Walking Out

[Read Part One: Money Talks]

[Read Part Two: But You Get Summers Off]

 

It is fascinating how America views teachers.

In the last week I’ve been told, repeatedly and stridently, that parents support teachers. I’ve also been told that we should be grateful for that support, and we shouldn’t do anything to risk its continuance. That as long as parents support us, everything will be fine.

But I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think it’s really true that teachers have parents’ support, and I certainly don’t think that the support of parents is the most important thing teachers could ever, ever have.

I don’t think everything’s going to be fine. Not unless we are willing to do what is necessary to make things right, right now.

I don’t mean to complain. I want that to be clear. I’m writing this series because I want people to understand, not because I want you to pity me. There are things about my job that I love, and that’s why I still do it; that’s why I defend it as vigorously as I can, because I want to be able to continue doing the things I love, hopefully without also having to do the things I hate, like enforce sexist dress codes and assign meaningless and misleading grades, or give hours and hours of pointless, mind-breaking tests. Or survive on insufficient money, with insufficient funds available for my classroom and my school to allow me to do an adequate job.

If I cannot get the things I need to be happy here in this job, I will quit and move on; I will find another state that pays teachers better, and I will get a job there. But while that solves my problem, there will still be a million students in Arizona who need teachers: and if not me, then who? Shall I give them the same advice that I keep getting thrown in my face, namely, “If you don’t like it, go somewhere else?” Shall all one million Arizona students move with me to California and find school districts there with adequate resources, who pay their teachers a reasonable wage and so don’t have 40-50% turnover and hundreds of unfilled positions? That sounds like a solution, right?

It’s not. Of course not. Just like the other things that get spat at me and my colleagues on Twitter that are not solutions. But they do show how America views teachers: and it is fascinating.

So what should we do? What should teachers do about this funding crisis in Arizona, this decades-long slide into poverty and a broken, underfunded school system? To be specific, for those who haven’t been a part of this conversation up until now, Arizona cut more funding from schools than any other state during the Great Recession: funding went down 36.6% from 2008 to 2015. Some progress was made in the last three years, but the state is still spending almost 20% less now than ten years ago. About half of the new money since 2015 was mandated by a lawsuit brought against the state government by teachers, [NB: If you go to that link, Prop. 123 is the referendum I mention below. Please note where the lawsuit requires $300 million spent on capital improvements annually, and Governor Ducey promised $17 million.] because the legislature failed to follow through with an earlier state supreme court decision in another lawsuit; the first decision was that the state actually needed to fund schools, which apparently they did not want to. They were required to fund capital improvements to sites and facilities, and to provide funding for textbooks and supplies. They were also instructed to increase the funding yearly for inflation. That last part, they stopped doing; and so the teachers sued the second time, and the courts again decided that, according to the state constitution, Arizona does need to actually fund education. Rather than simply increase revenue to cover that expense, the state passed a referendum settling the lawsuit for 70% of what was owed; that money came from sales of state-owned land (Land which is already supposed to be used to fund education, a fact which made a judge rule the Proposition was illegal.). This is the source of the increased funding that our governor, Doug Ducey, has been crowing about for four years; and it still falls short of where we were a decade ago.

So essentially, the state of Arizona is a deadbeat dad: they do anything they can to get out of paying what they owe for their own children; up to and including just not handing over the money, refusing to pay the bill until the courts force the issue – and then grudgingly paying part of it, and demanding credit for what they did pay.

As I said: what should we teachers do about this problem? We are on the front lines, but though we do suffer because of this, in the form of absurdly low pay (Arizona ranks 48th in pay for high school teachers, 50th for elementary school) and insufficient resources to do the job properly, we are not the main victims: that would be the students themselves, who have to make do with not enough, not as much as other states, not as much as they deserve, in everything from school buildings to programs to textbooks to computer resources to good, stable teachers who stick around for more than a few years. We teachers see this, every day; we live this, every day; we try to make up for it, every day.

What should we do to fix it?

According to one fellow I talked with on Twitter, we should talk about walking out, but not actually do it.

“I support the need for more money in education,”

he said.

“I do not support the manner in which teachers are trying to get it. This hurts, kids and families. There is a much better way to accomplish this goal.”

So I asked, “How?” And because I’m a teacher, I added, “Please be specific.”

He replied,

“Here is how. Use this momentum from #RedforEd to force the Governor and legislators to the negotiating table with the threat of a walkout to start the 2018 – 19 school year. Parents will support you, Ducey will be motivated due to election. Kids and families not affected.”

