I've written before about my decision to leave academia and become an independent school teacher. In the past I've written about how it was a hard decision, at least in terms of leaving my career behind, which I had sacrificed a great deal to sustain. However, there was difficulty on the other end, too. Being a high school teacher is just about the last thing I ever expected myself to be, and not because I thought myself above it. My wife is a teacher, my little sister is a teacher (with a blog!), but most importantly, my mother was a teacher. I knew all too well what I would be getting myself into, and knew that it would be challenging.
Lots of education "reformers" act as if the teaching profession is full of layabouts collecting inflated union salaries, but I knew from experience that stereotype could not be further from the truth. The profession has an insanely high attrition rate; about half of new teachers leave the profession before their fifth year. It is a job that requires full mental, emotional, and sometimes physical commitment. It is very hard to do right, and is not well paid work. On top of that, teachers are constantly being vilified, and parents and students feel more entitled than ever to challenge the authority and decisions of teachers.
I saw a lot of this first hand through my mother, who taught about thirty years total. I saw how giving bad grades to students resulted in angry phone calls from their parents on Sunday afternoons. On those same Sunday afternoons I would see her grading for hours on end while other people were out having fun or relaxing. I saw her car egged and a small homemade bomb that (thankfully) didn't detonate put on our front walk. I saw how people could put years and years and their whole heart and soul into a job, only to be treated as a threat to be tuned out rather than listened to. I saw how teachers don't get more authority and power in the workplace with age, but often a lot less, unless they join the dark side and become administrators. I saw how she coached speech and debate teams, sacrificing multiple Saturdays to get up at 4AM to ride a bus full of students to Omaha, for which she was paid a bonus as big as the teacher sponsor of the cheerleading squad. I heard her tell me about dishonest and borderline illegal acts by her bosses that I can't mention here for liability reasons. I even saw her in one case be the object of an obscene, verbally abusive rant by a student whose father threatened to sue because his daughter had been taken to detention as a result. At the end, I saw the criminal lack of gratitude shown by the school for her decades of hard work.
To be honest, growing up I didn't think I could ever be as strong as she was, to endure all of that to get a comparatively small salary in return. I'm lucky to teach in a much easier environment, with smaller classes, motivated students, and all the resources I need provided. I hate that people assume that because I have this rarified job that that somehow makes me a better teacher than a public school teacher like my mother. From what I've seen, it is quite the opposite. My mother doesn't have an advanced degree, but I could never do what she did. Our society treats people like her -outspoken experienced teachers who don't put up with anyone's shit- as some kind of obstacle to be overcome, rather than the heroic figures that they truly are. Some can be proud to be the son of a politician or the son of a banker or the son of a CEO. I'm proud to be the son of a teacher.