Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Son Of A Teacher

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.


Terry said...

Hooray for both of you. I love teachers. Until this country respects teachers and pays them proportionately to their real value, I consider us a backwater, not worthy to be called "modern." I'll have a long wait, I fear. If only they'd make me Empress...

Oblio said...

BRAVO!!! I too believe that teachers and healthcare workers should be the highest-paid professionals in our country.

My local right-wing rag of a newspaper, The Orange County (CA) Register, surprisingly runs a weekly column titled 'Go Ask The Teacher' written by an educator named Carol Veravanich. She responds to letters written by parents who often show their open contempt and disdain for her and her profession, but Carol always answers them with intelligence, honesty and without pulling punches. No matter how insulting, ignorant or insipid the question, she pushes back with sugar and a velvet-covered fist, showing how easy it is to counteract stupidity with love and a strong compassion for students.

I am a Facebook friends with one of my favorite teachers from my high school days (1970-74) and he is still the kind of person he was way back then -- AWESOME.


Unknown said...

I can't remember who it was I was listening to about the trouble with education today, but the speaker pointed out a fact I'd never considered relevant to the issue: A larger proportion of America's middle class today has a college education, making most parents presumptive intellectual equals to the teachers who educate their children. Compare this to 30 years ago, when most middle class Americans did not pursue college. The result is that too many adults with children look upon elementary and secondary educators as intellectual light-weights. I mention this not to affirm the premise but to highlight a major cultural shift that both explains why policy makers fail compulsory school educators and why I'm afraid the situation will only get worse as critics set their sights on why college educators need to be taken down a notch.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

I think that has a lot to do with it. I also think that culturally, the United States has a Jacksonian disdain for experts, which is especially the case with attacks on academia. In other nations where more people are getting college educations you don't see this level of anti-intellectualism.