I am a Teacher

I am a teacher. I wish I could say this was one of those cute, feel-good stories, where you feel refreshed or entertained at the end, telling yourself, “How bad can it be, this guy gets summers off, is making a difference in children’s lives… he’s got some funny anecdotes… this guy’s doing it right.” I would love to be able to write about some of the funny stories from the teacher’s lounge or the classroom. To regale you with those stories of sucess with the difficult student. Unfortunately, while those things may be true, and I may have those stories in me, I don’t believe this to be one of them.

I went into teaching as a career switcher, after screwing up a ridiculously bad career working for Enterprise Rent-a-Car, but that’s a story for another time. I have two teaching certifications, Secondary English and Secondary Social Studies. Basically I’m qualified to teach any grade level 6–12 in both subjects, and have recently added P.E. in the interest of joining the ranks of the shorts-wearing, whistle-blowing, coolest teachers everybody knows. I have an undergrad degree in English, useless, unless I wanted to teach, write, or be an editor, three things I have done to varying degrees of success. In addition to my undergrad, I have what essentially amounts to a 5th year professional certification in teaching. Now entering my 10th year in the profession, I find myself at a crossroads.

With all that education and training you’d think I’d be making a good living, surviving, or at least getting my piece of the American dream. As most know however, this is not the case. Like most teachers I know, I struggle to make ends meet every month, money often running out before the month does. I literally have ruined my credit taking out bad loans to try and keep the lights on, food on the table, and pay my rent. I’m probably several thousand dollars in debt and working on digging that hole deeper. All due to my own mistakes and bad judgement. In addition, I am a divorced father with joint custody of my two sons. Thankfully I have a good relationship with their mother, and together we do our best to make sure they never know how hard it is financially, but it is never easy keeping up with extra-curricular activities, children’s needs, and the growing cost of a “free” public education.

Earlier I mentioned a crossroads. Lately I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time in self introspection, examining my life. I’m in my mid 40’s, single, broke, with no real prospect of any of that changing anytime soon. Most days, I don’t feel like a particularly good teacher. I’d like to think I’m a good dad, but there are days I wonder about that, and I definitely don’t feel like I’m a success by most definitions of the word. In other words, I’m a real catch!

As I continue my introspection, and really begin digging in, it begins to dawn on me that my life has become a vicious cycle. I have low job satisfaction because I don’t feel appreciated financially, emotionally, professionally, (that list of -lys is endless), as a result I begin to fall into the trap of self-depreciation, and lowering my performance as my expectations plummet. I begin to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Everything suffers as I begin to wonder what I can do to make it better. I know… I’ll work harder, I’ll be a better teacher, I’ll be a better dad… but there’s that bill on the table that has to be paid by Monday or they cut the water off, and then there’s that stack of papers to grade, and those parents to contact to explain to them why their son or daughter is failing. There’s that big test to get the kids ready for or the state will be in our building telling us why we can’t teach and what we need to do to be better. The cycle begins anew.

So I guess the question is what do I want to achieve by writing this, what do I want to change? Am I looking for people to pat me on the back and tell me what a great and noble job I’m doing? Am I looking for pity? Understanding? A solution? Do I still want to teach? Do I still want to change the world, one child at a time? Do I think I can write an entire paragraph in questions?

Yes.

Ultimately I think I’m looking for what everyone else is. The ability to make a decent living, and to go home at the end of the day and face those who care about you the most, feeling like you did your best. As a student and child we’re all told we can be whatever we want to be when we grow up. We’re told that we can go to school, get a degree, work hard, and success will follow. As a teacher I have touched more than a thousand lives over the past 9 years, and I continue to perpetuate that cycle, telling those same lies. Now, I try to temper some expectations, I do try to be the “real” teacher and tell students, “It’s okay if you don’t want to go to college,” and “It’s not for everyone.” I realize some students will not be a success, some students will have to work harder than others, and some will give up because it seems too hard, or perhaps we make it too easy for them to quit.

I think what it all boils down to is I do still want to make a difference. I still have that naive desire to change the world. That same desire to make one child leave my classroom inspired to be better, to want more, to learn. With all the adult problems in my life, I often lose sight of those simple goals. I allow myself to get sucked into the trap that our modern lives make so easy to fall into. When the reality is this, I simply need to be me. I simply need to do the best I can, try to control those things I can control, change those things I can, and fuck the rest.

So the next time you pick up the phone to tell off your son or daughter’s teacher because little Suzy or Johnny didn’t get the grade you think they deserve, or the next time you fire off an angry e-mail to a teacher about that assignment your kid just didn’t get, remember that the person on the other end is a real human being with real problems. They spend 8–10 hours a day solving other people’s problems, and don’t get the rewards and respect they deserve. They have to make ends meet the same you do, and often are doing it with the same salary as the people who manage your local McDonald’s (I looked it up), or other favorite fast food restaurant.

Hopefully this will make you think about what the true state of education is in this country. We have teachers that spend all their free time, money, and considerable personal resources to make sure our kids get the opportunities we were all promised growing up. We have a high stakes testing model that marginalizes everything but the test score. Student and teacher success is tied to a three digit number that is supposed to reflect all we do in the classroom for 180 days a year. Our education system is broken, with no real solutions being proposed.

I’d love to see my story end with a happy ending. Love to say that I feel refreshed, and I know I’m going to make it, but the reality is… I can’t honestly say that. Teaching is hard, with little to no rewards, and no one is holding out that golden ticket, or brass ring, to make teacher’s lives any easier.

At least I get the summer off… now if I can just find a summer job.