This morning I am thinking about appreciation.
Yesterday I tried to recognize the teachers and educators I have worked with (And I still forgot a few — so thank you, Mary Wells, for all that you do, and thank you, Nora Caragan, for being the best paraprofessional in the history of paraprofessionals), and I got a grateful and heartwarming response. Teachers loved hearing what I had to say.
But there’s a problem there: I had to say it.
One of the things I object to, even though I participate in, is the support network that teachers provide for each other. It is a staggeringly wonderful thing: these people, who are already working so hard, and who are already giving so much, turn and without hesitation give even more to each other. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it: teachers go into each others’ rooms all the time, and frequently the visitor comes in mad or frustrated or down — until they see the face of the person they are visiting, and see that that person is feeling even worse. Suddenly, whatever the teacher came in to complain about or vent or even ask for help with is gone: frustration vanishes in concern, and the visitor says, “What’s wrong?” Prepared, in an instant, to take more burdens onto shoulders already weighed down with overwork and the emotional strain of seeing up close and personal the struggles and sufferings of children (And also with the strain of struggling through the suffering caused by children — and the worst is that it is often the same children, that those who are neediest and most desperate are the most obnoxious people we see. Which is saying something.), not because we don’t need help any more, but simply because a friend, a fellow teacher, needs help more, or even just needs help too: and so we help.
It’s amazing and inspiring. I will say, without any humility, that I participate in this, that I support my fellow teachers at all times and in whatever way they may need, and that I rarely ask for help myself because I don’t want to trouble them. I’ve even seen this go too far, when I was part of my union’s negotiating team and we were fighting for better compensation and working conditions; trying to get teachers to actually stop working, to stop sacrificing, to start asking for something for themselves — and not luxuries, but a living wage and necessary health care and the like — was nearly impossible. They wanted to give up whatever they had to give up in order to make everyone else happy. The magnificent bastards.
But here’s the thing: we shouldn’t have to do that. Of all the people who should be sacrificing in order to keep teachers sane and healthy, IT SHOULD NOT BE TEACHERS WHO DO IT. That makes no sense. It defeats the purpose. We not only put on someone else’s oxygen mask first, we take ours off and strap it on top of that person’s own oxygen mask just so they can be twice as safe while they watch us suffocate.
If it’s not clear already, this drives me nuts, that teachers do this. I don’t like that I do it, either, but it is without doubt who we are as people, and what the culture of teachers encourages in us. This is why we spend our own goddamn money on school supplies for our students, despite how little we are paid. And perhaps the worst part, though this is not the place to get into this, is that we are therefore propping up a system that is in many ways a terrible system: not terrible for us, though it is that, but terrible for the students, and terrible for the country. Yesterday I bought donuts for all of my students taking the AP Literature test. I encouraged and helped students to “succeed” on a high-stakes test run by a private corporation with disproportionate influence on college admissions. I structure the whole class around that damn test: a test I should be opposing with every fiber of my being. But I bought them donuts.
So here’y my request, for those who want to appreciate teachers — REALLY appreciate us, not simply nod in our direction while we lie bruised and bleeding in a ditch. (I know, it’s hyperbolic, but it’s also the end of the year, and it feels like that. I feel bruised. I feel sick because I haven’t been sleeping, and I feel sore because my body has been too tense for too long: my shoulders honestly ache right now.) Ready?
Make it so we don’t have to hold each other up.
Give us enough support, and take away enough of our burden of responsibility, that a single person can do a teacher’s job alone, or at least can handle the pressure alone.
Specifically, that means essentially three things: money, time, and trust. In the first years of a teacher’s career, there is a fourth, which is: help.
I don’t want as much money as I want, if I can be permitted that sentence. I want as much money as is needed so that I don’t have to worry about it. That’s all. I’ve been a teacher for twenty years, and I still don’t earn enough to own a home, and I don’t have any retirement savings, and I still have debt that I haven’t been able to get rid of. I want to make enough money to take care of those problems. I don’t need enough to pay for vacations or jet skis or that diamond-encrusted pirate hat I’ve had my eye on; just enough so that I don’t have to suffer from money stress. I want to be middle class. I aspire to the bourgeoisie.
I want enough time in my school day to get my work done in my school day. I don’t mind planning lessons from home; it’s kind of fun sometimes. But I don’t want to have to spend one more weekend grading, not one more evening filling out paperwork. I already work 40 hours a week at school; why is it that I am expected and required to add another 10-20 hours on top of that, every week? It’s because I have too many students, and too many requirements for teaching those students. Too many things I have to cover, too many things I have to compensate for, and too many people I need to report to and satisfy in order to show that I did my job. You know what should be the only evidence needed that I did my job? That my student can read a book, write an essay, discuss a poem. That’s it. Don’t ask me to prove that I did my job: ask the kid. See what he can do. And ask him, honestly, if I helped him do that. Make it his responsibility to prove that I did my job. He is the product, after all. (Please note: this is not a serious suggestion for assessment of teachers. Students shouldn’t have to have that burden either, and too many of them are not reliable witnesses nor reliable learners. All I’m saying is that I don’t want to do it, to prove to all and sundry that I did my own job.)
And anyone who thought “But you get summers off!” just know: I am currently mentally punching you in the brain. Hard. Kicking, too.
The last thing I need is trust. I have proven that I am a good teacher. I’ve won awards, I’ve won accolades, I don’t have anyone who disagrees with that basic premise: not students, not students’ families, not other educators. Of course not everyone likes me or likes my class: but I don’t believe there’s a single person who could genuinely say that I teach badly. So please, I beg you. BACK OFF AND LET ME TEACH. Don’t try to improve my curriculum for me, or my methods. If you’ve got suggestions, I’ll listen, of course; but don’t tell me what to do, especially if you’re not versed in my subject or my profession. Stop assessing me: my driver’s license is valid for 25 MORE YEARS: and that’s based on a single test I took more than 20 years ago. Yet my teaching license expires every three to six years, and requires hundreds of hours spent on learning to be a better teacher. I get observed every year, often twice a year, and have multi-page evaluations, every year. How much proof do you need that I can do this job? The answer is that there will never be enough proof that I can do it, because I will never be trusted to do it. That has nothing to do with me and everything to do with our culture and our system, but I don’t care why it is that way: I just want it to stop.
I already care about my profession, and about my students, and about my subject. I care about my fellow teachers and educators. Please, stop making me also care about and for myself: let someone else do it. Give me some real appreciation.
And don’t let it come from other teachers.