The question isn’t so much why do I teach? It’s after everything, why are you still a teacher?
I have been asked many times throughout my career: Why are you still a teacher then? This question usually comes after I give a litany of reasons that illustrate how undervalued/underpaid teachers are. More than likely, it was my response to a critique of how much “vacation time” I have off according to someone with four weeks paid vacation and a salary double mine. Sorry, I digress.
The question comes after people realize that in the eight years that I’ve been at one school, I’ve gotten a raise two of those years. The question arises when I have to explain that politicians are the worst things to happen to education in the last decade. I’ve been asked this question countless times. It used to bother me. It used to send me into a spiral of doubt, insecurity, and uncertainty. The first time I was asked that question, I was rocked to my core. Why the hell am I still teaching when there are so many negatives to this job?
The scanty salary increases, the time spent at work outside of contractual hours, the general disrespect from non-educators are just a few. But when I think deeper about this question, I seriously wonder what the heck I’m doing five days a week for a about one fifth of my life.
Oh, we’ve all gotten that email. THAT email from THAT parent that makes you question your worth in all aspects of life, including outside of teaching. The email that makes you feel so inferior upon first read that you cannot do anything else but perseverate on the text, line by line, word by word, for more than a week. For you non-educators out there, you just don’t understand. I’d have to publish one of these “nasty-grams” as we call them in the biz for you to truly understand. The parents who accuse you of not being qualified, not being worthy, not understanding children, not having a child’s best interest at heart. The goal of THAT email, if it comes to you, is to debilitate you. To leave you in the fetal position sucking your thumb as you worry if this parent will really be able to take your license away because they are just that angry and that committed to making you regret holding their child in for recess detention. Oh, it’s real, people. It’s very real. Parental lies and spewing of absolute hatred are not uncommon for even the best teacher. There are parents out there who are always ready to strike and the poker is always red hot.
It’s after a colleague or I receive this email that I seriously ask: Why do I still teach? Why am I sticking around? I’m in a profession where I am required to bite my tongue and not even fight back. I’m in a profession where literally anyone who has ever attended school is more of an “expert” than me. Why do I still teach?
Oh, we’ve been held more accountable for student failure than the parents of that child. The question is never “What is being done at home to help?”, the question is “Why isn’t my child learning in school?” The implication is that the education of a child comes solely from the teacher during school hours, and in the presence of outdated resources on a 90 degree summer day with no air conditioning. The teacher cringes at the fact that the parent takes no ownership over their child’s learning and success. The parent doesn’t understand that YouTube, while it is a form of education, is not going to teach your child word recognition, reading skills or mathematical concepts; make-up tutorials, video game hacks, and song lyrics, yes. Actual education, not really.
When I’m the only one who is being held accountable for a child’s “success” according to the archaic grading system of A or B or F, I ask myself: Why am I still teaching? This is my job, but is it what I signed on to do? To be the sole teacher of the children because their home-life is filled with video games, Instagram, and extra curricular activities that leave no time for homework or even “home fun”.
Oh, we’ve also been called to principal’s office to discuss the data obtained from last year’s state assessment and were told that the numbers are just “not good enough”. You remember how hard you worked the year before. You remember feeling helpless when your students walked out of the testing room saying they didn’t care if they did poorly or not because their parents said the test didn’t matter anyway. Vivid memories of 11pm bedtimes sprint through your mind. You wonder if the countless hours you spent redesigning your instruction to create learning experiences that mimic the state assessment in terms of rigor and format were even worth it. Your heart sinks as your administrator tells you that because of your low scores, you will have to be placed on a Corrective Action Plan that could potentially lead to loss of job if your students’ scores don’t improve the next year.
These meetings leave me questioning everything. Why do I work for a profession in which my worth, my abilities, my passion are based on the one product my students create during one snap shot of the school year? A time when I can’t talk to my students, can’t help my students, can’t even give a thumbs up to my students for working hard. A snap shot of the most unnatural, stiff, and un-fun four days of teaching each year. Let’s just say, no one smiles during testing week. For fear of losing our license and because being a test proctor who can hand out pencils and tissues is not a very stimulating job.
Oh, we’ve been privy to the state’s grade for our efforts. The numerical score that we get for the evidence of what we do “every day” which came from an assessment that took places during 5 of the 1,260 hours children are in school each year. Where the state can label us as ineffective because not enough students passed the test a corporate giant- focused on a healthy bottom line- created.
I question why I teach when a test decides if I’m good at my job or not. I ask myself why I stay in a job where my performance is directly related to the “customers” I serve who may or may not have been served some bad chicken the night before their big test.
Oh, we’ve sat on negotiation teams with the school Board of Education to negotiate a new teacher contract. We’ve poured our hearts out to the Board’s team telling them why we think we deserve that $1,000 yearly raise, only to be told that if we’re not making enough money, we should find a second job. The level of disdain these volunteer community members have for their teachers is palpable, yet they are the ones in charge of making decisions that directly affect our livelihoods.
I have, and continue to, question why I teach in a social climate where teachers are disregarded as complaining, nincompoops who “should be thankful they even have a job because they’d never make it in the ‘real world’ like all of us”.
Why am I still teaching? Why not something else?
I have two Master of Arts degrees. I am an aspiring writer. I have more hobbies that could turn careers in about the time it takes to load the Etsy webpage. I have an aptitude for numbers and figures and accounting excites me. I am bilingual, and I’m currently working towards tri-. Believe me, I know I’d make it in the “real world” if I left teaching. There are many careers I know could serve me well, and vice versa.
But, I am a teacher. I am a teacher now, and I will always be a teacher. I believe in children. I believe in education. I believe that I can have an effect on an entire generation, and I believe I already have. I am still a teacher because I’d choose working with a hopeful, imaginative, curious child than a dejected, hopeless adult- whose rose colored glasses have faded beyond repair- any day. My profession isn’t about competition or raises or bonuses or getting ahead at the expense of someone else. Teaching is a lifestyle all its own; and it’s beautiful and nurturing and compassionate and helpful and optimistic and it enlightens my soul each day. We lack the fiscal benefits; we lack the plethora of opportunities for moving up; we even lack the ability to pee when our bladder is bursting.
Yeah, on the outside teaching might not look too glamorous. Okay, even on the inside, sometimes it makes you want to cry yourself to sleep at night. But it’s the children and the ability to share the secrets of the world with an unknowing human. A tiny human whose life might just be a little better because I’m in it. When that struggling reader recognizes and decodes a multisyllabic word for the first time, you stop questioning. When that chair-thrower transfer student hugs you at the end of the year, you stop questioning. When that now high schooler comes back to visit and thank you for all you did for them, you stop questioning. When a parent sends you an email detailing that her daughter wants to only buy sundresses just like you, you stop questioning.
I am STILL teaching because I want to be a part of the change. I want to be at the starting line in the race because I truly enjoy the preparations.
In the spirit of today’s Boston Marathon, I don’t want to be standing halfway through the marathon when a runner comes to me in need of chafing tape that they realized at mile 2. I want to set my runners up for the most successful race. I want to impart my veteran runner knowledge upon them. I want them to start the race, and run off out of my sight, and I want to know that they will do well because I taught them things they never knew about the “race” and about themselves. I am still teaching because I love it. I just love it.