The One about the Teacher Who Wanted More
… Who does she think she is, anyway?
Wherein I respond to a well-meaning commenter about why I don’t blame a new teacher for walking away from the profession.
Dear — .
I appreciate your response.
And I’m willing to consider your comment that I sound angry.
I fashion myself a person who is full of joy — but Lord knows, I am far from content. After a day of teaching high-schoolers and a long night of teaching my own kids some meager table manners and good sleeping habits (Real Talk: I yelled “Get to bed!”) I now find myself staring down a few hours of work (revising my Of Mice and Men power-point and grading 150 daily assignments). So if I sound done, I guess that makes sense. I’m pretty much spent.
At the risk of belaboring our discussion, here is my question for you. I don’t mean this rhetorically or passive-aggressively or even angrily (well, not towards you, personally).
Q: Where is the sympathy for teachers?
We agree I think, that teachers are people, not robots. But we may disagree on some of the finer points, specifically the points that pushed teachers into crisis. In fact, as I type this I feel that although I teach at a middle-income, suburban Minnesota high school, I consider myself not so much ‘teaching’ as ‘crisis teaching,’ which is admittedly ambiguous.
But I digress.
Let’s talk this out. Do you agree/disagree with the following: Are teachers financially stable? Are teachers working during a time of unprecedented collective poverty/wage stagnation? Are teachers still entitled to generous pensions and health benefits following retirement, perhaps as a way to account for the low wages they receive over their lifetime — or are teachers working in the wake of overhauled union contracts, agreements that effectively did away with ANY pension (never mind a lavish one) or healthcare (unless you want to pay out of pocket to remain in the district’s plan)? Are teachers’ insurance premiums higher than ever, with astronomical deductibles ($3000 on average out of pocket before insurance kicks in)? Are teachers working part-time jobs on weekends and evenings to supplement their compensation? Are teachers trying to meet the needs of class sizes of 35, 36, 37 students — students who are more linguistically diverse and differently-abled than ever before? While this last one is a testament to activists who fought for the rights of these students, little consideration was made to the time, money, and personnel that would need to be accounted for. Aside from your average racist, ability-ist, sexist, atavistic moron — the majority of teachers not only want diversity in their classrooms; they can cite articles and research and anecdotal experience as to why diversity is paramount to the learning environment, to any community for that matter, nevermind a just and truly democratic society. But without adequate funding (93% of Minnesota districts receive less per pupil funding than they did in 2003), without providing time or compensation for teachers who are taking on this additional task, among many others, teaching becomes a profession not for the dedicated, learned, experienced educator — but for the martyr. And I call bullshit.
Other countries do it better. Other countries don’t take their educators for granted. Other countries, with better educational outcomes (Finland is the obvious example), pay their teachers not only a living wage but a good wage; they treat these people with the respect they deserve; they not only provide for but fund professional development opportunities for teachers. Who else does it better? Germany, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland. In China, teachers are compared to doctors. Meanwhile, in the United States, we seem to have a different grasp of the importance and role of teachers. (We all know teachers are leaving the profession, but did you know that teachers also leave the U.S. to find teaching jobs where they can make an adequate living?) In our country, we have a commander in chief who told Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace that one of his goals upon assuming office would be to cut the Education Department. After he took office, he decided to propose massive defunding instead. (N.B. I’m not strong enough right now to talk about the recommendations of his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos.)
I left the private sector in 2013. From 2007 to 2013, I worked a Philadelphia-based University higher ed job where I made a great salary, had great benefits, matching-and-a-half 401K, annual bonuses, paid travel, etc. During this job, I was able to volunteer at many Philly schools and feel really good about myself. Especially because I was helping the most left-behind kids in our country, short of Native American reservations and Appalachia. I knew the system sucked, but my life was pretty good. I had a husband, a rescue dog, and a baby, and insurance paid for everything. I paid my credit card off every month and went on trips with the points I accrued. I donated thousands of dollars to the ACLU, Children International, Planned Parenthood, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, NAMI, Covenant House, and other personal causes. For our wedding registry, we took donations for the ASPCA and raised thousands.
Cut to my life as a public school teacher in Minneapolis. As a fourth-year teacher— with two master’s degrees, previous teaching experience, and thousands of hours of additional experience and professional development— I make less now, in 2019, than I did when I started my previous job, in 2007. (If I account for the insurance and benefits I received at that job, I don’t just make less, I make far less.) Specifically, I make $656 dollars/week. I am able to put zero dollars away every month. I am still paying off my son’s birth because our health benefits are so poor. (He is about to turn three.) I have monthly student loan bills that I cannot afford and that will increase each year as my income goes up. (Like most teachers, I owe the government lots of money for signing up to be a public servant. $40K in fact. This is what it cost for my graduate licensure program — a program that was offered at the University of Minnesota, not the Ivy League school where I was accepted but decided not to attend for fear of accruing too much debt). My credit card bill goes up every month and I don’t think I will ever be able to pay it off, especially as our annual wage step increases don’t keep pace with inflation, never mind the inflated price of material goods, all while trying to save for a downpayment on a house (oh, yeah, we rent).
