This Morning

This morning I’m tired.

I’m tired of incompetence, malfeasance, and foolishness. I’m tired of administrators who are so afraid of lawsuits that they make bad decisions and do harm to the very school they are supposedly trying to protect. I’m tired of those same administrators being so slavishly devoted to conformity and universality of results that they take away everything that is good about teaching and learning, and about school. I’m tired of students who are more willing to fail than try to learn, who take every opportunity to ask for a free day, who say, “Why don’t we just do nothing today?” Who say “I don’t know how to do that” when they do, just because if they don’t know how then they won’t be asked to try, and they can sit and stew in their own torpor, staring at anything even vaguely stimulating. I watched four students watch one student spin a quarter on the desk for half a period. Just watching him. None of them doing the work they were supposed to be doing. I mean, I was a lazy student, sure, but — seriously?

I’m tired of parents who expect teachers to parent their children, and of teachers who are willing to do it. I’m tired of parents, and teachers, who focus on the signs and symbols of learning rather than on the actual thing itself. I’m tired of telling students that they’ll need this in the future, and that their boss won’t put up with the same crap that I put up with, as if everything I do is designed only to train students to be good employees.

I’m tired of doing things designed only to train students to be good employees.

I’m tired of being a good employee. I’m tired of teachers who obey inane rules rather than rock the boat, and I’m very tired of being one of those teachers. I’m tired of being cautious, and tired of being afraid, when I should be respected  and proud. I’m tired of wasting my time on things that don’t really need to happen, and of falling behind on the things that really do need to happen. I’m tired of trying to find time for myself in between the time I spend on others.

I’m tired of making the same old complaints and accusations.

I’m tired of being tired.

Boy, thank God it’s Friday, right?

Advertisements

Expectations

[With deep gratitude to Judy Brady for her incredible essay, “I Want a Wife,” which was the model for this piece. You can read it here.]

Expectations

I am a part – a cog – in that machinery called education. I am a Teacher. And I am quite fond of some of the individuals whom I teach.

A friend of mine has just earned his Master’s in Education – online of course – and has immediately stepped from his third year as an elementary P.E. teacher into an administrative job with a large suburban high school. The school is respected, well-funded, and effective; so as you would expect, my friend is looking to improve the staff with some new teachers in order to earn his new administrative paycheck. He’s searching for brand new teachers, of course, some of those with fresh energy and inspirational idealism. He has asked me to help him in his search for a brand new teacher, and I am always happy to oblige.

So what are the expected qualifications of this brand new teacher?

The teacher will be required to teach the classes. The teacher will be expected to manage a classroom full of 35 students, students grouped according to their birthday and where they happen to live around the beginning of the school year, students who represent 35 different levels of ability and interest in any given subject. When around 10% of these students will move out of the class partway through the year, and be replaced by a similar number of new students arriving in the middle of units, the teacher will be expected to bring these newcomers up to speed and familiarize them with the new material and the new learning environment. The teacher must do this gently, of course, because new students are under quite a lot of stress. The teacher will be expected to handle between five and eight classes of 35 students apiece, every day (five classes would be if the new teacher is part-time, a decision that will be made at the start of the new school year, or within the first six weeks of instruction); though next year, my friend told me, the school will be moving to an A/B block system: four classes one day and the other four the next day, with all eight on a shifting schedule every ninth class day, the day when the school will occasionally have special schedules for pep assemblies and school-wide activities such as the science fair. The teacher will be required to design something science- or STEM-related for the science fair. And the project will need to correlate to the teacher’s own subject. And also the project must draw new students to the school, so the school can compete with those charter schools. The teacher will also be expected to participate in the pep assemblies, preferably in some sort of costume provided by the teacher and related to the school mascot, the Phalanx. But that’s next year: this year the school has an eight-period day, so the teacher will be obligated to prepare for every class, every school day. Some of the classes will be identical courses, but the student makeup in each case will be radically different, and the teacher will be expected to find a way to keep all of the identical courses on the same pace despite the need to differentiate instruction. The teacher will be expected to reteach subject matter to any classes that didn’t master it, and to give extra enrichment activities to the more advanced students who did achieve mastery. The teacher is expected to make the extra work, both the remedial practice and the advanced enrichment, particularly engaging and rewarding for the students, who will not wish to take on extra assignments on top of the required work. There are three minutes between classes, shortened to ensure maximum instructional time; the teacher will need to avail themselves of that time to give students assistance if they fall behind the rigorous pace. The teacher will, of course, be expected to teach bell to bell. Before the beginning of each class, the teacher will be expected to be standing outside their classroom, with a pleasant but formal demeanor, and to personally greet every student as they come into the classroom. The teacher will of course have to make sure they don’t drink too much fluid, as they won’t have a chance to go to the bathroom until lunch at the earliest. Fortunately, lunch is only four hours after school starts. Unless the new teacher is given an early morning class before the regular start time. The teacher will also be expected to spend the lunch period supervising a public area to make sure students are not littering nor using inappropriate language or touching; the teacher can use the between-class intervals for attending to personal needs.

The teacher will be expected to know the content. The teacher will be required to answer all questions correctly and completely, while also encouraging students to do further research on their own, and to offer the students an organized and vetted list of appropriate resources the students could use to find their own information. The teacher will be expected to stay current with the newest developments in the subject, to attend professional development trainings in their free time, to learn the latest methods and strategies, which the teacher will be expected to incorporate into their lesson plans. All lesson plans must be filed with the administration at the beginning of each quarter, and any last-minute modifications must be approved by administration at least one week before they are implemented. The teacher will be mandated to be open to suggestions from administrators, and to be eager to benefit from administrators’ cutting-edge pedagogical training. The teacher is expected to know how their subject matter connects to other areas of instruction and other subjects, and be able to coordinate thematically with other classes. The teacher will be required to control the pace of instruction to match that of other subjects so that no student falls behind and has to suffer through overwork in order to catch up.

In terms of the students’ work, the teacher will be expected to assess baseline abilities, to place students along a continuum, and to develop individual learning plans for each student so that they can receive optimum instruction for their ability level. The teacher will be obligated to provide easily-read charts and graphs of all student progress, both in aggregate for conferencing with administration and for each individual student for parent conferences. Where appropriate, the teacher will be required to coordinate student learning plans with the Exceptional Student Services department; all ESS clients’ learning plans must adhere to all applicable laws and policies, and must receive approval from the ESS department and the parents of the ESS students. The teacher will be expected to issue surveys and to conduct ice-breaking, team-building, trust-fostering, and getting-to-know-you activities, so that the teacher can assess the students’ interests, their cultural backgrounds and biases, their maturity level, and their relative mastery of the curriculum so that the teacher can find  materials that the students will find engaging, but which will neither be offensive nor beyond their current developmental stage or ability level. Once all of the students are assessed and plotted, the teacher will be able to start differentiating instruction in earnest, in order to personalize each student’s learning for maximum improvement, ensuring at all times that all instruction is drawn from the district-approved curriculum and adheres to research-based best practices.

Most importantly, the teacher will be expected to communicate with parents, both about grades and about interesting and important upcoming events. The teacher will need to plan interesting and important upcoming events so that parents can be informed about them. The communication should be professional, such as (but not limited to) a desktop-published newsletter or a website that offers updates through social media interaction. The teacher should note that district computers are not to be used for social media access. The teacher will be expected to encourage parent participation: invite them into the classroom, to help supervise the class (Though of course the parent volunteer cannot provide the instruction, not being a licensed teacher; the teacher will be obligated to make sure the parent volunteers have security clearance, have their fingerprints and background checked by the FBI and ensure the parent volunteers have had a TB test and proof of a recent MMR innoculation); the teacher will be asked to recognize that having a few extra adults to help supervise activities can be very beneficial for students, even high school students, as well as a great help to the teacher. The teacher will be expected to plan class activities which the parents as well as the students will find interesting and educational. The teacher will be required to provide the parent volunteers with an outline, an observation rubric, and a teacher script so they can follow along with the teacher through the lesson, and help observe and chart the students’ responses, especially that of their own child, so the parents can be involved in their child’s ongoing assessment. The parents probably won’t know all of the students in their child’s class, but the teacher will be able to make a printout of the seating chart with student ID photos with only seven or eight steps through the online attendance database. The teacher will be mandated to ensure that the volunteers aren’t given too much information about the students, and to collect the seating charts at the end of the day, so as not to violate confidentiality. The teacher will be expected to make valuable use of the parent volunteers.

The teacher will be expected to prepare students for their futures, to ready them for college, or for the workforce – though of course the school prefers that all students attend college, as that is one of the administration’s own evaluation criteria. The teacher will also, therefore, be expected to make sure students graduate, even if that means simplifying the material and curving their grades; that way they can also participate in sports and extracurricular activities, which are important because they inspire students to work harder in school. Those activities do tend to take time away from school work; but the parents prefer that teachers not assign too much homework anyway, as that causes the students stress. This means that the teacher will be required to arrange to give the student-athletes all of their work during the regular class period, so that academic progress can be maintained without impinging on extracurricular studies; this is a splendid opportunity for the teacher to differentiate instruction. The teacher will also be expected to adjust grades as necessary to maintain athletic eligibility for our top performers.

The teacher will be obligated to sacrifice, voluntarily, for the children. The school has limited resources, and everything must be focused, unalterably, on the children. The teacher will be asked to give up money, time, healthcare, benefits, retirement, tenure, and all aspects of an individual and satisfying future, for the children. The teacher will be required to agree that they did not get into this to get rich, that they teach because they want to make a difference. The teacher will be paid commensurately with their willingness to sacrifice for the children, though regardless of level of sacrifice, the compensation will not be enough. The teacher is expected to have expected this.

In the unlikely event, which has recently grown significantly more likely, of a school shooting, the teacher will be expected to carry a firearm (Firearm, a state-approved method of securing the firearm until needed, and sufficient training in its use to be provided by the teacher) and to end the threat to the children. The teacher will be required to be aware that the school shooter is likely to be one of their current or former students, and the teacher must not hesitate to pull the trigger and put the shooter down. Though of course, the teacher will be obligated to not do anything to put innocent lives in greater danger. If the teacher is troubled by this turn of events, the teacher should consider whether the teacher could have done more to prevent the crisis before it reached this danger point. Perhaps the teacher should have paid more attention, and done more to build trust. And also reported any suspicions they might have of students to the administration, so the school can follow up with law enforcement. If only the teacher had paid more attention. And if the teacher is unwilling or unable to use a firearm to defend the students, the teacher will be expected to shield the children with their own body, and die. For the children.

This is what is expected of this brand new teacher. The question is: who the hell would want the job?

But You Get Summers Off!

[Read Part One: Money Talks]

[Read Part Three: Walking Out]

The day begins at 8:15. That’s when class starts.

But of course that’s not when the day begins. Students come inside at 8:05, and as soon as they do, I am teaching. That’s when the day begins.

