This year I will begin my 12th year as a high school English teacher. In some ways, I can’t believe it’s been 12 years, but in other ways it feels like it’s been 100. I teach in Michigan, a state, like many others, that has introduced sweeping and often detrimental education reform. These policies make teaching more difficult. They tie test scores to evaluations, they require more and more standardized tests for our students, they change these tests almost yearly, they cut funding, and they take away educators’ voices by limiting our rights to bargain. These policies have affected my retirement, my salary, my healthcare, my classroom budget, my class sizes, my evaluations, the curriculum I teach, and the hours I work.
And yet, thousands of us do it and most of us love it. I think it is an incredibly hard profession and there are aspects of the job that are difficult to explain to those in the private sector. You see a lot victimizing of teachers. A lot of “poor us” kind of posts and blogs. I tend to stay away from these because I think everyone works hard. I think everyone is overworked, underpaid and under-appreciated – it’s the American way, right?
So I was trying to figure out why teaching feels especially hard. Sometimes I listen to friends who work in the private sector talk about their job and I have to bite my tongue so I don’t say, “yeah, but at least at your job….”, however I’m never sure if I’m just feeling like a martyr.
What I’ve finally decided is that teaching is not unique in its many downsides. I think what is unique about teaching is that in the list of “negatives about your job” each job as some on the list and I think teaching might have ALL of them. Teaching is unique in that it is an incredibly stressful job when everything goes right and then you add on all the crap (for lack of a better word) from the state and it’s just too much. Here are a few examples:
- Low Pay and Rising Healthcare Costs: contrary to what you might hear on Fox News, the average teacher salary is not $75,000. Sure some pay scales go that high, but those would be teachers with 20-30 years experience and a Masters degree. So when you are calculating averages, the few at the high will help offset the many at the low, but if you look at the actual money most teachers are making, it’s about half of that. Additionally, the stress and strain of the profession means that few teachers are staying long enough to reach the end of the pay scale. Finally, $75,000 is not an outrageous salary for one with a Master’s degree in many private sector jobs, but as a teacher, you will maybe earn that just before retirement. And VERY quickly, let me just address that teachers only get paid for 9 months of work. Most of us choose to spread our pay out over 12 months because, really, what kind of job am I going to get for 3 months? (One that wouldn’t even cover my childcare costs.) So let’s not play the “but you get summers off” card. It’s true, I do, and that comes with some great advantages – salary is not one of them however. There’s also the very real fact that most teachers do extra training, write curriculum, and prepare for new classes during this time…. but I digress…
- Lack of Respect: At one time teachers were highly respected, but the current state of our country has placed them in more of a scapegoat role than that of hero. Interestingly, when surveyed, people tend to rate teachers poorly and provide many frustrations about the profession as a whole, all while praising their local teachers. This dichotomy seems to exist: teachers are lazy, overpaid union fat cats, but my kids’ teachers are wonderful, caring human beings. And this general disgust with the profession has permeated about every aspect of my being, whether I’ve picked it up from news stories, blogs, social media posts, parents or students. Even though I rarely have outright rude parents to contend with, it is emotionally exhausting to see teachers beat up in the media all the time. Additionally, the way in which students treat me has changed over the last 10 years. If you don’t respect teachers at home (even if you are speaking in generalizations) then your kids won’t respect them in the classroom. Period. Another difference in teacher versus the private sector is that I’m a teacher all the time: when I’m buying beer at the checkout, if I get pulled over for a speeding ticket, if I’m out with some girlfriends, when I run to Kohls in my sweats – all are opportunities for a community members to question your hobbies and value.
- Changing Job Description: It’s frustrating in any job to have things thrust upon you that you were not prepared for, that you don’t have time for, or that you have no interest in completing. This happens yearly in the teaching profession and sometimes throughout the year as well. Public schools serve under the whim of the state, so every change in graduation requirement, mandated test, college necessity, and political season means changes in curriculum, certification, evaluations, and record-keeping. And these things are big changes. Changing a curriculum, for example, is a weeks-long process (usually done during the summer, actually).
- Attacks on Unions: Now even if you are not a union supporter, it is not too much of a stretch to understand how this is a stressor. At a very basic level, unions protect working conditions and workers’ rights. As the state chips away at a union’s rights, it, in effect, chips away at the teacher’s voice. Limiting bargaining rights takes the teacher’s voice out of important discussions: evaluations, discipline, calendar, placement, class size. Things that parents care about are all things addressed at the bargaining table. I can tell you from participating in many, administrators run a district like a business: numbers matter. Teachers are the ones who care about the individual students and their needs because we are the ones who see their faces everyday. So to work with minors and to be cut out of the discussions about what is best for them is painful.
