There’s a lot of speculation on the part of the woefully uninformed and snarky about who teachers are, and how they choose to go into teaching. I thought I’d share my story.
I am an educator. This is a title I claim with great pride, because it took me quite some time to earn it. I grew up in a family that struggled financially, to put the case rather mildly. Though I wanted desperately to go to college, that dream was regarded in my household with the kind of pained pride that mothers bestow upon the more quixotic dreams of their naive offspring. College aspirations were a broken heart waiting to happen. Though I was accepted to many colleges, we couldn’t afford even the ten percent family contribution to a state university. I needed to postpone my college education.
I was extremely fortunate that my family had connections good enough, and a reputation for hard work solid enough, to guide me to a job that paid twice the minimum wage, and eventually allowed health benefits. I earned enough to sustain myself, and to pick up my share of the load of family responsibility. I saw doctors outside of the emergency room. I grew and learned in that job for ten years, making supportive friends, accumulating cost-of-living raises, and occasionally putting aside enough money to take a class or two.
After ten years, at the urging of those supportive friends, and with the help of my family and the income level and flexibility that came with ten years’ tenure in my job, I was able to attend college full time and work full time simultaneously. It was rough, but I had help and I was determined to succeed. And succeed I did, graduating with various honors in my two major programs, and the credentials necessary to teach in my home state.
The teaching market is never very good for Humanities teachers in my state, and I am crap at interviewing. I spent a year subbing, doing home and hospital teaching, picking up classes to teach at local children’s hospitals and giving very bad interviews. After that year, with the panic of a Master’s degree deadline to keep my teaching credentials looming, a still-weak job market, and immense fear of failure, I elected to go to a second-choice graduate school rather than wait and make a fair chance at an application to a school I really wanted.
This school was happy to have me. I mean, as happy as any school is to have another Humanities major using library resources without bringing in corporate contracts. They were so happy to have me that they gave me a teaching job to supplement my loans, which was paid at 1/9 the rate of a science or math grad’s remuneration. I incurred during this process rather a lot more debt than a woman raised in poverty is comfortable acquiring. I had nearly continuous neurotic episodes where I was convinced my mother’s grave illness was being exacerbated by my personal fiscal failures. (She lived with me, and any belt-tightening I had to do negatively affected her.) While trying to do research, and write papers so I could do as well in graduate school as I did in undergrad, I frequently imagined myself a matricide-by-failure. It’s not ideal to try to grapple with big ideas when you are in a constant state of panic and guilt. It’s not ideal to have a professor tell you you aren’t a real, studious student when you show up to class late again due to your mother’s recurring cardiac events. *
After two years and many tears, I completed the MA program, and walked in that graduation. Two days later my mom had open-heart surgery, which she survived, barely. There were panicked and running surgeons at one point; not a good sign. Then I began the search for employment again, only this time with crushing debt and less time on the clock until my state credentials ran out. You can imagine how relaxed I was in those interviews. I expanded my search outside my state, because I needed a job, nevermind location issues.
Finally, just after the school year started, a teacher in a state 300 miles away quit his position because he was afraid of his students. I was apparently the runner up for that position, and they called me in. I was broke from all the traveling around seeking employment, and I needed to borrow two thousand dollars from a family member to go stay in a very shady motel so I could report to work while finding an apartment. I ate nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and drank nothing but water for a month. Even with my Silas Marner-like parsimony, I still almost ran out of money. My mother called from grad school city crying because she needed money and I couldn’t give her all she needed. She was alone in a city I had decided to move her to, living out a lease we couldn’t afford to buy our way out of, and my siblings couldn’t visit on a schedule I tried to set up so someone would be looking after her at least every weekend.
All this while I desperately tried to get children who had inspired — I learned — several of their former teachers to resign to sit still and try to learn. Eventually, I was able to teach them something. After I reminded them that 3 years without a steady teacher in my content area did not excuse acting like fools when they finally had a teacher. Their test scores went up an average of 30 points that year. I developed blood pressure that should have killed me, 230/180 for a couple of days, and that caused a secondary problem I still deal with today.
I am not all that special, and I’m not telling this story to pretend I am. I am not telling this story to seek pity for my struggles. I know that we all struggle with many stressors and grave misfortunes in our lives. It is expected that one soldiers on through at least some adversity. I know I was fortunate to get to college at all. Many from my background would not have made it there and through. I just want some people to have some idea of who they are talking about when they start a sentence or a clause with the words “these teachers.”
When Arne Duncan talks about trying to get the top 2% of college students into the classroom, he’s talking about me. I have all manner of cords and plaques and assorted tchotchkes to prove it.
When self-appointed arbiters of teacher quality talk about effective teachers as if standardized test scores are the only thing that we can use to see if a teacher is effective, they are talking about me.
I stay almost every night until 7:30, working on school stuff. I am not the last person in my building most nights. I bring supplies for children whose families are suffering an economic downturn. I counsel children who should be pre-sexual about respecting themselves and their lives too much to be as hypersexual and reckless as they are being. So, when the arbiters of teacher quality talk about teacher dedication, they are talking about me.
I figuratively and damned near literally broke my heart trying to get good at this job.
But every time one of these people talks about teachers, I want to quit. Just quit. I could start a soy farm somewhere, or raise goats, or something. (This would be hilarious to you if you knew me.) Because every time one of these people talks about teachers, it’s to degrade us. They speak to blame us for the problems that exist in a society they have allowed or even encouraged to become less fair, less open, less kind to children and their caretakers. And there are many of us: competent, effective, and dedicated educators who became educators because it is what we truly wanted and felt called to do, who want to walk away now.
* I want to be clear that my mother was a constant support, and joined several of my professors in encouraging me to continue on for the PhD in my field. I did not choose to go that path, because I just could not handle the guilt anymore. That guilt was made by me, though, not the people around me.