Unless I have morning duty: then it starts at 7:45, when I have to show up, unlock the two gates, and then stand in the parking lot and make sure nobody gets run over while all the parents are dropping their kids off at school, and the high schoolers are whipping into the parking lot, trying to make sure that no one took THEIR SPACE. That’s work. 7:45 is when it starts, some days.

Although it might be fair to say that my day begins at 5:20, when my alarm goes off and I get up and take a shower; because in that shower, I am thinking about school. Always. Planning what I will teach, thinking about what I have to grade, trying to remember what meetings I have this week – is this Wednesday a faculty meeting, or grade-level teams? Do I have an IEP meeting today, or is that next week?

But if we begin with the thinking, then the day begins around 2:30 am. Because that’s when my insomnia kicks in, and I start thinking about school. Trying to go back to sleep, of course, but that isn’t always possible; it depends on whether I’ve done anything wrong. Did I lose my temper and snap at a student who asked for the fifth time if we could watch a movie? Did I have to explain a grade to a student who thinks they are a brilliant writer, but really they’re not, and I had to find a way to let them down easily while still encouraging them – but also making it crystal clear that they aren’t as good as they think they are, because otherwise they will get their parents to file an official complaint about the grade, and I’ll have to have three meetings, at least, to iron it out? Do I have a class that’s misbehaving, and I need to explain to them all, again, why they shouldn’t act that way? Because if I do, I will start working on my script at 2:30, and I won’t be done until 3:30 at the earliest. 4:30 is more common, on the days when I have a controlled-anger lecture to give.

That’s when my day begins.

Then, 5:20, alarm, and I have my morning; I have sometimes taken advantage of my early rising to get some correcting done, because I’m fresher first thing in the morning with that first coffee jolt, and I can get through eight or ten vocabulary assignments in under an hour. My vocab assignments are tougher than some, because I make them define the word and then use it in an original sentence, so I have to make sure that the definition is correct, that the sentence uses the word correctly, and that the sentence is grammatically acceptable; that’s also why I can’t let TAs grade the vocab, because they don’t know enough grammar and can’t always pick out which of several similar definitions of the word is the best one. I also give them credit for the sentence even if they got the definition wrong, but the sentence can make sense anyway; and I don’t trust teenagers to do that. So I do it. There are between ten and twenty words per assignment, so it takes me between five and ten minutes for each student to check the whole thing over – longer if I want to give feedback on why the sentence is incorrect, maybe offer a correct alternative so they can see what it looks like to use an adjective properly. 97 times, every two weeks. (I know, only 97 students? I have such small classes! At my last school I hit 180 students, some years! I’m lucky, now. Oh – and I do have more students than that, but two of my classes don’t do vocabulary assignments.) Then it’s breakfast, walking the dog, getting lunch ready, making sure I have all the papers and materials I need for the day. Then it’s off to work.

Morning duty. Usually I’m just a presence; the parents who drive badly (A good 30-40% of them) assiduously avoid eye contact. If it’s a student who speeds through the parking lot or swerves too close to a 6th grader crossing their path, I can yell at them to watch where they’re going and they’ll at least give me an apologetic shrug, but mostly my job is to scowl at the drivers and wave at the students. And watch the clock: because at 8:05 I have to unlock the school door and let the students in; and then I’m supposed to stay out there until 8:15 – but my class starts at 8:15. Do I open the classroom door while I’m outside, let my students hang out in my room until I get in there? If I leave them unsupervised they may get in a fight, or steal something, or break something valuable; I better leave the door locked. Which means they will stand in a loud, obnoxious clump outside my door, and block the hall for everyone else. Oh, well, can’t be helped.

I fudge the end of morning duty, go in about 8:13; usually my boss is coming down the hall to make sure the door is locked, so he sees me. Damn. I’ll be getting an email later about how important duty is, how we need to make sure our students are safe. Well, anyway: into the classroom, 21 freshmen for Honors English, and here we go. I need to:

*Log onto my computer, start Chrome, open the email program and make sure I don’t have any emails with subjects like “EMERGENCY: BOMB THREAT HAS BEEN RECEIVED,”

*Start the attendance program, log in, take attendance (If I don’t do this in the first three minutes, the front office will call to remind me.), mark the tardy students absent (We don’t mark them tardy during first period; if they come in late, they have to go to the front office for a note, and then we mark them Present; the front office changes their attendance to Tardy for us.), change the Absent students to Present as they walk in late with notes

*Start Internet Explorer (Because that’s where I have the Bookmark) and open the morning announcements.

*Get the students’ attention: impossible because they are too busy chatting and visiting and teasing each other.

*Stand for the Pledge of Allegiance when it comes over the PA

*Go over the morning announcements: a witty quote that is either over the students’ heads, or strange and offputting, or both; the same five announcements that have been on there for a week; a new video from the Character Education class about Inclusion, this week; God forbid a new episode from the journalism class with this week’s school news (They do a fine job, but my students love nothing more than criticizing, and so every week when the new episode is posted, I’m in for several minutes of snark and sass, and then indifference and distraction when I stop them from being crappy.); and then sports scores that none of them want to know about unless they were on the team that won, and then they want to make sure that the scores are seen and they get congratulated.

*Start class.

What am I teaching again?

Oh, right, To Kill a Mockingbird. Well, at least these students get their own books off the shelf – though I have to remember to tell them to stop throwing the books across the room to their friends, because somebody’s going to get hurt, most likely the book; I’ve been able to pick up a few used copies to replace the worst ones, but I already can’t tell the difference between the ones I bought and the ones I got from the English teacher next door when I took over this class: covers are falling off, spines are snapped, chunks of the book are falling out. Okay, so now I’ve got them on the right page (Mostly: there are four different editions, all with different page numbers, so someone is always lost), and it’s time to start reading. They’re still chatting, and I shush them. I start reading.

They’re still talking. I shush them again, louder, and add “Quiet, please!” I start reading again.

Still talking. Now the students have gotten annoyed with their peers, and one of them cries out, “SHUT UP!” I should tell her to be more respectful, but I’m on her side. Plus, it worked. So now I read. It’s a good class, the Honors class, so they pay attention, mostly; there are only three or four who are still scrolling through their phones behind their books or under their desks while I’m reading aloud; when I stop to ask a question, I get several kids willing to answer. Actually, they might be too involved: the one kid who loves to talk has his hand in the air every five minutes, often starting his comments with, “This is a little off-topic, but…” And the one precocious girl always wants to share when she has had some insight, when she has spotted a thematic connection; it’s great, but her classmates are tired of her being a know-it-all, as they see it, so as soon as she starts talking, they start making noises, having small side conversations; and the girl speaks too quietly and I can’t hear her.

But I read, enjoying every minute of it, because it’s Harper Lee and every page is brilliant. The kids like it too, and everything is going great – except now it’s 9:09, and the class is almost over (First period is longer to allow for the morning announcements.) and DAMMIT, I forgot to give them their reading project assignment, again. I’ll have to remember to change the due date on the assignment sheet and make a new set of copies. I stop reading with a minute left, they put the books back on the shelf; the precocious girl and the talkative boy both come up to my desk to talk to me, at the same time, and I try to listen to both as the bell rings and the room empties. By the time I have laughed at the boy’s joke and heard the girl’s last insight, my next class has started coming in: they are juniors, so they drop their bags on their desks and then go back out in the hallway, to the bathrooms and the water fountains. I check the email, make sure there aren’t any bomb threats; I have an email from a parent and one from the Special Ed teacher, both of which I have to open immediately. (I also have eight assignments from students, two communiques from the principal, and seven pieces of spam.) The parent email is asking about a student’s grade in their class, so I mark it Unread and try to remember to read and respond later; the special ed teacher is reminding me that we have an IEP meeting this afternoon. Crap.

The bell rings and it’s time for 2nd period: College Readiness. A required elective which the juniors all resent; it’s intended to help them succeed on SATs and ACTs and college applications; they split the week between math, college counseling, and me for English. It’s annoying to them because most of them are already in more advanced math classes than what is on the tests, and they already have me for English some other time during the day, but they still have to take this class. They are all late, either because they took too long coming from first period or because they’re in the bathroom, expecting their bags to count as attendance placeholders; sometimes I mark them absent and then change it as they trickle in, sometimes I mark them all here and forget about it. But when I do that, I always remember my college professor telling us that the attendance record is a legal document, and if I mark a student here when they’re absent, it could be used as evidence in court, say if that student is actually off robbing a Kwik-E-Mart while I said they were in my 3rd period class. And if I mark them absent while they are present, that makes the automated system call their parents and say the kid is absent from this class; then the parent texts the student to ask where the hell they are, and I get an email. And if I don’t get the attendance taken in the first three minutes of class, the front office will call and remind me.

So what were we doing in here? Oh, right, they are practicing their college application essays. So I want them to make their rough drafts twice as long, and then they will cut them down to 650 words max, the recommended max length from the Common App. So I could use one of the samples that I wrote, and show the students where I would add more details, more information, more words just to hit the target length (Even though I hate writing for length, as all that should matter is purpose and audience; this is the only class where I assign minimum and maximum lengths for essays, because college applications expect that), but I think it would be better to get one of them to tell me a story, and I’ll type it up on the projected screen while they all watch. I’m lucky; the class clown is in this group, and he always has a story, and the one today actually isn’t that bad – though it is about running off campus to buy snacks from the Circle K in between classes, which isn’t allowed and I should say something about it. But I get the story down, which takes about half of the class time; and then I start talking about where the essay thus created could be added to.

Nope: they’ve stopped listening. Well, after all, it’s not a real class; the assignment isn’t due today; the story on the board isn’t theirs, and though it was entertaining, they already heard it when the clown told it to me the first time. So they have no reason to pay attention. I give up, and let them do nothing; I sit at my computer and start answering that parent email –

Fire drill. The loudest damn siren in the world, makes me jump every time. Fortunately the students know what to do, so they head outside; if it was a lockdown drill, they’d be anxious and awkward and unsure, and I’d have to guide them where to go and what to do. I grab my attendance folder off the wall, shut off the lights, go back for my sunglasses because the sunlight makes me sneeze, and then lock the door and go out. I have to hold my hands over my ears as we pass the outside siren, because the noise is actually painful. Then we’re outside, and I have to direct the students to the right place after all, because we’ve changed protocol this year (They used to go through the locked gate, which meant they all piled up until I got there to open the lock; now they go through the parking lot to the far side), and tell them not to mess with the parked cars, and no, they can’t run down to Circle K for some snacks. Not even if they bring me some. Take attendance again outside, hold up the green card because they’re all there, and then wait for the signal to take them back inside. Still waiting. Still waiting. “Hey Student X, put Student Y down, please. Student Z, stop spitting sunflower seeds on people.” Still waiting. Okay, there we go: back inside. They file back in just in time to get their things, and then the bell rings to end the period. My third period students already left their second period, so they’re coming in even before second period ends, asking, “What are we going to do today?”

