Thursday, March 3, 2011

On Teaching

I've never intended for my blog to become political, and to be honest I still don't see how this could have become such a polarizing issue, but I really feel the need to talk about the recent attacks on teachers.

I'm never going to deny that our educational system is broken. But for some reason, the fact that it is broken seems to have been laid at the feet of the individuals who have decided to dedicate their lives to other people's children. How much sense does that make?

The average teacher salary in Wisconsin is $51,000. If you throw in benefits, the average teacher in Wisconsin earns around $75 grand. That munificent sum seems overly large to individuals who feel that teachers have a "part-time job" and who get "three months off per year." What I do not understand is why teaching has become so maligned. Everyone remembers at least one hated teacher going through school. Are people still resentful about that teacher?

I held the part-time job of teaching for four years. During that time, I taught approximately 150 students per year. For two years, I traveled between two different school buildings. One year, I taught six classes in six different classrooms. Between lesson planning, grading, parent contacts, and professional development, I would say that I worked about 60 hours per week during the school year. I spent most of my time each summer recovering from the stress of the school year. If I had worked under the same conditions in a year-round school system, I would probably have had a breakdown of some kind.

Most of my students were wonderful kids, whom I loved seeing on a day to day basis. Some were angry at the world and took it out on any authority they came in contact with. Some simply did not like me. Some specifically set out to hurt my feelings. When there were discipline issues in my classroom, I was always diligent about contacting parents. During my time as a teacher, parents accused me of lying, accused me of racism, screamed at me, literally pulled me out of another class in order to discuss their student with me, and repeatedly called my authority, expertise and intentions into question. Again, most of the parents I encountered were lovely people who simply wanted the best for their children. But the number of parents who saw me as some sort of negative are the ones who stick with me.

I worked my tail off to make my class interesting, fun, humorous, memorable, and a place to learn. I feel that I was a good teacher. But I know that I am one of the 50% of teachers who leave the profession within five years. I LOVED being a teacher. I hated the circumstances under which I taught. If I could have done my job with approximately 60 students (or even 100 students) per year, then I would have been infinitely more effective, and infinitely less stressed. As it is, I cannot fathom going back to the constant and low-level sense of impending disaster that I lived under (unconsciously) for four years. Even having a baby is nowhere near as stressful as teaching.

I know that I felt stress as a teacher because I held myself to an enormously high standard. I felt that I couldn't expect my students' best if I did not give my own. I can name on one hand the number of teachers I know from all of my education contacts who DO NOT feel that way.

J consistently says that I should not judge education in America solely based upon my experience. However, I suspect that my experience is typical. Young, idealistic, intelligent and hard-working new teachers slam smack into the huge problems plaguing our education system. With that reality, I wonder who the government thinks will stand up to join the profession when collective bargaining is also taken away. Why would anyone want to become a reviled and underpaid punching bag, after earning an expensive Master's Degree?

I miss my students. I miss trying to make English literature fun for teenagers. I miss the intellectual camaraderie among my colleagues. I miss back-to-school office supply shopping. I miss the comforting structure to an 8 period day. I miss my students.

But with the fracas in Wisconsin and the Ohio Senate approval of Bill 5, I know that I can never go back to teaching in the public schools. I cannot subject myself to that stress. I cannot subject LO and J to the fact that school will get the best of me and they will only get whatever dregs are left. I cannot live my life for other people's children while the very thing I do is attacked and maligned in the public sphere. I wish my ideals were stronger. I wish I were stronger. I know that I could still be a positive influence for many many children. But without changes in the broken system, I cannot make the choice that shortchanges my family. I will not work for free.

What's happening right now in American education is breaking my heart. The big picture hurts me because so many children are being left behind by a broken system, and blaming the teachers does nothing to help them. The small picture hurts me because I know that I could have made a life of teaching under different circumstances. But I hope that the huge public debate will lead to some necessary changes in our system, and bring about an American renaissance.

I may not have strong enough ideals to keep teaching in this system, but I will never lose my hope.


  1. Hey E, okay to post this to my facebook? I don't know how down-low or not you want to keep your blog...

  2. I'm posting it too. Beautifully written, Emily. ; )

  3. I found this through a friend on Facebook. Thanks for sharing your feelings. I've been teaching for 22 years in the Arts. I have loved my job, but this last year has just about done me in for all the reasons you mentioned. With the economy as it is, I may not be able to finish my career as Arts tend to be the first thing on the chopping block. Either that, or I'll implode before I make that magic 30, or is it 35? It's terribly sad and disheartening.

  4. As a teacher of nine years in Ohio, thank you. This is something we never hear enough, and certainly haven't lately.

  5. Randi, thank you for reposting. And thank you to the two anonymous teachers for the kind words. I've really been struggling with my ambivalence about returning to the classroom, and in some ways the recent attacks on teachers has made it much easier for me to be at peace with my decision. I know I only have so much to give, and I know that my family gets it all right now because teaching would ask for too much of it.