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.