Now. Here is the kicker. I’m not crying myself to sleep every night. I laugh. A lot. Like, it’s a problem. I am not a bitter, miserable, snowflake, owned-Lib. I’m pretty self-aware and pretty adamant about staying on the right side of the beckoning darkness. The truth is, I chose this path. It is true. Absolutely. I knew my life would change when I switched careers. I knew I was going to take a pay cut by leaving the private world. But the other truth is this: I had no idea how bad it was. How bleak. How thankless. How weirdly abusive, even. I should note, Minnesota is hardly the worst state in terms of teacher pay/working conditions.
Yes, times are tough everywhere, but look at the numbers. Education has been defunded, systematically, at the state and federal level. In Minnesota, specifically for exceptional/special education, the federal government is not adequately funding its part of the bargain. (The federal government is supposed to fund 40% of the costs. Currently, they are paying 8%, leaving Minnesota schools with an $800 million — and counting — funding gap. In fact, recent estimates show our schools need 4 billion dollars, annually.) This is just one area of one field. Across many fields, wages have fallen, causing families to spend less time together as parents/guardians seek additional employment; and we have systemic racism and economic inequality and gun violence and anti-immigrant policies/practices, which means many of our students come to school psychologically burdened and woefully underprepared. As teachers, we are supposed to not only fix or at least account for the aforementioned, but we are supposed to do so while lecturing on Keatsian sonnets, creating meaningful comma splice formative assessments, designing an activity that asks students to recreate a Victorian slum, gathering endless data that bears on nothing, and attending meetings, duties, one-on-one’s, teacher learning circles, and responding via phone and email to students and their families, as well as, colleagues. Of course, we are not supposed to ask for compensation for this time, these responsibilities; we are not supposed to question our own needs, never mind expectations. We are supposed to do it all with grace and the smile of a martyr headed to the gallows.
This is the bargain we made, we tell one another. Welcome to public education, we say. I’m doin’ it for the kids, we remind ourselves. Well, I’ve seen how it is on the other side, and no, I ain’t falling for it. I am a legitimate scholar, a fabulous teacher, a lover and caretaker of children. (Five of my children — I call them children, but they are sixteen- and seventeen-year-old juniors in high school — have lost parents in the last five years. Can I tell you how many times we’ve stepped in the back or out to the hall so I could hold them while they sobbed? Do people understand that teaching is learning not just all about your content area, but all about the people you are responsible for educating? Do people honestly think this a job that we can treat disposably and still attract — and retain — quality individuals?)
Today, like any other day, I segued between the front of the room to the halls where I linked arms with teenagers to the classroom to the counselors’ office (another criminally defunded zone*) where I sat with two girls as they wept about family problems to the classroom to the media center where I made copies and back to the classroom where I made a willing ass of myself trying to speak Somali with my ninth-graders. And here I am, typing this cri de coeur rather than getting the sleep I am so desperately missing because I feel I cannot hold this in for one more minute. Teachers have not just been undervalued and poorly paid; we have been made scapegoats. And I am standing up to say: No, ma’am. Not I. I am not the one.
You write: “She left. She gave up on her students.”
Do you truly believe the burden of systemic failures should fall on the happy shoulders of teachers? Why? Why should teachers be the sacrifice?
Teachers were children once. Some of us are older now, but we still crave care, love, respect, stability. Some of us are barely older than the kids we teach (this applies especially to people who work via Teach for America or City Year or Vista) — can this group honestly be expected to know all the educational moves required of standing up there each and every day, never mind how to parent/care for/heal the hundreds of students they will meet every year, students who arrive with the kind of trauma that would destroy most of us? All of the above is visited twice as brutally on the backs of non-white, non-gender conforming, non-hetero, non-Christian teachers and students and families — and this stupefies me because as a white teacher, on a daily basis, I feel like I am bailing for my life.
I will never fault a teacher for leaving. I will never make teachers the fall guy for a society that has treated them as state labor. Economic larceny has been occurring on a local, state, national, and global scale, has fleeced the middle class, the poor, and the destitute — and has left education in an untenable state. Again, we knew it wouldn’t be easy, and some of us have it easier than others. But as long as teachers are willing to ‘take one for the team’ and ‘take it on the chin’ and ‘do more with less’ and sustain the psychological trauma that comes with teaching in 2019 America, then that’s all we’re gonna get. And that is not good enough for me. I would never let any of my students settle for that.
Teaching is not supposed to be an abusive relationship. It is not supposed to be a career where you decide your needs come last; that pain is necessary, even holy; that panic attacks while dressing in the dark every morning are part of the bargain; that staying up until midnight differentiating lesson plans is ethical, indeed noble; that the larger community — the state — owes these children and us, slightly older versions of these kids, nothing. Yet, we somehow must draw from an infinite well of largesse and selflessness and collective guilt — while the powers that be, laugh (or simply ignore) us all the way to the bank. Nah. I ain’t buying it. I’m a teacher. I love my job. I love my students. I love my life. But I will never defend the impossible bargain that we are asked to make when we become teachers. As long as we submit, the powers that be can get away not only with funding education inadequately and paying us a poverty-level wage, but they can trick us into liking it.
* Minnesota’s student-to-counselor ratio is 723-to-1. The recommended ratio is no more than 250 students per counselor (CASCW 2016).