is on an individualized education plan, the teacher has to meet with parents and special education teachers many times to discuss the student’s progress—and has to do this for every single student on an ed plan.
-And then there are the parents. The helicopter parents who won’t leave the teacher alone, wanting to know every single thing going on in class and why their kid only got a B+. The parents who yell at the teacher after their kid blatantly lies to them. The parents who can’t believe their little angel is an asshole in school. One of my friends had a parent yell at her because she wouldn’t let her son have his cell phone with him during MCAS (which is a state rule). At the other end of the spectrum, there are also, sadly, some parents who are abusive or neglectful, whom teachers are legally obligated to report to the authorities.
-If you’re one of those people who bitches about how “teachers only work until three” or “teachers get the whole summer off,” do me a favor and punch yourself in the face. Want to know how wrong you are? Let’s start with hours. A new teacher is often encouraged to be an advisor or a coach, which means lots of after-school time. Teachers do most, if not all, of their lesson planning and grading after school, and it usually adds up to way more than a typical 9-5 job. And many teachers don’t get the summer off—because they make so little money to begin with, they take summer jobs. Some even have second jobs during the school year. And not only do teachers not make much money, because districts are cash-strapped, they have often have to buy supplies for their classrooms with their own money.
-And speaking of cash-strapped districts, job security as a teacher? For the first three years, it’s non-existent. The odds are good that a teacher will be laid off after that first year—maybe being re-hired after receiving the pink slip, but maybe not. One friend was laid off and re-hired her first year teaching, then laid off for real after two full years of putting a boatload of time and energy into a difficult inner-city teaching job. Another was laid off, rehired, and almost laid off again after her first year teaching—although by that time, understandably, she’d opted to find another job in a different district. After three years, a teacher is granted tenure and becomes immune to layoffs, but if that teacher ever wants or needs to leave the school district, he or she will have to start over with zero job security somewhere new. That is, if anyone will hire him/her—teachers with more experience are less hirable due to the district having to pay them more.
-There are lots of other things teachers have to deal with as well. Like being paid as a part-time rather than full-time teacher because you’re teaching five high school classes instead of six. (Happened to a friend of mine.) Or having to take over another teacher’s classes because he was fired for sending inappropriate text messages (ditto). Or spending months or years trying to negotiate a new teachers’ contract just to raise your salaries to the average for the area in which you live (happened to a relative). Or dealing with education policy laws that are created by people who’ve never taught before. Or barely having ten minutes to scarf down lunch every day. And zillions of other things that I can’t think of off the top of my head.
Are there bad teachers out there? Absolutely. There are people in every profession who aren’t good at what they do—bad doctors, bad lawyers, bad waiters, bad salespeople. And while in Massachusetts teachers can be fired with cause after they have tenure, that’s not the case in a lot of other places, which I think is a mistake.
The dialogue about what’s wrong with schools today often focuses, I think wrongly, on bad teachers. There’s talk of paying teachers more for getting better results—and results, of course, are measured by standardized tests, with no regard for the specific populations a teacher serves or how well the teachers at a school work together as a team or progress made in a classroom that can’t be tangibly quantified.
Here are some better questions: what makes good teachers leave? How can we attract intelligent, competent, caring people to teaching jobs? What do teachers themselvesfeel could help them do their job more effectively? What do we want the goal of teaching to be—high test scores, or students who love the knowledge and understanding they’ve gained and will go on to do great things in the world?
We all, hopefully, had great teachers through the years whom we remember and admire. I’d love to think that if I ever have kids, they’ll have teachers like that, too, and that those teachers will love their jobs and going to school every day. Most of the teachers I know say that they love the teaching part of teaching and love their students—it’s the rest of the crap they have to deal with that they hate, and sometimes good teachers leave the profession because that crap gets so overwhelming.
So as one small step toward improving education in this country—can we at least give some appreciation to the people who devote their lives to educating kids? There are all kinds of things that teachers deserve that they aren’t getting, but since it may be awhile before there’s fair pay, job security, money for school supplies, support when things get tough, or measuring progress without teaching to a test, for now, we can show teachers the respect they so richly deserve.