… A blog about love and epiphanyyyyyy!
If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know that I – like most people – don’t particularly like my job. In some ways, on some days, it’s fine; but all in all, it’s not where I’d prefer to spend my time. I’ll never get a bumper sticker that says “I’d rather be working.” As I tell my students, “If I win the lottery tonight, I won’t be here tomorrow.” I tell people that I’m a teacher, but I don’t actually define myself that way; I consider myself a writer, and a reader, and a nerd, and a family man. Teaching is my source of income, not my identity.
But since a source of income is a necessity, and teaching is a pretty decent one, I thought I’d share some tips for making work a little more manageable – that is, if you can’t get your boss to change your work hours so he/she will stop torturing you. (There’s a scientist who says we should start work around 10am.)
First, figure out when you can say No. I know it’s true for teaching, and I’ll bet it’s true for a whole lot of jobs, that your employer will keep asking you for more for as long as you keep giving what they ask. They’ll ask you to do extra duties, to join committees, to come in early, to stay late, to take work home, to give up your weekends, your evenings, and your vacations. In my case, they ask me to come to meetings, to go to seminars, to agree to be a mentor or a coach or a tutor. They are constantly after my lunchtime, and they’d love it if I could fill in for the various staff members they’ve laid off or cut back – at my school this includes the security guard and the staff psychologist. They want me to train myself, and then train others. And of course, they want me to give every ounce of energy and every minute of time to the doing of my actual job: they want me to grade eight hours a day, prepare new lessons and new curriculum eight hours a day, and spend at least eight hours a day with students, preferably one-on-one. And for all of this, they want me to do it the way they want it done, whether or not I like that way of doing things or think it is the right way: it is their way, and therefore they want it to be my way.
But with teaching, and I’ll bet with a lot of jobs, there is a specific thing or things I’m supposed to be doing. In my case it is two things: first, I need to be a responsible babysitter, meaning that students cannot be hurt under my watch, particularly not by me; and second, my students need to learn. The first is easy to measure: students getting hurt, or students complaining about how I hurt them, are no-nos. The second is more difficult to measure, but figuring out how the bosses measure it was the key to knowing when and why I can say no. For me, it is two things, one positive and one negative. The positive measure is test scores. My students’ test scores can’t be terrible. They don’t have to be perfect, but they can’t be terrible. The – I guess it’s an advantage? – for me is that I have students measured by multiple tests, and as long as they’re doing well on one, then the other is less critical; so in my case, since I teach AP classes, as long as my AP test scores are sufficient, then the school wants to keep me around and keep me happy, even if my state testing scores are less wonderful. They’re not terrible, but they’re not as good as the school wants them to be; but my AP scores are. That gives me more ability to say No. It gives me No-power.
The negative measure of students learning is even better, for me: there can’t be any students or parents complaining about me. As long as none of my students go to the administration and say that the class is unfair, that the grade was too low, that the test was too hard and that the students weren’t prepared for it, then the school feels confident that I am doing my job. And that gives me even more No-power.
It’s not that simple, of course; there is more to it. I do need the credentials that I have, a degree in my subject and years of teaching experience and so on; I get observed twice a year and I have to look like I know what I’m doing; there are meetings I have to attend and duties I have to perform. I have to go to staff meetings, I have to meet with parents on the scheduled days or when parents request it, I have to be available for extra help if students need it. But those are the main things: babysitting, test scores, no complaints.
How did I figure this out? I listened to what people said about the people who used to have my job. The person who had it the year before me actually had a doctorate and college-level teaching experience; but the students thought she didn’t teach them enough. They thought she spent too long on one unit, they thought she didn’t explain things well, and they thought she couldn’t manage a class well enough to get them to listen. I heard the same things about her from other teachers, too. The person before her was a bad babysitter: she left the students locked out in the hallway after the bell rang; she left early and left the students alone in the classroom; she cussed at them when she was mad. So when one of my students told me that I taught him more in five minutes than my predecessor had taught him all year, I knew I was pretty well set. (I already knew I couldn’t lock my students out of the room, nor leave them alone in it. But that’s kind of a gimme, isn’t it? I mean, really.) The other key was watching the person at the top: the best teacher at the school, the one that everybody listens to and looks up to, the one who seems like they can get away with anything. How does that person get to be that powerful? In my school’s case, it’s basically the same answer, though our top teacher is more of a teacher and less of a babysitter – which tells me that there’s leeway in the babysitting aspect, as long as the test scores are good enough, and as long as the students think they learn. In this teacher’s case, it is more than the negative measure, more than a lack of students and parents complaining: our top teacher earns praise from students and parents. He is the one they thank at graduation for having taught them so much. And that gives him all the no-power he could ever need: he openly defies administrative decrees in certain areas, and nothing happens to him. Because the students think he is their best teacher. Even though he calls them deadbeats and degenerates, and threatens to hide their corpses under the soccer field.
So that’s the most important thing: figuring out what is necessary to gain the power to say No, and then deciding where to spend that power – because nobody, not even the best employee, has limitless power to say No. You do still have to show up (too early) and do your job. You can’t spit in your boss’s face. But you probably can skip out of some meetings, or refuse to serve on certain committees, and you can certainly say you aren’t going to that three-day seminar out of town (unless it’s in a good place and they’re paying expenses). That’s the key to keeping your sanity at work. The first one, at least.
