Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Should you go into teaching?

As I said yesterday in my linky post, I was stricken by the firestorm of comments in response to these two posts from Running off the Reeses, which suggested that people not go into teaching. When I've written about teaching before, I've said that it's not what I thought it was going to be. Does this mean you should go into teaching?

Honestly I'm not sure you should. I don't say that to hurt anyone or as a personal dig. I know that's how I heard it when people said it to me as I was entering the profession. I just think you might not want to experience some of the heartache.

That's probably not what most people want to hear, and I know (given the response to the ROTR post) that it isn't a PC opinion. We (society, teachers, those in the education field and parents) are supposed to sell the idea that we need good people to keep coming into the field. We're supposed to espouse the dogma of the selfless, giving teacher who can make a difference. We're supposed to pass along the message that if one teacher cares enough, he or she can change the system/ poverty/ deficiency/ the aftereffects of abuse. Can we?

I came in with a sparkle in my step and I knew the hymn of the hard-working. But what happens when you do care enough--more than enough--and it doesn't matter? You can't change the immovable. You can't fix damage that is beyond repair or teach a kid who just doesn't give two craps. The biggest failures for new teachers--or heartbreaks, maybe--are for those who come in to the job with Bambi eyes expecting to touch the souls of every being in the room. They remember the one (or the many) deities who reached across the clouds of a classroom to touch their minds and imbue them with the gift of knowledge. The reality of a classroom these days is stark and the pressure to be inspiring can be paralyzing.

When it comes to the deficiencies of public education, I've moved past shock to acceptance. However, I honestly think most people don't know what a day is like. In my world, most classes are close to 40 kids to one teacher, 55 in PE. Most teachers have five classes, so they see close to 200 kids a day, each who will be hurt if you don't remember his/her current personal drama. Facilities are old and outdated with no hopes of new money coming for renovation anytime soon. The per-student budget has been slashed to the point that most teachers buy their own paper for copies, pens, pencils, markers--you name it. We are no longer allowed to require that a student bring anything to class, even a pencil or a binder. If we don't buy supplies, we have to go begging to parents who are feeling the effects of the economy themselves. My classroom is equipped with a computer, but beyond that my equipment is this: one overhead projector. My ability to take my students to the computer lab and library is so limited by facilities and budget cuts that it's not really a viable option for lesson-planning. Our textbooks were due to be updated a year ago with no possibility for a refresh in sight. Student programs, sports, counseling and electives have been all been slashed to barebones so that only a fraction of the student population is reached. Students are coming to school hungry, tired, and stressed because their parents are losing their jobs. In my experience, parent support is spotty. Often I call home to address a student behavior issue and end up being berated by the parent for "accusing" the kid.

Even if you wanted to care about every single kid, it wouldn't be possible. For a well-intentioned do-gooder like I was when I came in, that's a recipe for stress and guilt.

I remember reaching my breaking point once in a dance class because they were pissed that I wasn't concerned enough for their personal drama. At the time I was going through what I thought was a divorce, I had almost 40 bodies in a room designed for about 12 dancers, I had three voicemails from angry parents waiting for a response, I was told that the arts grant I was counting on was not going to cover all of the expenses I was promised it would, I was planning a dance show alone and running two fund-raisers and I had about three class sets of AP essays in my drawer waiting to be graded. In my frustration I told them there are too many of you. I'm doing well if I can take care of your arm placement; forget about your souls. Teaching is not easy, even if you know what you want to talk about and you know you want to do a good job.

That's not to say that teachers can't overcome all of the challenges and teach what they need to teach. But the expectation for modern teachers is that they not only teach, but that they sprinkle inspiration dust over the heads of each student, crank out automatons who can drill and kill standardized tests, and ensure that all kids will go to college (regardless of whether or not that is best for said kid). We're expected to parent. We're expected to fill in every gap a student has and to re-teach until. It might even sound reasonable. But let's consider that we have 40 students in a 55 minute class. Less than two minutes per student? It's overwhelming sometimes. Recently the media has been less than kind to teachers. It's hard to imagine how little we're given and how much we're being asked to do--and then our reward is a thorough tongue-lashing from the public. It stings.

