I am leaving a campus in Yonkers for the last time. I had two students show up for the final. It’s fine. It was voluntary. We talked about future plans and what makes a story frightening. They asked for my email in case they need recommendations. I hope I can help them someday.
It’s one of three schools I teach at across four campuses. I teach five classes in the fall and spring, a course in the winter, and between one and three courses over the summer. I average about 22 students a class (fairly low amongst my peers), so I teach composition and literature to somewhere between 260 and 300 students a year. I grade over 1,000 essays a year. I love it.
On some level, I’ve always wanted to teach. I also didn’t really know it until I was 30. I returned to college in my late 20s to complete an undergraduate degree and a beloved professor of mine told me I was doing a disservice to myself if I didn’t teach. Suddenly, everything made sense. I knew, career wise, nothing else could make me happy.
When I heard this was “Teacher Appreciation Week,” I told my teacher girlfriend and we laughed. We threw middle fingers into the air. The whole concept of an Appreciation Week (or Day) seemed obscene in so many ways.
The smallest of these offenses is personal to me. I have no love for half-assed invented holidays of the social media age. “Best Friend Day,” “Donut Lover Day” and “National Kazoo Day” are loads of crap meant to sell donuts, kazoos, and best friends, and we all know it. Yes, every holiday is invented and commercialized but this doesn’t mean we needed more. And yes, Teacher Appreciation week may have a longer history, but not one that means anything.
Still, I can take a step back and recognize that’s just my frustration. There are other aspects of Teacher Appreciation Week that are so much worse. We have National Teacher’s Week, Administrative Assistant’s Day, Nurse Appreciation Week, and many others… you know what we don’t have? Hedge Fund Manager’s Day. Professional Athlete’s Day. Love Your Landlord Week. These don’t exist because they are quite clear on how appreciated they are. 4 of 5 people don’t even know what a hedge fund manager does but we assume it involves fancy offices and massive paydays. Did you know there is a level of fame where you make money off of what you do but it doesn’t matter because companies will give you things for free? The professions that have the most well-promoted days of appreciation are also, in my thinking, the least appreciated.
As a college teacher, I know that unions are constantly fighting to ensure teachers get a livable wage. As an adjunct, this has never happened. Most adjuncts must work 2–3 jobs to make ends meet. The few full-time jobs that do exist are more reasonable in terms of making a living and not working yourself to the brink, but all the same, with few exceptions, it is not what one might call lucrative. Teachers, grade school through high school, are striking right now across the country. Truthfully, I would be very understanding if it was about wages, but in most cases it seems to be about school and classroom resources. If we, as a society, appreciated teachers, then we would not pay them wages far below their level of work, time, and training and THEN ask them to use a part of their pittance to buy school supplies for the children they teach. We would give them access to every resource to ensure they could do what they are so uniquely suited to do.
Instead, we propagate a myth that anyone can teach. We’ve all heard it and it has become familiar to the point that teachers believe it. This weekend, at a fundraiser for an organization that helps place teaching artists in schools (and for a second, let’s again recall that this is a group of teachers using their own small amounts of money to fund education opportunities for others), a young teaching artist laughed through a speech about how she came to realize she was mediocre at her art, so she decided to teach. I hate this myth and I hate the fact that teachers believe it. I have faced it myself many times. Peers in the writing community have asked me if I’m actually a writer who teaches or a teacher who writes because it is impossible in their minds to believe that one can be both in equal measure and that such a division indicates a lack of talent to succeed at just one. Instead, we stick to the truism that those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.
This is not true, of course. The majority of teachers, in my experience, have multitudes of talent, usually in their field of study and in educating others. We are a talented, unique bunch and in places where our talent or time or ability to cope fails, the entire system collapses. New York State legally labels educators as “essential personnel” and I agree — except that such a classification is made not to ensure that we are treated well, but instead make it illegal to strike if we are not. This is not how you appreciate a profession… but that’s sort of the point isn’t it? Having an Appreciation Day for any profession is a sad effort to give lip service to something that we would be lost without.
So, yeah, I cynically laughed when I saw that this was Teachers Appreciation Week. But then someone taught me something by posting her heartfelt gratitude for those who educated her as an artist and a teacher. Then I remembered in lamenting all that teachers suffer, I have a lot to appreciate in my life.
I am grateful to my fifth grade and sixth grade teachers, Ms. Liken and Ms. Whalen. Both made me feel appreciated and worthwhile even if I was a weird kid. They also showed me the difference between liking your job and loving your job and that if you teach, you better love it. I remember that every year. If you don’t love it, quit. Too many students face burned out teachers and they deserve more.
I am grateful to Mr. Poole because he let us cuss in a seventh grade classroom, as long as we were thinking. In high school, there was Ms. Giovanini, Mr. Smith, Bob Hanson, Dr. Tsumura, Ms. Cate, and so many others who became part of who I am as I was trying to figure what that meant. And I will always remember the day Mr. Bond pulled his groin while lecturing because I realized teachers can be badass.
I don’t remember many teachers from my first round of college, but maybe that’s because I myself was lost and maybe there is a lesson in that. Maybe we don’t think about our teachers if we’re not happy with who we are or where we are going.
I know when I returned to school Dr. Embry, Dr. Worley, and Professor Brown showed me the kind of teacher I wanted to be — and when I mentioned the teacher who saw the teacher in me? Well, his name is Dr. Chaves and he changed my life.
The list of teachers at my grad programs would be endless (and embarrassing, since I work with some of them now), but I am the teacher and artist I am now because of them.
And then there are the teachers I’ve taught — I am so proud and excited for you. And I believe in what we are all doing.
I think I first laughed at the idea of this week because ultimately, it is so sad that we don’t appreciate our teachers — not really — and this week just reminds me of that.
But maybe we can learn from it.