We went back and forth a little more, but this was the gist. I did not say, though it is true, that the #RedforEd movement has been active since February, and so far the governor has refused to negotiate directly with the main group, Arizona Educators United. (By the way: that is not a union. It’s just a group of teachers who decided to do something more than try to make do with what we’re handed by the state.) I did say that I don’t understand why Ducey would feel more pressure to negotiate after the teachers decided to do nothing for four months; my Twitter friend didn’t have an answer other than he wanted us to wait. He wanted teachers to make sure that kids and families were not affected, because that way we would keep parents’ support. (Because his son is a high school junior, and apparently it would be catastrophic if he didn’t have school now.)

I’ve heard this from more than one person: they support the teachers, but not the walkout that the Arizona teachers have planned. They think we should continue threatening the walkout, but not actually do it, because that will hurt students and parents.

That’s right. It will. And that’s the idea.

I don’t want to do that. I want to believe that Americans like their teachers enough to understand what we’re asking for, and why. I’ve tried to make it clear with these blogs, but in case I haven’t, let me say it outright: we want to be able to do our jobs. That’s it. We don’t want to get rich: as everyone under the sun knows, teachers don’t become teachers to get rich. No one expects that. We don’t want someone else to do our job for us, and we don’t want to find a way out of work: that’s not the reason for the walkout. I think, actually, that parents sometimes forget that teachers are not their teenaged children; after all, we spend all of our time together, and the kids often tell their parents how much they like some of us, and how much they hate some of us; I’m sure in their anecdotes, teachers sound like – other teenagers. “My English teacher is so cool, all laid back and stuff. But my science teacher is a total loser. He thinks he’s funny, but he’s so lame!” And teenagers want a day off. Several days off, if possible. Because they’re teenagers: I had one of my students, very sweet girl, when someone mentioned a school district that was canceling classes because of the teacher walkout, say, “I’m so jealous!”

I’m not. I’d rather not be one of those people who have to take the risk, who have to dig in their heels and fight the entire community, simply because the community has ignored and neglected our needs for years and years, and a few years more. I’d really rather be one of the self-righteous people arguing against me, than me.

We don’t want days off, don’t want to get out of work; we want to be able to be successful in the work we are already doing. Teachers aren’t striking for fewer students (though we should) or lighter requirements in terms of preparation or training or testing or evaluations, or anything else related to working conditions: all we want is more money. And not just for ourselves: because Governor Ducey offered teachers a 19% raise over the next three years, and the teachers’ overwhelming response was to vote for the walkout.

Why did the teachers turn down the pay increase? Three reasons: one, we don’t trust the governor and the legislature, who have failed for years to provide legally mandated funding; two, the pay increases extended past the gubernatorial election this fall, and so who knows if the next governor will feel any need to keep Ducey’s promises (And I include the possibility that Ducey will get re-elected and then feel no need to keep his own promises afterwards); and three – and most important – the pay increase was only for teachers, according to the governor’s definition of “teacher.” It did not include teacher’s aides, or secretaries, or counselors, or janitors, or anyone else who is just as vital to education as the teachers are. It didn’t even include those who teach enrichment classes, like elementary school music and PE, because it was only for teachers who had their own roster. It did not include necessary increases to capital spending, where Arizona has cut 84% of funds compared to 2008, money that is needed for facilities and resources. The governor tried to throw money at the teachers – some of us – but he refused to fund education. And the teachers refused to accept the deal.

And yet we get called greedy. We are accused of taking extreme actions that will hurt children, because teachers are walking out across the state today, and classes are being canceled and schools are being closed, and parents have to find something to do with their kids. Wouldn’t it have been more greedy if we ignored what was best for students and schools and just took the payoff?

So let’s talk about the walkout, because I’ve been hearing a lot about it from people on Twitter. Comments like this:

I never said I don’t support the teachers, I do…but this is the wrong way to go about it. The community and parents have been very supportive of our teachers but this walk out only hurts the students and the community. For many students, they’ll have no where to go.

This particular person is insistent that she supports the teachers, in all things, in all ways, except in this one way: she says the walkout will hurt students and families. Because parents will have to take off work in order to watch their kids. That, apparently, is insupportably, unspeakably evil of the teachers to do. She also wants us to do nothing but wait, and know that we have the support of the parents. So long as we don’t walk out, that is.

I’ve also gotten comments like this:

Great example for your students, teachers. Akin to taking ball and going home.