There are some fallacies about teaching, too. The biggest ones are the "you only work part time" or "you get paid summers off" critiques. Let me clarify those. I am required to be at school from 7:45 to 3:30. I stay after. I go early. I bring my work home with me. There would be no way for me to teach 200 kids if I only worked from 7:45 to 3:30. I might not be in an office, but you can bet your sweet bippy I'm doing my fair share. Often it means time away from my family on nights and weekends, but I do it because that's the job and it is what I signed up to do. I don't go to work during the summer. That's accurate. But I am not paid for that time. Our contracts are for 9 1/2 months of teaching. They take that pay and spread it out over 12 months. Teachers used to be paid over 10 months, but then they had to get summer jobs to make ends meet. This just allows us to maintain a consistent level of income. We're not getting anything for free--we're paid for our contract days. And not to beat the dead horse, but I'm working all summer revising my curriculum, reading books to prepare, cleaning and prepping my classroom… etc.

But what about those magical after-school-special moments when a student comes to you and says "you made a difference in my life"? Yes, kind words are nice. I've had some. But I had no idea how sparse they'd be when I began. Apparently I'm no Jaime Escalante. The "f--- you"s are the most shocking, but the hurt of the frequent under-breath "bitch" or the ubiquitous eye-roll and "what-ever" are harder to take. Being accused of favoritism or criticized for your every error when you're trying to do your best and be fair? That's rough. Being watched and made fun of for any slight abnormality in your dress, hair, personality or speech? That can get annoying. Having your personal things destroyed or defiled in your classroom? Not awesome. Living outside of school with the constant worry you might run into someone who finds your behavior unbecoming of a teacher? Not my favorite. Not until I was a teacher did I realize how oft-critiqued the teacher is in a high-schooler's day and how little respect most families show to teachers and education. I'm comfortable in my own skin, but there are days when enough is enough and it gets to me that to them I am a caricature. Before I taught, I didn't know that most of the growth happens after they leave. It's unfortunate, because nobody ever comes back to say hey, I'm sorry I was such a jackhole in 3rd period and I want to replace that poster that I drew a penis on with a sharpie because it was so wrong of me. Look at me, I'm a successful accountant and I read books.

And I haven't made a difference in the way I'd hoped. I have so much material to cover and so many expectations about teaching to standardized tests that there's very little room in my year for teaching the kind of things that make kids like school. It's hard to get someone excited to read 18th century literature if you don't have time enough to play around with it. It's hard to make reading a joy if you only have time to cover the basics. It's hard to foster a love of creative writing if you can't ever fit it in. We don't. Must keep moving at all times, must tie everything to a standard. In the early grades there's such a sense of urgency to teach writing, vocabulary, organization… there's just not a lot of time for joy. The best I can hope for most years is for my class to be a class they don't hate the most.

So who should go into teaching? To get back to my first point--we do need good people. We really do. But I almost hesitate to recommend it to anyone because right now it's hard to secure a job, and even if you do, you're going to be under fire constantly. I don't anticipate this going away anytime soon. If you have a thick skin, you'll be fine. If you're okay with not hearing that you've done a good job, you'll be fine. But please don't come in thinking you can save them all. You're going to kill yourself trying. Don't come in thinking that all you're going to do is teach. You're going to have a whole other job dealing with all of the bureaucratic nonsense that comes with the territory.