What are we – oh, crap! I need the Chromebooks. They’re doing research for their argument essays this period. Race to the computer (Unlock it because it timed out while I was outside), bring up the Staff Forms page, open the Chromebook Cart Reservation page, check the three carts – Cart #3, okay. Dammit, it’s all the way down at the other end of the school. Pick out two students and send them to get the cart. Then it’s time for attendance, and I have a minute or so to remind them of their tasks before the computer cart arrives, at which point they stop listening to me because they now get a computer to play with, and they all swarm the cart and grab Chromebooks.

Except there aren’t enough. The last teacher didn’t manage to collect them all, because of the fire drill. So I send some students down to fetch them. They do, but there still aren’t enough, because this is my big class, 26 sophomores (Well, 25 sophomores and one senior taking Sophomore English for the third time, bless her heart. She won’t pass this time, either.) and the cart only carries 24 Chromebooks. So I send two more students on a quest for random Chromebooks, which they track down in only 20 minutes of roaming the halls. But no great loss, because that same time has been spent in the classroom watching YouTube videos and finding ways to play free online video games, or else bringing up Google and then looking at a phone. The rest of the class period goes the same, and at the end, they ask if they will also have tomorrow to do research. I shake my head, unable to muster any better answer, and send them away when the bell rings. Then I have to collect all the Chromebooks they left on their desks, return them to the cart, make sure all of them are plugged in –

No, wait, that has to wait for a minute: I haven’t been to the bathroom in three hours. I race down to the teacher’s lounge, because the boy’s room across the hall is filthy and usually occupied, and I have bashful kidneys. By the time I get back to my classroom, the Chromebook cart is gone; hopefully to the right place. I don’t know: this is my prep period, the best time of the day. No students for fifty – no, forty-one glorious minutes.

I have to:

*Actually read all of the emails that came in today, and any I didn’t get to yesterday.

*Respond to all emails that need a response, in the following order of importance (most to least): parents, special ed, other teachers, administration, students.

*Check that I have the right handouts for the three classes after lunch, that I know what I’m teaching, that I know what assignments I have to collect and what due dates I have to remind them of

*Make any copies I may need this afternoon or tomorrow morning, as I won’t have time to make copies in the morning (Xerox machine is always tied up before first period) and I have an IEP meeting after school

*Make more coffee before I collapse into a stupor

*Use the bathroom at least one more time

*Do as much grading as possible. Usually not very much. Today, none: because one of my colleagues stops in to ask me if I’ve heard the latest absurdity the admin’s gotten up to, and I haven’t, so we need to discuss it. We do. It’s infuriating.

 

Now I have eight minutes left. Didn’t get any grading done.

But that’s okay, because the next class is lunch; not quite as satisfying as prep, because there are students in here, mostly hanging out (with their terribly smelly food) but some looking for help or to check on due dates or to ask if I’ve graded that essay they turned in late. The students who are hanging out want to talk to me, because they want to tell me what they did yesterday, or show me that meme or the video they found that was hilarious and I’ll like it because there are dogs in it, or they want to ask my advice, or for me to settle an argument (Is cheesecake a pie or a cake? Have I seen the trailer for the new Fahrenheit 451 adaptation, and what do I think of it? Should they move into the dorm for college next year, or live with their parents to save money? Should they even go to college? Don’t I think the new math teacher is an asshole?) [Answers: I say cake, because of the name, but really it’s a tart; yes, and I think it will be a good movie but not the wonder that the book is; they should move out if they can afford it; yes unless they have a different plan that is as useful as a college education would be; and no, because I like the teachers more than the students, even though I agree that math is evil. Yes, these are all things I have said to students.].

I eat my lunch, finally make my coffee while also finishing up the copies I need for class after lunch, and spend a few minutes talking to my wife. (On the phone for the first sixteen years of my career, in the next classroom for the last two years, as she has been teaching at the school where I work. It’s lovely to have her there. It makes my blood absolutely boil to see the way they treat her, the goddamned admin and the obnoxious students and the entitled parents. Drives me nuts.) Then it’s time for 6th period: Advanced Placement Literature and Composition. Today I am teaching Julius Caesar by Shakespeare, which is nice, because I’ve taught it for years and I know everything about it; I also worry that I’m not seeing it with fresh eyes for the same reason, and so there are things that I’m missing. I need to help them see through the text, because this class is struggling with the AP expectations for analysis; they write well, for the most part, but they don’t always get what they’re reading. Because with one or two exceptions in this class of twelve seniors, they don’t ever read outside of what is assigned for school. They never have. They tell me, half ashamed and half proud, how few books they’ve read this year, or the last four years, or their entire lives.

People wonder why I read books out loud to my high school students. It’s because it is literally the only way I can be sure they will read at least one book in my class.

This is one of the factors that makes English an impossible subject to teach: the students don’t read. I have to find a way to keep them interested in books, which they believe, with all of their hearts, are boring and obsolete; I have to find a way to make them want to put thought into the books, because that’s the only way they’ll see the value of literature. I have to both know everything about the books I’m teaching, so I can answer their questions and ask them good ones in return, and also improvise constantly, and use whatever I can to relate the literature to this class, these students, this point in time and place; because of that, I generally can’t re-use old lesson plans, and I have to constantly learn everything there is to know about new literature. Teaching writing is even more difficult, because it has all of the same inherent feel of being boring and obsolete to students who are never disconnected from the internet; and also because it makes the students feel inadequate, because they know they don’t write well, and they don’t want to be embarrassed, and they don’t want a bad grade – and so they try not to write, which means they don’t practice and they don’t get better. When I do ask them to write, they often put as little effort into it as possible, and then they confirm for themselves that they don’t write well.

18 years teaching, and I don’t know how to fix that. I try something new every year. Sometimes it works. With some of them. I think.

But I can’t really say that English is harder to teach than other subjects: we all have individual difficulties, and mine aren’t worse. At least I have stories, with sex and violence and beautiful language; math teachers need to constantly think of ways to keep students interested in abstractions, thinking in ways they don’t normally think; history and science teachers have to present an enormous amount of information, and somehow make it digestible; arts and technical teachers have to constantly circle the classroom, never sitting down for a second all day, looking over students’ shoulders and trying to figure out what they’re doing wrong and help them do it right, all while the students are incessantly calling out the teacher’s name – if you’ve never been in a high school arts or tech classroom, just imagine 20-30 hungry baby birds in different nests, with one bird trying to feed them all while also keep them from falling out of the tree or pecking each other to death, while they just keep crying out, crying out for attention. It’s quite the dance.

Elementary school teachers have to do all of this at once. Though with a lot fewer students, admittedly. Still: it’s not a job I’d want; the one day I subbed in an elementary school was one of my worst as a teacher. I prefer high school, and Language Arts. At least I think I do. A lot of the time, I’d rather just be a janitor.

6th period goes well; they’re great kids. Almost graduated now. I worry about some of them. Especially the one student who recently had a death in the family. I worry a lot about that one, because the death hit hard, and all plans have changed, and I don’t know if that’s a warning sign or just the normal healthy grieving process. I’ve been a teacher for eighteen years, and I’ve had three of my students commit suicide: I don’t want to have a fourth. I’ve also had to make reports to social services twice, once for an abusive parent and once for a girl who had a “boyfriend” who was twenty years older than her. Neither report led to a good outcome. I don’t need to report this one: everyone knows the whole situation, which means everyone treats this student like they’re kryptonite. I try to be normal with the student. I try to talk to them every day, to be present for anything that needs to be said, to be as honest and open as I can be, always, no matter what. I don’t know how well I do. I don’t know if it will make any difference. But it’s all I can do. So I do it.

When I have time.

We don’t get through much Julius Caesar, because they constantly distract me and the class with their jokes and their stories and their questions; I encourage that, because I think it helps make the class more meaningful and more useful, and also because there are pedagogical theories that encourage students to associate knowledge with their own lives, their own experiences, and so letting them voice all of their thoughts encourages that sort of association. Or maybe it just wastes time; I don’t really know. I know they like my class. I know we don’t cover half as much material as most other teachers. I don’t know any other way to teach.

Speaking of teaching: now it’s time for 7th period. AP Language and Composition.

What the hell was I doing in this class?

Oh right: they’re halfway through “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell. We’re talking about imagery. I find my copy under the pile of papers by my podium, and I tell them to get out theirs; I remember to take attendance then, and go to my computer to do it – and realize I forgot to take attendance for the senior class last period. Dammit. Huh, well, at least the front office didn’t call. I mark attendance for both classes, then hand out replacement copies to the two students who lost their packets since yesterday and one to the kid who has it but doesn’t want to dig through his backpack and find it, and then we’re off: to Burma, in the 1920’s, when a young George Orwell is about to slaughter an elephant because he doesn’t know how to let the elephant live and still be a white police officer in a British colony. He hates everything, especially himself. I can kinda relate.

I get into it, reading the piece; Orwell was such a damn good writer. I wish I could write like that. I know it’s because he was able to live his writing, almost all of it: when he wrote Homage to Catalonia, about the Spanish Civil War, it was after he went to Spain and joined the anti-fascist militias, and actually fought on the front lines. I wish I could do that. Not fight in a war, but go to where I am needed, and do what I believe needs to be done, and then write beautiful, crystal-perfect books about what I had done. Though I’d rather not die at age 48 of tuberculosis: I’m 43 now, so that’s not much time left. Still haven’t published a book. Not that much time in my day to write; certainly no time to do anything worth writing about.

I can’t get too into it, though, because this is my annoying class. This is the class with the one student who likes to irritate everyone, and so says intentionally sexist or racist things, and then says, “I’m just kidding.” He knows I’m a vegetarian, so he likes to bring up how he slaughters his own meat. He likes to make the stories as disgusting as possible, and then smile at me. And there’s that other student who can’t sit still: she will stand up and dance right in the middle of class, while I’m reading. Or she will make hand gestures and funny faces at other students in the class, laughing loudly while we’re trying to have discussion. She’s the smartest one in the room, so if I call her on it, she’ll apologize, share some insight to mollify me – and then go right back to disrupting the class, while also making some passive-aggressive statement about how limiting and controlling school is, how that’s unhealthy for a growing mind. Then she’ll stare at her phone for half an hour, turning it around to show funny memes to students across the room. And the rest of the students in here would rather be studying for their math class which they have next period, or grumbling about the history class they had last period. The class often feels like a complete waste of time.

Speaking of not much time left: class is almost over now. I cut the article off with one paragraph left; we’ll finish it tomorrow, but the mood will be ruined, because they won’t remember tomorrow what we read today, other than the bare facts: Orwell shot the elephant. Now it’s time for 8th period: the second AP Lang class, the big one – twice as many students as 7th period. Fortunately, this is the one time when I don’t have to remember what we were doing, the one time when I have the same class twice in a row; unfortunately, the two classes don’t go at the same pace, so I don’t remember where we were in the Orwell article with this class. When I remember, I mark the paper where each class stops. When I remember.

Unfortunately, fighting through 7th period has put me into a bad mood, and worn me out entirely. Well, at least I have four minutes to recover. I take deep breaths, try to shake it off, try to treat the new class fairly, not take out the last class’s misbehavior on these kids. It’s tough. Especially at the end of the day.