- Stress and Strain: One thing that I didn’t really understand when I first began teaching was how just plain exhausting the job is. Take a well-behaved class, on a normal day with no interruptions – and it is exhausting. I bet I hear my name spoken 100 times a day. You have to be “on” at all times. At the high school level I get 5 minutes in-between classes to breathe and prepare for the next one (or pee) and a 20 minute lunch. At the elementary level there is not much time to breathe at all. Maybe during the two 15 minute recesses the kids get a day or the 45 minutes they go to specials (but excluding the time you have to walk them down). From bell-to-bell you go, go, go: answering questions, finding papers, taking attendance, monitoring behavior, remembering who has a bathroom pass, delivering some content, making your class engaging with an activity that requires all of this attention and work to multiply. I like this about the job because I’m easily bored, but many days when the bell rings at 2:30 and the last student leaves my class, I slump into my chair, let out a huge exhale, and feel as if I was just shot out the end of a tornado. Then I usually have to get up and go make copies…
- Demands on your time: Not many jobs (tho I know some do) require you to work when you aren’t at work. Whether it’s grading papers in bed, working on curriculum on the couch, attending a band concert, a football game, or chaperoning a dance, there are a million outside-of-school things to do as well. There are clubs to sponsor, field trips to chaperone, new curriculum to learn, books to read, papers to grade, treats to buy or make, and events to attend. Some of these are a blast, others get old real fast. There is barely a minute in the day to work on the teaching and planning part of the job. Mostly, you teach all day. Few professions expect you to be prepared to do your job everyday, but give you little to no time to actually prepare for the job during the day.
- The Job Itself: Above I’ve listed the external components that make the job hard. Almost anyone you talk to, in any profession will say, “I like my job when I can just do it. It’s all the other crap that gets in the way.” So what I’ve listed above is “all the other crap.” If everything was perfect and teachers were well-respected and fairly-paid, it would still be a crazy job, don’t get me wrong. I think that’s why teachers tend to feel like such martyrs. The job is rough and then on top of that, everything else listed above is going on. Of course I’ve left out inept administration, rude parents, misbehaved children, or lack of supplies. I’ve left out fire alarms, sports tournaments, concerts, assemblies, two hour delays, and all the other mid-day disruptions that keep you from getting things done (and make the kids crazy!). I’ve left out staff meetings, professional development, conferences, grade-level meetings, and interventions. I haven’t even touched on the many acronyms we work with: IEPs, 504s, SATs, RTI, ADD, AI, OHIs, SAT/ACT, MME, NWEA… alphabet soup! Then there are the times you have to call CPS. The times kids come to you to cry, the bullying, the poverty, truancy issues, illness and injury, the high achievers, the low achievers, the kids who just want to hang out in the middle, the kids who are hungry, the kids who use drugs, the parents who use drugs, the kids just trying to get out of the welfare cycle, and the kids who don’t know where they are going to sleep at night. All of these things are just the job.
These are the things I signed up for because I know that days also include laughter, silliness, lightbulb moments, bursts of maturity, friendship, and sweetness. I know that these high school years are fleeting and I’m honored to play a role in so many teenagers’ lives. There are the kids you keep in touch with; the weddings and baby showers you get invited to; the former students who ask you proofread a resume or supply a reference for them. You get to see former students travel the world, become doctors, professors, parents and more. You’ll smile and think that in the millions of experiences that made that child into an adult, you got to play a role.
That’s why I stay. That’s why most of us stay. We stay because, while we feel as if we are literally carrying the weight of an angry world on our shoulders, we love the kids. And it doesn’t matter what level someone teaches, everyone loves his or her kids.
And it’s emotional to love so many kids. It’s heartbreaking to see them fail or to see them struggle. The job itself, when all things go well, is just plain hard. So when you add to that the plethora of other weights: pay, scrutiny, lack of power, it begins to feel unbearable. We are seeing this as teacher burnout is at an all-time high. Young professionals are fleeing the profession and good, quality teachers are being lost.
So we don’t complain because we’re lazy. No we don’t want longer summer vacations or more snow days. I’d be happy to start with more respect. I knew going into teaching that I wasn’t going to get rich, but I never thought I’d feel so publicly beaten up and so completely worn out just trying to hold my head up high each day.
So as you prepare to send your kids back to school, think about ways you can show respect to the teachers in your life. After all, you are trusting them with your precious child each and every day. It doesn’t have to be a gift, maybe just a heartfelt thank you.