And not to end this on a completely negative note, I should be honest about my whole opinion. I love my job. It is what I am meant to do. I can say that with the breathing room of a month of summer behind me. What do I love? I love that I get to be a part of the lives of many, many smart kids. I love that kids are funny. I love seeing them actually implement a change in their writing or their dancing, and the look that comes across their faces when something clicks. I love when I see them trying to do something I've suggested and I know they thought I might know what I was talking about. I love when they discover something that really lights them up inside (even if it's not my subject) and they want to share that with me. I love when they go on to be good people and they want to keep in touch and let me be a part of their lives. I love when kids take risks--it inspires me. I love that I can be silly with them. I love that I can plan what I do and try to make it better each year. All the things I love are the things that are about people. Those are the things that feed my soul and help me to keep going. It is less a steady diet of the good though, and more like an animal storing up for hibernation. I get just enough to get me through. Sometimes I don't quite make it and all the bad gets to be too much.

I will continue to teach. I'm in the right profession. But the longer I do this, the more it feels like I'm being asked to run a marathon while cutting my calories. I feel hungry and tired. Underfed and overwrought. I hope my opinion is taken as just that--an opinion. I speak for nobody but me, but I thought it was worth bringing up.

And you know what? Do what you want. Work hard. Be a good person. That's really the best you can do in any job. What do I know, anyway.


  1. I'm an old student of yours and I've been following your blog since I graduated and I can honestly say that you've helped change my life for the better. You might not know who I am or how you helped, but I just wanted to let you know that there's a lot of us out here that just never had the chance to tell you and thank you for the time and effort you put into your work everyday. As time between high school and present day has grown I've realized that it's important to let people know that they're appreciated and I just wanted to let you know that and to tell you thank you. For everything.

  2. Well said. I wish this could be linked to Fark or a really popular blog because people need to hear the truth about your profession.


  3. Even though your profession does have many everyday challenges, I know that Elk Grove High School would not be the same with out you...In fact, I would not be the same without you. You are the most influential teacher and coach I have ever had in my life. Even if you don't always think your students reflect on what you have done for them, trust me when I say that we do. There may be no way for you to know of all of your impact on us, but I doubt I am the only student who have been changed for the better after having you as a teacher. So, thank you P-Dawg for your lessons, not only in the classroom, but also about real life. :)

  4. It’s hard to disagree with anything you said. Teaching isn’t easy just because you graduated from college with a degree in a certain subject. I remember how I thought I was going to change the life of every student who walked into my classroom. I liken it to a person training to become a boxer. Workouts in the gym, strength training, endurance training and some practice sparing with another, but when you walk into the ring you get floored by the first punch. You look to your corner for advice and there’s nobody there. You have two options. Stay on the mat or get up. I, like yourself, got up off the mat. Got hit again and went down. Time and time again we keep getting hit and knocked down, but we also keep getting up.

    The comments on your blog from former students should be enough fuel to sustain you through this next marathon starting in August. And hopefully you will be able to reach a few students next year.

    Keep up the good work!

  5. You were my drill team coach, my dance teacher for two years, and my English teacher. I passed the AP test because of you. I grew so much as a dancer and drill team member because of you. You inspired ME. I 100% agree with Kailyne when she said that EGHS wouldn't be the same without you. When I look back on my four years, you were the one teacher/coach who helped me the most. You were the one who was there with me the whole way through and I'll never forget the things you taught me. Not even just education, things about life. You put so much into your job and it shows. I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything you've done for me.

  6. I saw the comments from others and my carefully thought out words and ideas seemed redundant, so I have just one: Juxtaposition. I've never reveled in my own nerdiness, and been happy to share it with others, than I was in your class discussing what a great word it is. Only a truly great teacher can foster a classroom environment like that. Only a truly great teacher (and friend) could make me feel at ease enough to be ok with the fact that she was playing a video of me tap dancing in class. Only lessons about writing from a truly great teacher would still pop into my head as I write briefs, memos, opinions, etc. in law school. What can I say teach, except, you're great.

  7. Thank you so much for your honesty. It's good to know that there are people out there who teach for good reason. Keep up the hard work and from a mom of a future student, I really hope my child(ren?) end up with a teacher like you. Thank you for your sacrifice!

  8. Wow, thank you Heather! You did it again. Thank you for putting this all down in clear, flowing words.