The class goes by in a blur, but also, because it is the end of the day and I am exhausted, it crawls by. The clock doesn’t move and doesn’t move and doesn’t move, and then suddenly there are only 20 minutes left and we haven’t finished the reading. We get through it, the whole thing (so now they’re ahead of 7th period), and I’m about to lead them into the analysis: when the bell rings. 3:30. Day’s over. They swarm out, and silence descends.

Then my classroom phone rings: I forgot the attendance again. I apologize, and take it now. I fall into my desk chair, open my email. Oh right: I have an IEP meeting. Down I go to the special ed room to talk about how well that student is doing in my class (or how poorly) despite learning disabilities or physical disabilities or autism spectrum challenges. Or all three.

An hour later, and it’s all I can do to gather my things and leave. Home, to dinner, and dog walking, and family time, and some relaxation; then, around 8:00, after dinner is done, I remember: I haven’t actually graded anything all day. I grab up the laptop, sit on the living room couch, open my email, and start grading vocab assignments that students sent to me online. If I’m lucky, I can get a whole class done before I have to go to sleep, sometime between 10:00 and 11:00.

I need to get a few hours of sleep before I wake up at 2:30. I’m worried about that kid in my 6th period class. Seemed … off today. I hope there’s nothing going on. I hope nothing happens. I hope I didn’t say or do the wrong thing. I hope.

This is no exaggeration. This is what I do, what I have done for 18 years. I don’t always have fire drills, or adventures with the Chromebook carts; sometimes it’s a lockdown drill. More than once in my career it has been a bomb threat, and an evacuation. Oftentimes I realize I don’t have the copies I need to teach the lesson I wanted to teach, and I have to do something I make up on the spot. More than once I have gone to the computer lab and found another class using the computers. Schedules change, students are out for field trips or athletic events. I don’t always grade at night; sometimes I get more done at school, and then I let myself do something else in the evening. I pretty much always grade on weekends, and during vacations; I’m an English teacher. I have essays to read. A single essay takes between 20 and 30 minutes to grade and comment on, and I have 100 students, and I assign multiple drafts.

Ask me to communicate regularly with parents. Or to stay until 7:00 or 8:00, three or four times a year, for parent conferences.

Ask me to have extra meetings with troubled students.

Ask me to plan and organize curriculum, or to discuss pedagogy with other teachers, or interventions for students who aren’t successful.

Ask me to plan, organize, and run extracurricular events, on evenings or on weekends. To coach teams, to run clubs, to offer extra tutoring to students who need it. Ask me to be the department chair, and the community liaison, and the head of the recycling program.

God forbid you ask me to raise my own children on top of all of this. I don’t know how teacher-parents do it.

Now ask me how much I get paid for the job I do. Ask me how much I should get paid.

Then ask me why teachers are going to be walking out across Arizona tomorrow.

You can ask. But I think you already know the answer.

Money Talks

Image result for red for ed

[Read Part Two: But You Get Summers Off]

[Read Part Three: Walking Out]

I don’t know how much what I’m about to say needs to be said. This blog is full of book reviews and liberal political ranting; the majority of my readers are people I know personally, which means they’re mostly teachers and liberals and readers (Oh my!), like me. I feel pretty confident that most people reading this already think that teachers should be paid more. But I want to take it one step further, because while most people seem to think that teachers should be paid more, somehow we’re not; so there does seem to be a need, here. My hope, therefore, is that people who don’t realize how vital this issue is will learn something that helps push them towards what I think is the right answer; maybe you all will even share this or some of the ideas with your own people, and then others might learn something or be pushed towards the right answer.

For myself, I need to do this. Because, you see, I teach in Arizona, and in two days, thousands of Arizona teachers are going to walk off the job and out of their schools in order to try to win the same argument I’m going to talk about here; and I won’t be walking out with them. That makes me feel terrible. So I need to do what I can to support them, and one of the things I can do is argue, and write, and then share this. So here goes.

Let’s talk first about what teachers make. I started teaching in 2000, in San Diego County in southern California; that year I made about $36,000 before taxes. I also got good health coverage, though I didn’t need it at the time, and about $4000 was contributed to a pension account in my name. However, as some of you know and the rest can imagine, San Diego County is quite an expensive place to live, and so that first year, I needed to take a second job over the summer to make ends meet: I went with the obvious one, and taught summer school. Six weeks of extra work, and I made $25 an hour, 7 hours a day. Not bad. That year I was able to purchase my very first car, a 2-year-old Chevy pick-up with 74,000 miles, and we found a decent 3-bedroom house to rent. (I should note: I am removing my wife from this almost entirely, because her income has been extremely inconsistent: some years she made a lot, some years not so much. She’s an artist. The point I’m trying to make is this: it shouldn’t matter. I’m a highly trained and capable professional. I should be able to pay for a lower-middle-class lifestyle for two people with no kids and no expensive habits. Don’t you think?) We were able to pay for most purchases, but when surprise bills came up, they went on credit cards. Luckily, not that many bills came up, and we didn’t purchase very many things. No large entertainment systems. No extra vehicles. We took one vacation, an overnight trip to Disneyland. We did buy pets, I’ll admit. The bunny cost us $20. The dog was the big ticket item: $150 for him.

We moved to Oregon in 2004, partly because we hadn’t been able to save anything substantial, despite the fact that I kept teaching summer school, and got a $1500 raise every year (Teachers generally have a salary schedule where we step up every year for some number of years, and then every couple of years, and then we top out after 15-20 steps. You can also get raises if you get more post-degree education, which shifts you up a column.), and we knew that we’d never be able to afford to buy a home in San Diego’s real estate market. When we moved, I was up to $42,000 a year pre-tax; my new position in St. Helens, Oregon paid about $35,000. Back to square one. I had to take out the retirement money because four years isn’t long enough to get vested into the California retirement system, so we rolled it over into an IRA. But there was a problem: the cost of living in Oregon wasn’t actually much less than it had been in California, and my monthly paychecks weren’t enough to cover our bills. I had to change from 12 monthly checks to 10, which meant I didn’t get paid over the summer. No problem: I would teach summer school.

They didn’t have summer school.

So we cashed out my retirement money, and that got us through the summer; about half of my total retirement savings from California was left. The next year I got a raise, but still not enough to go to 12 monthly checks (Please note: this is now my 6th year teaching, and I didn’t make enough to pay for two people with a very modest lifestyle, no kids, no expensive hobbies. When my lawnmower died, I bought a push mower.); fortunately, that year they ran a summer school, and I taught it. Allow me to point out: this was a second job. I know people make a lot of teachers getting the summers off, and we do – that’s one of the main reasons why I started teaching, because I wanted to use the summers to write my novels – but we work 50-60 hours a week during the school year. Especially the first few years, because everything is new and takes ten times as much planning (Especially when, like me, you get handed new never-before-taught classes and you have to make everything up from scratch.). You also don’t get to sleep, because everything makes you nervous or angry or both. Everything. I threw a book at a kid my first year because he was rolling around the classroom in my desk chair. (Don’t worry, I missed him.) The summer isn’t really vacation, it’s all the hours you lost over the school year, the only time you get to relax and do fun things, or spend time with family, or sleep. The average school year is 36-38 weeks long (My current school has a 40-week academic year with two extra weeks of professional development for teachers); even if we don’t count the work we usually do over summer on lesson plans and such, the hours are comparable: a regular office job is 50 weeks, 40 hours a week, which is 2000 hours a year; a teacher works around 53 hours a week, on average, for, let’s say, 38 weeks, which is 2014 hours per year. So having to teach summer school is exactly the same as having a second job right after your 40-hour-a-week job: you don’t get to take advantage of your hours off, you never really get to rest. It is not easy.

So I taught summer school that second year in Oregon, and it helped; but not enough, because we had bought our very first house, which saved money on rent and allowed us to start building equity, but it also meant we had new bills. So that we’re clear: we did not go crazy with this purchase; we bought the ugliest house in the best neighborhood, and in April of 2005, it cost us about $140,000; we didn’t have a down payment, but there was a special deal offered to teachers that covered 100% of new home mortgages. So that year we had to cash out the rest of my retirement money to make it through the summer. And I had no idea what we were going to do the third year.

The third year in Oregon, I found out that my district had been shortchanging me: they had calculated my column on the salary schedule as though my credits were quarter credits, when most of them were semester credits, which should have moved me up to the third column (Bachelor’s degree +45 graduate credits instead of +30, because I did two and a half years of graduate school after my BA. Teacher training, not a Master’s program, but it counts.). They gave me the difference in one large check: that and the new step I got that year meant we were able to cover the summer gap, with the summer school work. The following year, my fourth year teaching in Oregon, the step was just barely enough that we could shift to 12 paychecks: and for the first time, I could pay my way with just my teacher’s salary. Mostly. We still couldn’t handle a large money emergency, and we still didn’t have any appreciable savings. Two people. No kids. No expensive habits. Hadn’t taken a vacation since Disneyland. We had a second car at this point: my wife’s parents gave her their GMC Jimmy when they bought a new car for themselves.

Right about then (2007-2008), the economy collapsed. Even though we had bought the cheapest house we could, and done a lot of improvements ourselves, we went underwater on our mortgage. Teachers started getting RIFfed (Reduction In Force, the eduspeak version of layoffs), and our health insurance costs started going up, and our salaries got frozen, step raises delayed or canceled. Somewhere around there, right around when we finished paying it off, my Chevy got broken and we couldn’t afford to repair it, so it sat in our driveway for a year while I walked to work. (That was by choice. I could have taken my wife’s car, or had her drive me, but I liked the walk. The point is that I couldn’t afford to pay for a house and two cars. Eight, nine, ten years as a professional teacher. And Oregon teacher salaries are pretty good, taken as a whole.) So in 2010, I again took a second job, as a union negotiator for the contract talks we had with our district. That might have been the toughest job for the least compensation I’ve ever had; I got a one-time stipend of, I think, about $1400; in exchange, I stopped sleeping for the year and a half that I was the lead negotiator. Instead of sleep, I just hated everyone and everything. Especially myself.

Here’s the gist: by the time we moved away from Oregon, in 2014, I was earning $59,000 a year before taxes, though like everyone, our health care costs were going up every year. We sold our house in 2013 for a small profit, but only if you don’t count in the money we invested in it, or the time. We used much of that money to buy a new car – a two-year-old Kia Sportage with 25,000 miles – and a new mattress, and our first flat screen TV (Which we still have). And we moved to Arizona, where I took a job at a charter school in Tucson. That first year? My 14th as a teacher, who now had over 90 post-graduate credits, because I had to take more classes to renew my Oregon credential?

I made $36,000. Before taxes.