#redforedaz is an evil movement founded by clowns WHO SIGNED CONTRACTS!! And your children are being left without an education! #MondayMotivaton

(Honestly, I’m curious about the hashtag at the end of that one. I’m supposed to be motivated by this? Also, the sheer number of typos in the anti-teacher tweets is both 100% amusing, and 1000% unsurprising. This is my favorite:

#redforedaz is another entitlement programme. Teachers are WELL PAID considering they work only 9 months. Average teachers salary is 35, 000 a year. Teachers are on a 45, 000 a year course! Wow!!! To think, these teachers are teaching you’re kids! #appalling

At least he spelled “appalling” correctly. He made it a thread, too:

Stop making teachers look like the victims. They are still paid whiner!

I believe this man has made his point.)

All right. First, the contract. Teachers do sign contracts, and those contracts determine our pay. It generally doesn’t change over the year, so we know what we’re signing up for – though there are performance bonuses and incentives, also known as merit pay; if my students’ test scores are high enough, my pay goes up, if they are lower, it goes down. If I’m a coach or I spend extra time helping students enter competitions, then I get paid more the better my students do and the more time I spend helping them. And sure, I suppose a teacher working hard and teaching well would be able to earn more thereby; but when my students intentionally tank the test because the schools have tested them to death and they just can’t care any more, or when the students this year aren’t interested in entering competitions, or this year’s volleyball team sucks, then all the good teaching or coaching in the world won’t earn me that money.

More importantly, the contract doesn’t really set working conditions: there’s nothing in there about a budget, or resources. There’s no guarantee that we will have textbooks, or enough paper to make copies for the whole year, and if we don’t, then I have to work harder: find new resources, create new resources, raise funds myself. There’s nothing in the contract about class sizes. So if I agree to take X dollars to teach for the year, and then my school doubles my student load, I have to work twice as much for the same salary. Which, of course, happens all the time. And if enrollment drops and a class loses too many students – especially if it’s an elective – then the class is canceled, and suddenly, my contract signed in the spring is worth less in the fall.

Tell me again about how contracts are binding agreements that I have a responsibility to follow through on.

No: it takes two parties living up to their agreement to make a contract binding. And if nothing else, the state of Arizona has not held up its end of the bargain, for years. I think there is no argument, legal or moral, that says that Arizona teachers can’t walk out on these contracts. I will also note that, unless the walkout lasts so long that the school year gets canceled, most school districts will extend their year for as many days as the walkout cost them; which means the same teachers who walk out will walk back into their classrooms and put in as many days of work as were agreed to, and without any increase in money, as any deal struck will not take effect until next school year at the earliest. And all of the teachers’ plans will be disrupted and delayed too, and our summer will be shorter, too.

So those who are arguing that we signed a contract and we have to live up to it, please understand: we will. We will do more to abide by the agreement than will the other side. If you want to uphold the rule of legal agreements and insist that people keep their word, then look to the state capitol.

I don’t know how much I need to address the direct ad hominem attacks; I’m sorry if the Monday Motivaton guy doesn’t like the leaders of the RedforEd movement, but it really is a grass-roots movement; thousands of teachers have joined voluntarily without any sort of pressure at all. I did, even though I was told I was being suckered by a 23-year-old Socialist, or that I had

“opted to follow a quasi-union led by DNC delivery boys. You sold freedom”

I don’t remember selling freedom. Didn’t get anything from the DNC, either. I’ve seen a couple of digs from teachers at the Republican party, but honestly, they have controlled the state government that shorted education for the last two decades, so they really do own this. But I have not seen the same calls for registering-and-then-voting-the-bums out that have characterized, say, the gun control movement led by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students; these teachers just want our current government to fix this problem, right now, and if the government does so, I think they can wrap up the election in November, since this is a comfortably red state as it is. If they don’t help fix this problem, then they shouldn’t be re-elected, though I haven’t seen any of the RedforEd movement people agitating for replacement candidates: the election is too far away. We want this fixed now.

I also don’t feel the need to argue that we aren’t childish: childish would be throwing eggs at the governor and then trying to steal office supplies to make up for our insufficient pay. Or just quitting: for the guy who said we were taking our ball and going home, wouldn’t that be if all the teachers quit and walked off with our educations? If we’re fighting to get better working conditions so we can continue doing our job, isn’t that very much not “taking our ball and going home?” How about the bad example, is it that? Again, I don’t know how much students are going to absorb the desire to strike; I know that teachers hate the idea completely, and so I doubt many of us are talking it up to kids; I also know that it would be a worse example to set if we let ourselves get abused and devalued, and yet kept busting our asses for insufficient compensation. I have heard students say for years that they don’t ever want to be teachers, based on what they watch us deal with: so I don’t think it is the teachers who are setting a bad example.