The second key is to keep doing your work. Don’t let it pile up. Because it will pile up, and then it will collapse and smother you in an avalanche of catch-up. In my case it’s grading, which I did in fact pile up this last semester’s end, and it did almost smother me. It wasn’t the first time, either; and if I ever leave teaching behind before I win the lottery, that will be why: because I let work pile up and collapse on me once too often.
In the past I have let the work pile up because I’ve avoided doing it: I’ve collected essays and then looked at them and said, “Not today,” over and over and over again. Sometimes for as long as two months, though I was doing other grading in that span. That’s one of the nice things about teaching, even though it doesn’t always feel that way; I doubt there are a lot of jobs that allow that much slacking for that long. But since I didn’t get students filing complaints with the administration, it didn’t get me fired. I did have some pretty serious grumbling by the end of it, and I now have a (well-deserved) reputation for taking too long to grade things; I have made a conscious effort in the last few years to keep that from happening again. This last semester, the work piled up for a different reason: because I didn’t plan well enough, and I had too many major things due all at the end of the semester. It was a sudden deluge instead of a slow build-up; but it still almost took me down. So now I have two things to be aware of: not letting things pile up, and not creating a huge pile that will all fall on me at once. I’m sure someday I’ll learn those habits. And then I’ll probably win the lottery.
But all of that, though I hope it will be useful for some people to know, is not actually the thing I wanted to talk about. There is something else, something that I think is actually unusual, something that I know that most people don’t. This is my epiphany, if you will. And it is this: if you have the chance, then work alongside of the person you love.
I’ve done it a few times, now. When I was a janitor in college, my wife (then unwedded soulmate) worked in the same facility, selling tickets and concessions for the box office while I cleaned the place. When I became a teacher, she spent two summers teaching summer school with me, once in the same room. We met because we were sort of working side by side: she worked in the college bookstore, and I sold student IDs in the same building; I used to get change from her, and she used to pass my table on her way to get coffee or a bottle of water. And now, by a fortuitous set of circumstances, she is the art teacher in the classroom right next to my English class. And it is the best thing about my job.
Now, it is better for me than it is for her. Teaching unquestionably gets easier with experience; this is her first year of full-time teaching, and it’s my seventeenth. I’ve been at the school for two and a half years now, so I have a better idea of how things work and who I can get help from and who I can’t; she is figuring all of that out. She also got screwed over by her predecessor, who cleaned the room out of any useful materials or curriculum, and left the art supplies in a hellish mess; I came to a classroom with class sets of novels and textbooks, and filing cabinets full of quizzes and worksheets and materials I could use. I have a department with three other English teachers who give me help and advice and share good stuff with me; she’s the only art teacher at the school, and one of two in the district – and the other is also brand-new. She’s starting completely from scratch, and it makes the job twice as hard. And it’s pretty goddamn hard to start with. Add to that the fact that she doesn’t particularly like teaching, either; that it isn’t how she defines herself or any part of her identity, and it’s easy to see that it’s been a tough year for her.
But she does have this advantage: I’m right next door. That means that she, like me, always has someone to cover for her if she needs to run to the bathroom. I always have someone to eat lunch with, and to sit with in meetings. When I’ve had a tough class or an annoying meeting, I can go to her and bitch about it. I can complain – no, scratch that; I never complain about my students, the little angel-babies.
No, sorry, can’t say that with a straight face. When I want to complain about my irritating, obnoxious, tiresome students, I can go straight to her and say whatever I really think, without any fear that she will judge me, or get me in trouble for it. I can get advice from her – and regardless of her inexperience with the profession or in the school, I do, because she is naturally brilliant, and because she knows quite a lot about working in general, having dealt with office politics in an actual office, where they are more pervasive and pernicious than they are in a school, where most people work behind closed doors all day. She’s also, it turns out (No surprise to me), a genuinely good teacher, though without the mixed blessing of test scores, it is sometimes harder for her to see it. And because she is a more dedicated artist than I am, being a good teacher means less to her than it does to me; she cares about being a good artist.
She’s that, too.
But it is a lovely thing to have another person there with you, in that place where you have to spend so many hours, and for such pragmatic, uninspiring reasons. (“I just worked a full day! That means I can pay my heating bill! And maybe the electric, too! WOO!”) We keep our behavior appropriate, of course; but I still get hugs, and even a kiss or two. The main thing is just that I get someone to talk to. We go to the water cooler together, and to the lounge to use the microwave. I walk up to the office with her when she has to drop something off, and I’ve helped her learn the eccentricities of our Xerox machine. She is already friendlier with the rest of the staff than I am, and we like and dislike the same people (But never the students! We love every one of them! Angel-babies, they are!). We drive to work together, and leave together, which makes it much easier to run errands after work and to arrange our morning schedules. It’s really been fantastic, having the woman I love with me all day, at work and at home. I know some people would get tired of that much time together; and we are in separate classrooms for most of the workday, which probably helps – but I have had nothing but joy from this arrangement. I recommend it highly.
And the best part is this: I have never, not once in the last four months, had to say goodbye.