So now here I am, in my 18th year as a teacher. I am Highly Effective according to my last performance review, the top score you can earn. I have been one of the favorite teachers, if that matters (and since charter schools compete with public schools for students, and one of our selling points is to have students tell other students that they really like their __________ teacher, it does matter; I’ve had parents tell me the reason they came to or stayed with the school is because of the English department) every year; I was named Teacher of the Year in Oregon. This year I made about $45,000 before taxes. I only got it up that high because I teach AP (Extra work because there are more and longer essays), because I teach five different preps (Extra planning work to figure out what five different classes are going to do each day, and also tough to shift gears that many times during the day when I get four minutes in between classes), and because I teach more than a full schedule (I teach 29 periods per week instead of the usual 25) – basically, I’m teaching summer school during the year, now. And I can almost pay all of our bills. Almost. Still couldn’t handle a money emergency, nor save a lot. Won’t be buying another house any time soon. We are doing better because of my wife’s income. But shouldn’t I be able to pay for two people, no kids, no expensive habits? Isn’t that a reasonable expectation for a teacher’s salary? Especially a good teacher with almost twenty years of experience and two Master’s degrees worth of extra credits?

So here’s my question for the room. How much should a teacher make? I don’t mean a dollar figure, since that can reasonably be tied to cost of living depending on location; I mean, where should teachers fall on the scale? Are we middle class? Working class? Are we servants? Public sector workers? I’m sure you’ve seen the memes about teachers as babysitters (I have about 20 students at a time [Charter schools do have smaller class sizes, which is lovely] for seven hours a day; if parents pay babysitters $10 an hour or more, how much should I make? Sure, I’ll take $1400 a day.) or calculating all of the different tasks a teacher does during the day, or comparing teacher pay in the US to teacher pay in, say, Finland; but I’ve also seen people describing teachers as lazy and incompetent, as people who get summers off, as people who just hang out with kids all day, and therefore we are overpaid. Allow me to point out that part of the reason for low teacher pay is that teachers have always been willing to give up dollars in exchange for benefits: for good health coverage, for good retirement, for tenure, the system that makes it harder to get fired. (Not impossible: it is never impossible to get fired. Don’t believe anyone who says it is.) Allow me also to point out that, though it varies state by state, I currently have decent health coverage that is pretty expensive for me; no contribution to any retirement beyond social security; and no tenure. Those benefits are vanishing. And in exchange, we get – more work. And less pay.

You could argue that teachers know what they’re signing up for. You’d be sort of right, although – like most people, I would think – there were expectations I had that didn’t prove true, like the summers off and the tenure and such. But by now, I know what I’m signing up for. I could quit teaching, try to find something else; but I’d have to start at entry level. And also, I’m good at teaching: it seems like something I should stick with. And it seems like something I should be able to make a living doing, at least enough to pay for two people with no kids and no expensive habits. I could have turned down the job in Arizona, stayed in Oregon and made more. I could move away now and make more, especially if I moved to Massachusetts or New York, or back to California. But while that solves my problem, it doesn’t solve the whole problem: because there will still be more than a million students in Arizona, who need teachers. And if Arizona won’t pay those teachers enough, and the teachers all move away, then – what? What’s the plan? All the students follow the teachers to different states? They all get homeschooled, learn their math from Khan Academy?

I read an article this morning in the New York Times about how all public sector government jobs have been disappearing and losing pay; a couple of statements struck me. Both came from the same woman, Teresa Moore, a social worker in Oklahoma who investigates reports of abuse of both children and seniors. The first was this:

Ms. Moore’s friends and neighbors hold conflicting views of her taxpayer-funded job. “The minute they have someone in the nursing home they perceive to be mistreated, we’re the first people they come to,” she said. “They want us when they need us. And when they no longer need us again, they don’t want us.” Source, Emphasis added

The second was this:

Some are resentful that they are being asked to pay for benefits that they themselves struggle to afford.

I asked my brother, ‘How do you feel about this pay raise?’” Ms. Moore recalled. “He said: ‘I want you to have it. You deserve it. But we don’t feel like we should pay for it.’” Source

I think this is how this country sees teachers. People want teachers to care for children, and they want us to do a good job of educating them; for some people, that means a specific information set, and for others, it means a different set – but everyone wants us to do a good job. Unless, y’know, they don’t actually have kids and don’t need to think about education, in which case, they’d really like us to just go away. Or else they don’t want to pay for us personally, and they think only parents should pay for us. (This attitude, held by the many retirees who come to Arizona for the winter months – the so-called “Snowbirds” – is a large part of the reason why Arizona teachers are the worst paid in the nation.) Or, of course, they don’t know who should pay for us: so long as it isn’t them, personally. (This also may be where the Snowbirds land.) I’m sure there are some who are resentful of teachers making more money or having better benefits than they themselves have, but that’s an insupportable argument if it comes only from envy: you can argue that teachers should make less money if you have an argument why teachers are worth less money. For many people, that argument starts and stops with good benefits and summers off and “spending all day with children.”

None of which, I hope I’ve shown, are actually true. The benefits are gone; the summers off never existed; I haven’t talked about the lil angels we get to spend all day with, but I doubt most people believe that. Because of course they aren’t angels. You weren’t, were you? Neither was I.

People want us to do a good job, but they don’t want to pay us to do a good job. They want to pay us the bare minimum, and ask us to do the maximum – because it’s for the children. And while we should do the very best we can, for the sake of the children and for society, that doesn’t mean we should be paid the very least we can survive on at the same time. Because that isn’t for the children: that’s for the people who just don’t want to pay us. Who maybe think we deserve more money, but they don’t want to be the ones footing the bill.

The last month or so has shown us the new truth: teachers are done with this trade-off, our best for taxpayers’ least. There has been a long slow slide down, which has taken advantage of career teachers who don’t want to look for new jobs; and which has taken advantage of old benefit packages which have been traded for pay cuts (The time has run out on this one, since there isn’t any more pay to cut, and so those benefits have been cut, too); and which has taken advantage of teachers’ general sense of goodwill and public service to the community. A lot of us want to teach in the places we grew up, and places that pay less, like Arizona and Oklahoma and Kentucky and West Virginia, have surely taken advantage of that. One of the best teachers at my school, my department chair, is still there despite being overworked and underpaid and being treated generally shabbily, for all three of these reasons: she grew up here, she’s been a teacher here for 25 years, she’s willing to make a little less if her benefits would be a little better.

What does it say about us as a nation that we treat people like that so poorly? We liberals rant and rave about how President Trump makes us look bad: but we all let teaching get to where it is. All of us.

And then, of course, there is the biggest reason why teachers don’t make enough: we care. We usually want to do a good job. We usually care about children, and about education, and we are sympathetic to the needs of families. When I was running the union negotiations, the biggest hurdle we had to overcome wasn’t the district, or the parents: it was the other teachers. Many of them wanted to cut their own pay because that would have saved other teachers’ jobs. Many of them wanted to accept whatever was offered, just so long as they got to keep teaching; and whether or not they could afford to live on their salary didn’t matter: their students needed them. It’s the same reason why, when classroom supply budgets get cut, most teachers go right out and buy the supplies themselves, even though in many communities, the parents make more than the teachers. But we do it because the kids really need those supplies. If the kids don’t have those supplies, we can’t do that project, and that project is really effective – plus the kids love it. We’re nice people, and that makes us saps. It also makes us good at our jobs. But we only get paid like saps. And then they ask us to do a little more, to give a little more, to work a little harder. For the children.

It’s gone too far. Teachers are going on strike, even without a union to protect their jobs and pay them partial wages, as would have happened had my own negotiation broken down that far. (It didn’t. We took the deal the district offered us. We saved jobs, lost money, and kept teaching. Of course. But Oregon has farther to fall before it reaches where Arizona is now.) Despite all the reasons why we don’t want to, we’re walking out of our classrooms, walking out of our schools, walking out on our students and our careers. We’re no longer willing to do this for what America seems willing to pay us. Either we get paid more, or we stop doing this. I say, we need to get paid enough to pay for two people, with no kids and no expensive habits, to build up some savings and maybe buy a house. Not just because that would suit me, but because I think it’s reasonable based on the value of services rendered. I will endeavor to prove that in another blog, hopefully tomorrow.

We’re good at our jobs. Unless America doesn’t want us to do our jobs any more, then we say we need to be paid more. Starting right now.

And you know what? We’re right.

After all, we’re teachers.

Scat!

Okay: so my job, teaching? It involves a lot of shit. I get a lot of shit from students, both bullshit (“I was sick when you assigned this essay. Can I get more time?”) and insulting shit (“You ever think that you shouldn’t have been a teacher? You’re not very good at it.”), I return quite a bit of shit to them (“Of course I like all of my classes equally. I don’t believe in playing favorites. Though if I did have favorites, it wouldn’t be you.”), and the administration and I have a shit-full relationship, though there the shit-flow is only of one type: they give me more shit to do, and I talk shit about them.

Okay, I’ll stop saying shit. Though there is a reason, and it isn’t just because I have to control my language during the school day.

This week there has been a plethora of poop. A cornucopia of crap. First and foremost, we had our accreditation visit. Accreditation, for those who don’t know, is how schools prove that they are in fact doing what they are supposed to do, namely educating students, rather than using them as sweatshop labor or housing them in cubicles like rental shoes at a bowling alley. It’s a fine idea, as education does not have a terrible lot of oversight, but it does have a terrible number of ways to abuse or neglect the system, which can limp along for quite a long time before it breaks down. That is to say: if a teacher is thoroughly incompetent, students will still be able to learn something from each other, from the textbook, from the extra resources that some usually have, like tutors and older siblings and the internet, and so it may not be clear right away, or at all, that the teacher is truly incompetent. Teachers get observed on some kind of regular basis, but the three districts in which I have worked have observed me twice a year, once every two years, and once every four years; and in every case, with every observation, the person doing the observing has never been an English teacher: so while they are certainly qualified to say that I am not blowing snot rockets on my students during class, they can’t really say that I’m doing a good job helping my students become better readers or writers. The problem gets better and worse according to the subject: mine is pretty straightforward and well-understood by most educated people, but my wife, who teaches art to high school students, has been told directly that the administrators observing her had no idea what she was talking about when she spoke to her students about perspective and value and the like. An advanced mathematics teacher I know never heard the open admission, but was perfectly aware that the administrators did not understand what he was teaching, and so could not rationally judge if he was doing a good job.

That is not to say that all administrators are incompetent to judge teachers, nor that they are all incapable of understanding what is being taught. But I couldn’t follow an advanced math lesson any more than my administrators could; the difference is that they are expected to do so, and I’m not. Their ability to understand what I do is most of the oversight that I work with, other than the possibility of student and parent complaints about me – which, so long as I make my students laugh and give them good grades, are minimal or nonexistent.  Even if I wasn’t funny or generous, the truth is that nobody knows what I do in my classroom other than a bunch of teenagers, and, twice a year (or once every two years, or once every four years) between one and three administrators, none of whom understand what I do. (No, that’s not true: three of the administrators I have worked with have been past LA teachers. But the rest of them go: PE, PE, social studies, religious studies, science, PE, kindergarten, biology, elementary school, science and PE, and nothing – meaning they never taught in a classroom. I’m missing a few, but that’s the trend. Also: schools have even more administrators than they do poop, and administrators usually come and go faster than poop does, too.) That’s not a lot of oversight.

So accreditation, in which a group of inspectors come and do an exhaustive review of how the school functions and how it doesn’t, is a really good idea. Except guess who makes up that group of inspectors?