But are we hurting them? Are we hurting our students and their families by walking out?

On some level, yes. We are. Some families will struggle to find child care during the strike (Though I know a whole state full of high school students/babysitters who are going to have a lot of free time…). There are students who are taking AP tests who will miss out on some last minute preparation before the tests, which start next week. I presume there are athletes who will lose their coaches, and performers who will miss opportunities, and some experiences that won’t happen because the teachers are not working.

But this is what has done the most harm at the school where I work: the first year I worked there, 2014-2015, there were two teachers who quit at the end of the year, our Spanish teacher and one of our best science teachers. Both because of pay. We also lost a PE teacher and a science/math teacher to budget cuts. The second year, there were six teachers who quit: science, math, art, two social studies, and English. Seven if you count the long-term sub who replaced one of the social studies teachers for half of the year; he got a job in California. They had different reasons for leaving, but pay was a factor for several of them. The school didn’t replace the science teacher. Third year, it was two math teachers and another science teacher – and one of those math teachers was the heart of our school, the best math teacher I’ve ever known, the reason why our STEM school has had such success. They didn’t replace one of the math teachers that year, either. Oh, we also lost our school psychologist. In three years, we’ve had thirteen teaching positions emptied: and I work at a small charter school with a total teaching faculty of 23. We’ve had more than 50% turnover in three years.

How many teachers are we going to lose this year? What are the chances that their replacements will be better? Who is more likely to leave to seek employment elsewhere, the good worker, the smart teacher, the capable employee — or the one who is already entrenched and doesn’t want to leave for fear they won’t be hired anywhere else? That’s not to say the teachers who have stayed at my school are like that – but our turnover rate is not unusual, so I think it’s a fair argument for the state as a whole. A lot of the best teachers are leaving. Even if good teachers replace them, then experience is lost, continuity is lost, relationships are lost. And as budgets continue to be cut, despite the funding increases touted by our governor, class sizes go up and good outcomes become less and less likely. And I don’t mean good outcomes for the teachers: I mean for the students. The students whom we are hurting by walking out.

Hurts pulling off a bandaid, too. But it’s better to do it, and better to do it quick and sudden.

I do know that the walkout will hurt people. Teachers will get fired, faculty members will get into bitter arguments and conflicts; students will lose out on education and some opportunities; parents are going to miss work and have enormous headaches dealing with child care. But when the only alternative is to go on as we’ve been doing, then it isn’t a choice. Parents who argue that their support for the teachers will be lost because of the strike have not been enough to fix the problem, despite their goodwill and support, because the problem is still here. The goal of the strike is to push other people: those who have done nothing but take advantage of the teachers willing to work and keep working without enough pay, those parents who are willing to keep sending their kids to less-than-ideal schools so long as they themselves don’t have to worry about it, and all those people who ignore the serious consequences of an inadequate education system just so long as they don’t have to pay more in taxes. Those are the ones we want to hurt. Those are the ones we want to push to take action, to inflict their ire, perhaps goaded by us, on those who actually merit it: the government, the deadbeats, the people in the state capitol who have let us sink to this level.

I am sorry it will hurt, and I have tried not to be too aggressive or insulting with this series, or with my Tweets. It helped that I am currently reading To Kill a Mockingbird with my 9th grade English class, because I got to read this scene, when Atticus Finch tells his daughter why she can’t haul off and punch anyone who insults her father because he is defending a black man accused of rape.

“Come here, Scout,” said Atticus. I crawled into his lap and tucked my head under his chin. He put his arms around me and rocked me gently. “It’s different this time,” he said. “This time we aren’t fighting the Yankees, we’re fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.”

There are a million students in Arizona. There are tens of thousands of teachers. We all live together, and work together. After this fight is over, we will go back to teaching, and they will go back to learning. We will all go back to doing what we can, working together, supporting each other, for the sake of the children, of our students, of our future. Let’s try to remember that, and try not to let this get too vicious. We all need this resolved, in the right way, in the best way: quickly, and well. Please help make that happen. Please help us get what we need to do what we want to do: to teach. To teach as well as we can, for as long as we can.

You say you support the teachers? Are you just going to talk the talk?

Or will you walk the walk?

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.