I’d like to tell you that, as a childless woman, I’ve never said that. I’d also love to tell you that I’ve never stood in front of a room full of children, clicked my heels together, and said “There’s no place like home” three times. I’d love to tell you that every day is perfect and smooth and easy.
But that’d be lying, and this is one post in which I really want to be honest.
It’s National Teacher Appreciation Week, and I’m a teacher. I’m proud to be a teacher. But I also know that my job is hard and my profession undervalued. So…I’m going to tell you a story. It’s my story.
I was three the first time that I played school. I used to haul all of my dolls and stuffed animals into the living room or basement and play school. The piano bench was my desk. The chalkboard was…well, that’d better be obvious.
By the time I got to college, I was looking into nursing as a career. But somehow, I found my way back to that three year old in the living room. I became a teacher. All that I wanted was to be a high school English teacher in a Catholic high school. It was my dream. I was going to teach for a few years, marry some amazing Catholic guy, and become a stay-at-home mom to my five Catholic kids.
I graduated from college, and I got my dream job. I got a job teaching English at a Catholic high school. It was hard. It was stressful. It was amazing. I loved it. I had good students and difficult-to-love students. I had good days and bad days. But I loved my job. I had supportive coworkers. I had good relationships with students. One of the best moments of my career came at the beginning of my second year teaching. A student who’d given me a really hard time my first year came up to me on the first day of my second year and apologized for his behavior the previous year. He told me that he’d been a jerk and he was sorry.
(I almost cried.)
At the end of my second year teaching, I found out that I couldn’t go back to that job. Enrollment had dropped, and I was no longer necessary. I was broken-hearted. I cried a lot. I applied for many, many jobs.
And I ended up working for a year as a long-term sub for three different English language teachers. I fell in love with the world of EL. I started working on a masters degree in the field. I knew that my dreams were changing, and this was the world in which I wanted to spend the rest of my life. The dreams of being a high school English teacher and eventually stay-at-home mom were fading from my mind. I wanted to be a building EL teacher.
But at the end of the school year, I had to find another job. Cue another summer of job searching and worrying and hoping and praying.
Fall began with a job teaching English, religion, and Spanish at a small Catholic school. I didn’t love it. It was hard in a way that nothing else had ever been hard for me. Parents were difficult. Students were hard. I regularly considered getting up, walking out of the classroom, and just leaving forever because I couldn’t handle it. My coworkers did nothing but complain. My boss was unsupportive.
Fed up with the stress and seeming black hole in which I felt I was trapped, I quit my job at the beginning of spring break. I felt like I was losing control of my life and I just couldn’t handle it anymore. Being a teacher was too much, and I didn’t want to do it anymore. My childhood dreams were bashed to pieces. No one had prepared me for what to do when your dreams were a nightmare. No one had prepared me for the day when I’d cry at work or the day when the thought of going to work would make me throw up. No one had prepared me for the day when my job would make me hate my life.
I was burned out.
I wanted out of the profession. According to stats from 2016, 8 percent of teachers leave the profession every year. It’s the stress and lack of remuneration that does them in. One of my current colleagues talks about a former coworker of hers who had to leave teaching because he couldn’t support his family on a teacher’s salary anymore. I was fully prepared to part of that statistic for 2016. I wanted a new job, a job where I’d be less stressed and more supported by the people around me.
I didn’t want to be a teacher anymore.
I found a job outside the profession. I didn’t plan on staying there forever, but it was a place to work, a place to be. I had a steady paycheck and a supportive boss. My boss was a former teacher, and I worked with plenty of people who knew teachers who’d left the field. I learned that it’s better to leave a place in which you’re unhappy than stay there and try to force your dreams to come true.
And then one phone call hauled me back into the world of teaching. Eighteen months earlier, I’d interviewed for a job as a school EL teacher but hadn’t gotten the job due to some certification complications. The school wanted to interview me again. I was less than a year from completing my master’s degree, and they were pretty sure that they could hire me. They could, and they did.
I’m in my second year here, and I love it. Why do I love it? I get to work with great kids. (I’m one of those people who think that EL students are the best kiddos ever.) I have amazing coworkers. My bosses are genuinely good people. Instead of working with people who only complain about the kids, I work with people who work together to help students. Instead of working for someone who is just looking for a chance to throw me under the bus, I work for someone who tries to help me. I get to work for someone who encouraged me to take a day off when I was in a car accident, who found me a more comfortable chair for my back after that accident, and who actively expresses concern about their employees’ well-being.
Teachers aren’t perfect. Education isn’t perfect. It’s hard. It isn’t what I dreamed of when I was three. When I work with a group of students, I’m faced not only by the content at hand but also the concerns that surround these children. Did he eat breakfast? How is her parents’ divorce impacting her? These things impact how a student learns. I have to face not only curriculum but also personal baggage. And the more kiddos I have in a group, the more baggage I face; if that’s true of a teacher who works with small groups, imagine how that feels and looks in a classroom with thirty (or more) students.
I have days where I spend half of my time trying to help students move past whatever’s bothering them. It is really hard to work with a kid who has been up since six or seven in the morning and didn’t eat breakfast that morning. This morning, one of my kids missed his breakfast. It’s unusual for him, but it happened. It is (understandably) really hard to focus when you’re hungry. Most teachers are familiar with the idea that kids who know that they’re are loved at home come to school to learn…and kids who don’t know that they’re loved at home come to school to be loved.
Teachers are important. Our kids are facing a world that is more complex than the one in which I grew up. They need good teachers who will fight for them and who will love them no matter what. They need teachers who will teach them to be both smart and wise.
Teaching can be exhausting. I know that I’m not the only teacher who has run up against frustration or burnout. The hours are rough-and never tell me that summer makes up for it; it doesn’t. The pay is hard; please ask West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona if you doubt me. I love the kids I work with, but good lord, I say so many things that I never thought I’d ever have to say. (Have you ever tried to explain to a sensory seeking child that if he wants to stroke your fingernails he has to use hand sanitizer first?) I’m not looking for sympathy or pity. What I want is respect for my profession. That’s the hardest part. Try doing something that is damn near impossible…and knowing that so many people don’t respect you for it, don’t think that you deserve a fair wage, think that you should be assessed based on test results from one or two mornings in May, and think that they know how to do your job better than you do.
I may get to play with playdough and Legos at work, but that’s rare. Far more often, my job is hugging heartbroken kids, trying to find the right response to things like “my cousin is in a coma” or “my dad has to go to court again tomorrow,” and trying to find ways to work with prepubescent hormones. It’s a hard job. The rewards come in hugs and smiles far more than in paychecks. You live knowing that you may never see the fruit of your work. Most days, you just want to go home knowing that you didn’t waste your time. And yeah, it’d be nice to know that you’re respected.