Right. Administrators. Administrators from other schools, but that doesn’t make them any more competent than the ones from my school.

The larger problem than competence (Though really, that’s enough to sink the whole endeavor) is the obvious impetus for quid pro quo. The inspectors in a given area are from that area; the chances that a principal will inspect the school run by the same principal who inspected the first guy’s school are quite high. When I ask my students to critique and grade each other’s work, they pretty much all get A’s, pretty much all the time, even from students who don’t like each other: because no kid wants to be the one who gives out bad grades, for fear of retribution. Same problem here. There isn’t a profit motive, so the intensity of corruption isn’t the same as with lobbyists in Washington; but the system here is as flawed as how our government asks major industries to regulate themselves; or hires regulators straight from the ranks of industry executives, who go right back into the industry once they finish their stint as a check and balance against abuses in that industry. It’s okay: they’re on a break, so it doesn’t count. Right? Just like Ross and Rachel.

School administrators are taught and trained to look for certain things. They want maximum attendance, minimum disruption in the form of behavior referrals and suspensions, maximum test scores, and maximum awards and recognitions. They love checklists, especially ones with impossibly vague categories and subjective descriptions of the achievement levels in those categories. (The accreditation system we went through has these: student is tasked with activities and learning that are challenging but attainable and student is actively engaged in the learning activities. The marks are: Very Evident, Evident, Somewhat Evident, and Not Observed. Pop quiz, hotshot: you watch a calculus class for 20 minutes, with 20 students in it: if the kid in the second row is facing the board and blinking at an appropriate rate, is their active engagement Evident or Somewhat Evident?) Because our current public school system is so unbelievably diverse, and so varied in its methods and results, the largest and scariest bugaboo for administrators this decade is standardization. They want everyone to be on the same page: to know the same things, at the same time, in the same order, to the same degree. They want teachers to all do the same things in all classes, using the same materials, and hopefully achieving the same results. That way, no child gets left behind (Because they’re all in lockstep, like one of those one-guy-with-five-mannequins-attached-to-him-with-broomsticks Halloween costumes), and all teachers are disposable and replaceable, like any other machine-produced standardized cog in a well-tooled machine. Because they are taught and trained to look for these things, these things are all they look for. They do not look for – Teacher knows what the hell he is talking about, and can answer a student’s random question. Teacher knows how to write a good multiple choice question, and how to score a test fairly. Teacher knows when to let a student go to the bathroom and when to say, “Why don’t you wait a couple of minutes?” The things they see may be important – may – but they don’t see everything that’s important. They’re looking somewhere else, entirely.

Observations in classrooms are something of a joke for another reason that I didn’t mention, which is: we know about them in advance. Which means, of course, that the administrators don’t see us going about our regular routine; they see us trot out the dog-and-pony show. My current school, which is the one that has observations twice every year, has one scheduled observation, for which I choose the day and the class when they come to watch me; and one unscheduled observation – for which they give me a window of two weeks when they may come observe any class on any day. In which case I am left predicting their likely choice based on past choices, such as: they prefer older students; they prefer smaller classes. They like coming in the morning more than the afternoon. So far I’m two-for-four predicting which class they will randomly select. Like the TSA and random searches at airports: look for the dark-skinned passengers, and you know who will be “randomly” selected. Even when I don’t half-expect them, I have still been able to adjust my lesson plans on the spot in order to make them reflect what I know the administrators are looking for; I know they want to see me assess the students’ learning, so I have made up a quiz question for the lesson, projected it on my whiteboard, and had students write a response: boom, instant assessment. Go me. Never mind that I usually don’t have my students do that: the observation went great. This is nothing compared to what many teachers do for their scheduled observations: it is not merely an urban legend, that gag about teachers telling the class, “If you know the answer, raise your right hand; if you don’t, raise your left.” I mean, observations determine whether or not we keep our jobs, and in some cases, our performance bonuses. Wouldn’t you work the system?

So do schools when the accreditors come by.

So in this specific case, we knew a month ahead of time when the inspector would be coming, and we had the observation system he would be using, which tells us what he will be looking for. The teachers were coached by the administrators as to what we should present, if the inspector came into our classroom, and also what we should say if we were interviewed personally about the school’s workings and its culture. The students weren’t coached, but there is a certain select group of students who are somehow always chosen (“Randomly” selected — and yes, one of them is dark-skinned.) to be the spokespersons for visiting dignitaries; they always know what to say. We have trained them well. I mean, maybe not for their future careers or the next stage of their education – but they know what to say to make it seem as though we have trained them for those things. And that’s sort of the same thing, right?

Right?

In my case, even though I was asked to join the teachers’ group interview with the accreditor, I avoided it. I didn’t want to be asked what I thought of the school or the administrators. Because what I think of them is this:

The problems with this school are the same problems with public education across this country: it is designed in entirely the wrong way. We take kids too young, and we keep them too long; we don’t allow them enough freedom, and we don’t know how to work to their strengths, instead forcing them to play to ours, or fail. We try to standardize everything, for no good reason that anyone can name other than the absurd “That’s fair.” It’s not. It’s not fair, nor efficient, nor even sane, and yet that idea – that every student and every teacher and every person have the same outcome from the same set of experiences – is the driving force behind almost every aspect of education. Probably because: when everything is the same, it’s easier to talk about. Harder to understand, of course, but so what? Then, we politicize this thing that we don’t even understand, and then make changes to solve problems we don’t understand, with consequences we don’t understand and don’t even pay attention to – because taking the action in response to the apparent problem is good enough for the politicians. In fact, that’s how we treat everything in education: just do something. Anything. As long as you can show that you are doing something (Preferably the same thing that’s been done everywhere else – that’s what we call evidence-based solutions!), then that’s good enough. We don’t recognize the people who are actually doing the good work, because we don’t recognize the good work, and we don’t reward those people for doing good work; instead we reward those people – both educators and students – who create the most convincing façade of achievement. This school is, in fact, no better or worse than any other: some of the students are wonderful, and some of the teachers are wonderful, and one of the administrators is wonderful; and a lot of the rest are – well, I did say I wouldn’t say “shit” any more, didn’t I? Let’s say “Somewhat evident.”

 

That was Tuesday, when the accreditor came. On Wednesday, we had a staff meeting, in which it took us – a room full of professional educators, mind, several with advanced degrees – thirty minutes to complete a conversation about the differences between two grading systems we have used, last year’s and this year’s. (Here’s the difference: last year each specific score was weighted the same as every other score, based on the percentages; this year a specific score’s total number of possible points is factored in. So last year a 75% on a 10-point quiz and a 75% on a 20-point quiz were the same; this year the 75% on the 20-point quiz is counted twice as much as the 10-point quiz, and has twice the effect on the final grade. Thirty minutes to say that. With diagrams on the whiteboard.) We also talked about how well the accreditation visit had gone, and how impressed the accreditor was with our school spirit and the commonality of our vision (We were coached on our vision statement, since it is different from our mission statement, and both are important. I mean, not to the actual work of education; but they’re important to the administrators who write those things, and then inspect and accredit other schools.).

And then we talked about – poop. Specifically, about how one of our students, or more than one, had intentionally defecated and urinated outside of the toilets in the boys’ room. Somebody soaked a roll of toilet paper in the dispenser, and on another occasion, someone left a pile of feces on the floor. We talked about whether we should have a hygiene class to teach students that this is not acceptable. We talked about whether we should put this story on our school newscast. We talked about whether teachers should check the restrooms regularly, or whether we should hire a new security guard. (That one was easy: security guards cost money. Asking teachers to perform tasks that have nothing to do with teaching is free. Stopping my discussion of rhetoric and syntax in order to try to catch somebody crapping on the floor: priceless.)

If only the accreditor had stopped in to visit that bathroom on that day. I wonder where that . . . piece of evidence would fall on the rubric.

Though the real question is: would he even see the actual shit on the floor? Or would he be looking somewhere else, entirely?

A Spoonful of Hatred Makes Education Go Down

Sometimes I hate my students.

And that’s actually a good thing.

First, let me affix the boilerplate so as to avoid any whiff of morally reprehensible heresy that goes against the company line: MY STUDENTS ARE WONDERFUL PEOPLE YOUNG AMERICANS AND IT IS A JOY TO SEE THEIR BRIGHT SHINING FACES AS THEY GREET ME IN THE MORNING AND I LOVE TO SEE THE SPARK IN THEIR EYES AS THEY LEARN SOMETHING NEW AND I AM INSPIRED EVERY DAY BY THE THOUGHT THAT I COULD BE HELPING THEM REACH THEIR POTENTIAL I AM MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN THE LIVES OF YOUNG PEOPLE AND THUS HELPING TO CREATE OUR FUTURE.

There. Now, as I was saying, sometimes I really can’t stand the little stinkers. I don’t mean because they’re terrible, or because I’m such a cloistered saint that their vileness taints my purity; they’re just kids, and I’m not, and so they can be awful people and I’m not currently awful enough to be able to ignore their awfulness or cover it with my own. I would have done that when I was their age; I was awful, too, no question, far worse than most of them are now.

But my students tell me, outright, frequently, that my class is boring, that my subject is pointless, that I don’t work hard enough or do the right things as a teacher (By which they mean “You don’t do the work for me and then give me an A.”). They lie, they cheat, they steal. They waste my time, and then get snotty with me because they think I’m wasting theirs. They whine, they complain, they try to intimidate and threaten and manipulate me into doing what they want me to do. They are deeply selfish and insensitive to the feelings of others: they are racist, sexist, xenophobic, hypocritical, hypercritical, ultraviolent, lazy on a scale that can’t be measured or even contemplated by those who aren’t themselves on the scale.

And they’re just kinda gross. They smell bad, some of them. And you should see them eat. Ick.

Now here’s the good side of all of that: because of all of those things, I have very little trouble telling them No. It’s real easy with some of the things they ask me. “Can we watch this (probably inappropriate) YouTube clip?” “No.” The best thing with this exchange, which occurs almost daily, is that they have no actual argument. The most common rejoinder is “Aw, come on,” which is probably about as effective as yelling “Hey baby!” at a female passerby: just like that woman never swoons and says, “Be still, my beating heart,” I never say, “Well, okay, let me look up that NWA video.” Same when they say – as they often do – “Can we just, like, do nothing today?” I have no problem at all saying no to that. And not even because I always want to do productive things; I generally do, but of course I have my moments. No, the reason I can always say no to the siren song of sloth is, I don’t want to hang out with my students. If I’m going to flop on my backside and do nothing more strenuous than exhaling, I’d much rather be at home, where my dog and my couch and my coffee are. The last place I want to be is in that ugly, uncomfortable classroom with all of those people whom, as I have been saying at length, I don’t really like.

I’d rather make them work. It is frequently true that I force them to continue learning not because I think it is valuable or even merely necessary; it is, but the reason I keep teaching them even when they are at their lazy-assed whiniest is, because making them work is my revenge. I torture them with learning. I keep reading, and reading, and reading, even when they just can’t take any more. If they really get on my nerves, I will work right up to the bell and even beyond the bell, and then I’ll assign them homework. I don’t have a work ethic: I have a revenge ethic, and the worst thing I can do to my teenaged students is make them think, and make them work.

