Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Thoughts on Teachers and the Profession

My dad was a musician. Full-time. Never taught, never had a lame side-job. I'm always proud to tell people he managed to make a living in music all his life. Maybe because of this, my dad also carried that old "those who can, do; those who can't, teach" mentality. He was especially hard on musicians who taught. He said they were always the worst players. 

Who knows? I have known music teachers who couldn't play their way out of a wet paper bag, but I have known a few who could "shred." (I'm a part-time musician, too, as well as an English teacher.)

I became a teacher by accident. I studied literature as an undergrad, not because I wanted to teach, but because I wanted to learn about books and to become a better writer. I studied literature in grad school, for the same reason. When I was starting grad school, a friend asked me if I intended to teach. My response was (and I quote): "Eeeew. No."

But then, I was offered free tuition and $20,000 per year to teach writing. Clearly, the proverbial no-brainer. I had no idea what I was doing, but I tried my best and got better as I went along. In the process, I discovered that I liked teaching. Decades later, I am still doing it, on the high school level. 

Maybe because of all of this, when I was a department chair and I was interviewing potential new teachers, I would ask them: "What do you like more, teaching or studying literature?" I wanted them to say that it was the literature they liked most. It always seemed a little artificial when someone became a teacher because they had "always wanted to teach." It's not that there is anything wrong with that...it's just that, in English for instance, I have known teachers who seem like they are in it for the summers off and who never seem to have read a book. I wouldn't want someone like that to teach my kids English. (Side note: In interviews, I would often ask a candidate what his or her favorite book was. If the answer was either not immediate or it became a resultant flood of books he or she could not decide between, I'd pretty much decide against that person.)

The thing is, though, I don't grant immediate reverence to my fellow teachers. I once saw a bumper sticker that said: "Honor Teachers." I wanted to take a Sharpie marker to it and put the word "Good" in the middle. Why? Because there is nothing more dis-honorable than a teacher who "phones it in" or who gets tenure and spends decades complaining in the faculty room and draining his kids of their love of learning. I have known tons of those. I have also often been dubiously entertained by those who declare "I'm a good teacher," as if the statement makes it so. (My gut is that those who say that are likely not to be very good.) 

I don't think one should get automatic kudos just for picking a profession. One needs to care and to work and to -- when it comes to teaching -- inspire. 

That said, I think many people outside the profession don't understand the challenge of teaching. (My dad: "They get summers off! They lead the life of a child...") If the job is done right, teaching is gruelling. There are a ton of jobs out there that are as tough as -- or tougher --  than teaching, but teaching offers particular challenges that few jobs do. Teachers have to put on five shows a day (on average). You know how worked up you get when you have to lead a meeting or prepare for a presentation once in a while? We do that numerous times every day to a decidedly unprofessional audience that isn't always inclined to sit nicely and let us do our thing. And we have to look happy and motivated when we're depressed, grieving, fighting cancer, etc. 

Clich├ęd as it may sound, there is also the idea that we are pretty much working seven days -- with grading, planning, etc. (I mean, the good ones.) Not only are we working seven days, but it's hard to feel "done" at the end of the day. Assessment is important, so we often work in the evenings, too. Even when there is not concrete work to do, the good ones are driving around and sitting on their living room couches thinking about how the day's lessons could have gone better.

The most difficult challenge is that we need to read the moods and deal with the mood swings of hundreds of kids each day -- engage in an exercise of emotional intelligence and play mental chess games to "get through" to each young person in our charge. And, the heartbreakingly moving thing about teaching young people is how much they need us. Each day, I face my students thinking: every one of these people is someone's child; I need to treat them as I'd want my boys to be treated. A self-imposed burden, but a heavy one, nonetheless. It does wear on you. 

In truth, by the time summer rolls in, we're pretty fried. But, heck yes, it is incredible to be able to look forward to two months of down time. Let's face it. Of course, that is, if we get it. I have worked summers, teaching or doing administrative stuff, for almost all of my career. Many of us do. And, then, there are others out there laying sod and serving sandwiches in the summers to make ends meet.

Among us, though, there are numerous teachers just surfing along; turning their profound moral mandate to help in the development of young minds into a game of figuring out how little work they can do and still garner the respect they think just being in the profession grants them. Having spent time as an administrator, I can assure you: there are tons of teachers out there like that, so they deserve your (or my dad's) most scathing criticism and they should be ashamed. (But we don't do shame anymore; at least, not in the United States.) It's not too strong a statement to say that those kinds of teachers disgust me. 

The ones who realize the depth of their responsibilty? Trust me. They work as hard or harder than you do, so just think twice about the blanket eyerolls and spat critiques of "summers off."




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