And, see, that means they learn, which is good for them. And they suffer, which is good for me. It’s win-win.

There’s more to this, of course. (It’s just so much fun to rip on my students, and talk about torturing them with literature. Hey –I just realized that “torture” and “literature” have the same last letters. There’s an opportunity there. Maybe a rhyming couplet? Maybe a portmanteau? Literatorture?) There are serious problems with the company line that most teachers – no, that essentially all teachers – toe – no, that they lie down on, clasp their hands together, and enter into a meditative trance akin to suspended animation, a state from which they will never arise. Okay, that got too weird.

My point is this. Teaching has a required orthodoxy. Teachers teach because they love their students. They call their students their children. They say everything I joked about above, about the future, and making a difference, and seeing the spark – though I more often hear the loathsome phrase “A-Ha moment,” which just makes me want to start caterwauling “Taaaake ooooon meeeeeeeeeee (Take! On! Me!) TAAAAAAAAKKKKKEEEEEE MEEEEEEEEEEEEE OOOOOOOOOOOONNNNNNN (Take! On! Me!) IIIIII’LLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL BBBEEEEEEEEEE GGOOOOOOOOOOOOOONNNNEEE!!! AND (mumble mumble I don’t actually know the words to this part but who cares deepbreath) EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”

You get the point.

Teachers always, always say that they don’t do it for the money. They do it because they believe in the cause, they believe in the importance of education, in the value of helping young people, of passing on knowledge to the next generation and helping to make our world a better place, one child at a time. I hear teachers talking constantly about what the children need: how teachers are better parents to some of them than their actual parents; how some of them don’t ever get to have fun unless a teacher sacrifices an evening or a weekend to some overnight field trip; how these kids shouldn’t miss this opportunity that somehow requires more effort from a teacher than it does from any of the students whose lives are being enriched. If a teacher says anything different, then we get funny looks. We get frowns and furrowed brows and awkward attempts at segues away from the conversational minefield we just stepped into. I assume we get talked about when we’re not in the room, since teachers – professional busybodies and judgmental critics – are inveterate gossips.

I know because I’ve been getting those looks, and saying those heterodox things, for years. Now that my wife, who is braver, more honest, and less patient than I am, has joined me in teaching, she gets the looks even more often. I think she also gets them worse because she is a woman, and therefore expected to be motherly; I think some of my fellow teachers excuse my anti-student bile by calling it something on the order of “tough love.” My students like me, so surely the smack I talk about them couldn’t be real; I must be exaggerating. Kidding! Oh, that wacky Humphrey! No wonder the kids love his class!

Here’s the truth: not all kids love my class. Some freaking hate it, and hate me. Often (Not always) they are the ones who receive my ill-treatment. (“Not always” because sometimes the very worst little twits like me and like my class. Sometimes kids hate me for entirely different reasons, like how I waste time or teach material they don’t like or find useful. Some of them don’t think I’m funny, even think I’m rude. Can you imagine?) They resent that I don’t treat them like special lil angels, because that’s what they get from almost every one of their other teachers.

And that is, of course, the problem. My students aren’t bad people, not at all; they really are sweet kids at heart, and most of them are bright and capable. They’re just kids: they’re lazy, and entitled, and think much too much of themselves. What they need is a dose of reality.

What they get is teachers who coddle them because they’re special lil angels.

We shouldn’t do it. We should treat students like actual human beings: we should expect them to act correctly, to be responsible, to think and act for themselves in their own best interest. And we should do the same. That’s how we can actually help them to reach their potential: make them work. Make them rely on themselves, rather than doing everything for them. We should realize that at some point those lil angels will leave our school, and they will be around people then who – don’t love them. Don’t coddle them. Don’t think they’re special lil angels and do everything for them. If they have no teachers like me, then they will be hurt and confused when their college professors don’t care about them, or when their bosses insist that they show up on time even if they’re not feeling happy that morning. My boss has never taken me out into the hall to have a heart-to-heart. “You seem down, are you feeling okay? Everything okay at home?” This is not something I have ever heard from my supervisor.

Though I have heard it from other teachers.

I’m not talking about tough love. I’m not talking about love: school is a job, and everyone involved has to do their part, and should be expected to do their part. When teachers are willing to provide whatever a student needs, then the students – and their parents – quickly realize that the more they need, the more they get. I think this has much to do with the rise in special education students – students with, as we say, special needs. That is not in any way to say that students who have genuine needs should be neglected or denied what support they need; in order to do your job, you have to be in a situation where it’s possible for you to do your job, and that is the goal of special education, and in my experience it usually works very well. But there are also lots and lots of students who lay claim to needs they don’t actually need. And teachers provide for them, too, because – well, because we love all of our students like they were our own children.

They’re not our kids. They’re also not our clients – another popular, and pernicious, paradigm for schools (Pernicious because the customer is always right, which again puts too much power into the hands of students who are willing to be demanding, and taking all power away from teachers who are willing to be giving.). Students are actually our coworkers. We teachers have a job to do, and students have a job to do; we need them to do their job, and they need us to do ours.

It’s a lot easier to do that when you kind of don’t like them that much. It’s a natural instinct to want to help your friends, and people you like, especially when they seem desperate – and desperation is a state that teenagers excel at. It’s an even stronger instinct to want to protect and help your children. So when we think of students as children, as our children, and we think of ourselves as their protectors and guardians, then we do things for them that we wouldn’t do for strangers – or for our coworkers. Things that they, therefore, don’t learn to do for themselves.

Sometimes they really do need the help, and when they do, we should provide it. Any decent person should do the same, and as a teacher, we do get to know more of the intimate and therefore terrible details of our students’ lives. That does put us in a unique position to provide help to people who really need it, and we should; and the times when I have, I am proud to have done so.

But most of them don’t need my help. They don’t need my care, they don’t need my love. They need to learn how to write an essay. They need me to teach them. If I hate them a little, I can teach them a lot.

It is also true that the students aren’t the only ones who make constant, unreasonable demands of teachers: the school administration does the same. In my almost two decades of teaching, I have seen more evidence every year that the only thing that keeps the education system working at all is the willing self-sacrifice of teachers. If we didn’t give up our free time, our evenings and our weekends, the work wouldn’t get done. If we didn’t bust our asses, and too frequently shell out our own money, then kids wouldn’t be able to do all the fun things they get to do in schools that keep them entertained, and therefore earn whatever commitment they have to the whole endeavor. (One small example is my current school’s robotics team, which engages a fair percentage of our best and brightest – and which is made possible only by teachers giving up their time and energy and money. Without that team, the school would lose dozens of students, current and potential. Multiply that by every school and almost every fun extracurricular: how often are the popular clubs run by the principal? That’s right. Never.) If we weren’t willing to take on this incredibly difficult and frustrating task for insufficient money, then schools would shut down. All of them. Pretty much at once. Realize that I make probably half of what I deserve, as a good and capable teacher: and realize, too, that my class sizes are already too big. So if we were paid what we should be, there would be twice as many students per teacher – and now the money doesn’t matter, and my capacity for teaching doesn’t matter, because the job simply becomes impossible: and I quit and move to a Caribbean island to sell fish tacos and smarmy haikus. And then there’s no more schools. And then what becomes of the lil angels?

But of course, the orthodox catechism of teachers tells us that we love them, and therefore must sacrifice for them. Administrators know this: and so they ask us for anything they might want of us, with one simple, inevitable, never-fail justification: it’s for the students. And every time they say that, there are teachers who are willing to do it. Always. Spend eight hours after school tutoring students for test prep? Well, they really need the help, we say. Spend a weekend baking for a fundraiser – using materials bought with our own money? Well, some of the kids just can’t afford the trip on their own. Take up campus supervision because the administration cut the security guard to save on the budget? Well, the kids need to feel safe! I know I’m unqualified to be a security guard, and already terribly overworked doing my actual job; but – it’s for the children.

I wish that more teachers felt what I feel. I do think most of them do, and they cover it up; because they don’t want to get the strange looks, and they don’t want to let the children down. Here’s the secret, though: most of my students really do like me, and like my class, even though I am entirely open with them about all of this. I tell my students, as I tell my fellow teachers, that I do this for the money: I tell my students that if I win the lottery tonight, I will not be in class tomorrow. I tell them that they are not my friends, and that I don’t want to be their parent. I tell them that if they fail the class, that is their responsibility; I’ll give them the opportunity to learn, but I will not force them, will not chase them down and hold their hand and twist their ear and drag them, kicking and screaming, into a bright future. I tell them that if they don’t want to be there, they can leave, and I won’t stop them. And they like my class. Because I’m honest. And because I offer them what they actually want, and what they actually need: the chance to be themselves, and to do it alone.

Because I’m not going to do it for them.

Throw Back: Free Teach — I mean Speech

(From my former blog Pleading For Sanity. Originally published on this date in 2011. Enjoy.)

 Free Teach — I mean Speech.

Though I complain about it frequently, there are some things I really enjoy about my job. One of the most enjoyable aspects, fortunately, is my colleagues: they are bright, kind, funny,. considerate, and extraordinarily dedicated — generally far more than am I. The work can be hard to handle, but my fellow teachers almost always make it easier to go on to the next class, the next day, the next school year.

But then I looked online, and I found out that I work with some pretty awful people.

At least, if you listen to my students. And if you can decipher their spelling. (Honestly, as an English teacher, I think the harshest criticism here is the critics’ own inability to spell, punctuate, and capitalize. I’m trying to keep this anonymous, but I must note that of the 35 teachers rated on this one site, eight of the names were misspelled. One person’s first and last names were misspelled — and in another instance, the name “Chris” was rendered as “Crise.” Maybe it’s petty of me, but if you’re going to boo me, at least spell my name right.)

According to the website RateMyTeacher.com, I work with someone who “looks like a petafile.” I’m assuming that’s bad. I’m sure, for the most part, that these other comments are bad. They are copy-pasted verbatim, other than where I took out names and specifics to protect the innocent.

he talks way to much and he is really controling some times and if hes wrong allways look he gives you a glare

[HE] IS A COMPLETE **** AND SHOULD BE FIRED

he is a **** man **** and needs to be fired

he is a **** but he knows what hes talking about [Blogger’s note: Hey! A compliment!]

you are by far the WORST teacher i have ever been tought by. Do you even know, NOT one SINGLE STUDENT likes you!?

satan, should leave school

very rude, not helpful, and makes it over-all pretty scary to learn.

He is by far the worst teacher I have ever encountered. He doesn’t care about his students or his class. His lessons are unplanned, unoraganized and unclear. My advice stay away

You are a mess, the [classroom] is a mess, your teaching is a mess; You put [sub-group of student population] on a golden pedastal and you forget the rest of your students. I dont give a s**t about your problems, you whine constantly-

You need to get your s**t together.

Your alright sometimes. But personally I think your a fool. And I had one of your T.A’s tell me that you would talk s**t about the students behind their back. Also stop complaining. NO ONE likes that.

very easy but you are a disorganized mess

But none of that compares to the bile that students reserve for administrators. To wit:

he grabed my a** in the hall and told me not to tell anyone and then he took a picture of me and hung it on his wall? [Blogger’s Note: Why the question mark? Was this person not sure whether it was the wall or the ceiling?]

he touched me in inappropriate places 😦 now i am scard for life… [B.N.: So you can handle “inappropriate” but “scarred” (Scared?) is beyond you.]

That Stupid B**** Kicked Me in the Gut and Called me a F****** N*****! Racisty Piece of S***!

get a life you **** stop telling little girls and boys what to do oh i forgot it makes you happy you ****

he is a creeper that takes it in the **** [B.N.: I have to wonder about that extra star.]

no one loves him, pedo, should jump in a meat grinder, stabs puppies for pleasure, reincarnation of **** [B.N.: Again, four stars? Reincarnation of what, exactly? Stan?]

useless piece of crap

he is a peice of s**t

he like to get kids in trouble for no dam reason at all and he picks on colored people cuz he thinks hes all that powerful when he is NOT!!!!!!

he is a prick and thinks he is soo badass wen hes not… no one at this skool likes him

hes a dillweed, i can give him a popularity(2)becouse i like to make fun of that tool, and i do…. [B.N.: Please note that this comment came with a popularity rating of one.]

he is the biggest tool i have ever met

Wow. We’re pretty bad. And, of course, this is only what was posted online on one site; set against what is written in notes or on desks or bathroom walls, and what I overhear in conversation, it is nothing at all. And just imagine if I could look at a student’s personal blog or MySpace page or Facebook status. I have been told directly that my fellow teachers are vile subhuman scum (Though not in those words — there’s generally a lot more “sucks” and different versions of “asshole.”) more times than I can count; I’ve read essays expounding on the general incompetence of the staff, the administration, and everything to do with the school; what must these students say when they don’t think we’re listening, when they don’t believe there’s any chance the teachers will find out?

And yet, whatever the students may say, it doesn’t really matter. I know why students say they hate me, hate my class, why they think I’m a jerk or that I’m racist or that I never taught them anything: it’s because I’m a teacher, and they are teenagers. If I taught elementary school, they’d make up a poem about me that would most likely describe me as having poopy pants, and if I taught middle school, they’d — well, honestly, I don’t think middle school children do much other than flirt awkwardly and loathe themselves; they probably barely even notice their teachers.

But otherwise, this is all stuff that teachers need to brush off. Of course students hate us: we make them do homework. We make them show up on time and sit quietly. We give them failing grades. We are the establishment, we are the Man. On a personal level, there are, quite naturally, personality conflicts, as well as personality disorders, that create bad feelings — and, of course, not all teachers are very nice. To some extent, they should hate us; and even when it is unjustified, we have to remember that these are teenagers. Children, effectively, especially in this modern era of crystallized and socially acceptable immaturity, when grown men and women are admired and even feted for their childish antics and attitudes — Kanye West, for instance, or the cast of the Jersey Shore. Kids say things they don’t mean, and they say things they don’t really understand the implications of, and they try to do it in the worst, most offensive, most shocking way possible, in order to garner attention, in order to create a response, in order to prove their rebelliousness and independence and general badassery. As a teacher, I know this, and I don’t take their criticisms very seriously. Well, I do, because I am insecure and harshly self-critical, but I can usually talk myself out of it once I’m in a better mood.

But apparently, in this country, in this free, democratic country, that magnanimity and understanding only goes one way. Students are free to criticize teachers, even to accuse teachers online of sexual misdeeds of any stripe (I did not include the very worst comments about one of my coworkers, even though I’m sure the teacher in question would not be very hurt by the utterly absurd accusations, because some things simply should not be repeated, just for the sake of making a point.), anything they wish, because they are children. But should a teacher say anything negative about students, even non-specific comments made on a personal blog, then the wrath of the almighty descends. And by “almighty,” I mean the judgmental, Puritanical, tyrannical, almighty public opinion.

Natalie Munroe was suspended in Pennsylvania for calling her students “lazy, unmotivated whiners,” among other things. Another teacher (Also in Pennsylvania) was suspended for a picture that was posted online of her and a male stripper at a bachelorette party. She wasn’t naked, she wasn’t dancing, it wasn’t at school or during work hours — it was a private bachelorette party, she was in the frame when someone took a photo of the stripper, and this photo was posted online, by someone other than the teacher, who was then suspended. A teacher in England was suspended when another teacher complained about the Facebook comment: ‘By the way, (class) 8G1 are just as bad as 8G2.’ A middle school science teacher was suspended for this:

Hussain wrote on the social-networking site that it was a “hate crime” that students anonymously left a Bible on her desk, and she told how she “was able to shame her kids” over the incident. Her Facebook page included comments from friends about “ignorant southern rednecks,” and one commenter suggested Hussain retaliate by bringing a Dale Earnhardt Jr. poster to class with a swastika drawn on the NASCAR driver’s forehead.

It’s only a guess, but: want to bet those students thought (or knew) she was a Muslim — her name is Hussain, after all — and therefore either a terrorist or Hell-bound?

And another, for this:

The suspension occurred after a Charlotte television news station did a search on the social networking site for people who identified themselves as staff members of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

The unidentified teacher, who teaches at Thomasboro Elementary School, which has 94 percent of its students in the free lunch program, wrote in her Facebook page, “I am teaching in the most ghetto school in Charlotte.”

Four other teachers in the district are also being disciplined for statements and photos posted to their Facebook pages.

Citation

What bothers me about this story — actually, about all of these stories — is how we react to the teachers. We think they have done something wrong. The Charlotte story goes on to quote an online comment that said this: “The teacher probably didn’t understand the privacy settings on her Facebook account. Information you post can be either publicly viewable or something that is just seen by your friends. She probably thought what she was posting was private, but left the default settings on to let everyone see your profile,” commented BluNews. “A lot of people unknowingly do this. That said, the teacher messed up and certainly diminished her ability to teach her kids. I’m not sure if firing her is the right thing to do, but she should be disciplined. Also, I doubt this is the last time we’ll hear about something like this. School systems should set policy on issues like this and warn teachers that negative postings about their jobs could lead to disciplinary actions.” (Emphasis added) Ibid.

When the story broke over the Pennsylvania teacher’s blog, a number of people pointed it out to me; one even brought me the clipping from the Oregonian. One of them sent me a link to the story in an e-mail and added the comment, “I wonder where the First Amendment comes down on this.” That gave me pause for a moment.

But then I realized. There’s no question where the First Amendment comes down on this. A teacher has the right to say whatever the hell he or she wants to, so long as it does not defame or slander, or violate privacy rights, or cause direct harm, as would a bomb threat or the classic crowded theater shout of “Fire!” No matter what you think of a teacher who says,

“I hear the trash company is hiring.”

“I called out sick a couple of days just to avoid your son.”

“Rude, beligerent [sic], argumentative f**k.”

“Just as bad as his sibling. Don’t you know how to raise kids?”

“Asked too many questions and took too long to ask them. The bell means it’s time to leave!”

“Nowhere near as good as her sibling. Are you sure they’re related?”

“Shy isn’t cute in 11th grade; it’s annoying. Must learn to advocate for himself instead of having Mommy do it.”

“Too smart for her own good and refuses to play the school ‘game’ such that she’ll never live up to her true potential here.”

“Am concerned that your kid is going to come in one day and open fire on the school. (Wish I was kidding.)”

[These are comments that Ms. Munroe wished were available for attaching to report cards. I should also note that she included in her blog the line, “I’m being a renegade right now, living on the edge and, um, blogging AT work. However, as I’m blogging about work stuff, I give myself a free pass of conscience.” Misuse of school resources might be part of the reason for her suspension, and I can’t really argue with that.]

no matter what you think of that person as a teacher, she has the right to say all of that and more. She is an American citizen, and she has the right to free speech. The criticisms I see, the justifications for trying to remove this woman’s right to speak her mind freely, often run along the lines of, “But what kind of teacher can she be if she thinks these terrible things about students?”

Allow me to respond to that with quotes, from students, lifted again from RateMyTeacher.com, about another teacher who posted similar general criticisms, and blogs laced with FAR more profanity than Ms. Munroe’s (But who fortunately was not suspended for it.).

He is a very kind teacher with an interesting spin on things that made English class quite enjoyable.

He doesn’t need this s**t to know he’s the **** best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.

Great teacher. Always ready to help and is very considerate in his assinments

IS FREAKING AWESOME !!!! the coolest and best teacher in the school!

You are awesome as a teacher and you get the job done even when some of the students are being abnoxious and ignoring you completely.

great teacher one of my favorites

cool guy and good teacher

Best teacher in the world! 🙂

Great teacher! He’s really interesting and he cares about reading and english. He expects his students to be mature and that’s nice because most teachers even in high school treat us like little kids.

You see, my fellow Americans, that’s the point of freedom of speech. We are complicated, multi-dimensional creatures; no one thing we say, anywhere, ever, for any reason, can be presumed to sum up one’s entire person, or even to represent a definite and unalloyed aspect of that person — we teachers complain about our students, but there are also students we love, who make our day, who make classes better. Sometimes it’s the same student. It is unfair to assume that someone is fully represented by words she uses, especially when those words are taken out of context. It is thus unfair, unreasonable, and unjust to punish that person for those words — unless there is direct harm done or a specific law broken, as with slander, breach of confidentiality, and so forth. We have, and need, the right to express our opinions, to state our true feelings, even if those feelings hurt someone’s else’s feelings, even if our true feelings are mean, or profane, or politically incorrect in any way. There is no question what our right to free speech entails; we have the right to free speech. That’s it. Here, look at the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

No law abridging the freedom of speech. In any way. Which implies that no government institution should take action against an employee for exercising the right to free speech, as that employee’s freedom of speech is thus abridged. When you take that away, you take away the foundation of democracy. What’s next — should we ban peaceful protests asking for redress of grievances? You know, like people are saying about the pro-union demonstrations in Wisconsin right now? Anyone else feel like we’re on a slippery slope here?

The freedom of speech is essential to democracy, because it is essential to society, to individuals’ sanity and to the necessary goal of educating and informing all people. We must be able to speak our minds, and to tell what we think and what we know to anyone who will listen. That should include online speech, and it should include teachers. It is a sad thing when Americans question whether or not teachers, public employees entrusted with the edification of future citizens of our democracy, have the same rights as everyone else — including, of course, those future citizens themselves. And worse than sad, it is absolutely frightening in its implications. How much are we willing to lose in order to protect our children from — what, exactly? From being insulted in a place and a way that they would most likely never have seen, had this kerfuffle never happened? From hearing what someone actually thinks about them, which might even lead to a certain amount of shame — and then to self-improvement? From the tit for their tat? Who do we think we are helping?

What are we helping them to become?

I can’t believe that kid misspelled “assignments.” That one’s going on the next vocab list.