A little over a week ago, we posted a story calling for submissions from teachers, administrators, and aides working in America's public schools. The post itself received over 1,000 comments and my inbox was backed up with hundreds of emails from teachers who wanted to share not just horror stories but successes, too. Many told me they found the job fulfilling but the system broken, that the misconceptions about what they do were not only tiring but prohibitive. The comments section of the post had a fair number of non-teaching dissenters.
I think the most galling thing is that people are increasingly mad that teacher's make a decent salary in most states and have a robust benefits package. People are made that they no longer have those benefits and I'm glad I have the union to fight for me and mine. People want to tear that down instead of fighting for their own benefit. It's a race to the bottom and instead of attempting to build up the American worker to some stable plateau we want to just say "well I don't get that, why should you?"
This pushback that the commenter talks about shows up a lot, and is further summarized by an email submission from one of our readers:
I am a former math teacher from Florida. I appreciate your effort to collect teacher horror stories, but I think that undermines the larger, systemic problems. Also, individual stories tend to be countered by the same responses:
1) ...but you get summers off
2) ...no one teaches for the money
3) ...you knew what you were getting into
4) ...you can retire with a full pension at 55
5) ...you would never make it in the private sector
6) My personal favorite ...I had a teacher who... (insert negative story)
In the simplest sense, the biggest problem I see with teaching is that teaches are afforded unlimited accountability/responsibility, with little to no authority.
Everyone who wants to "fix" education is just adding to the problem. For example, The Gates Foundation yields a lot of authority, or at least influence those with authority, but has yet to teach any students.
If you really want to see change in education, give teachers authority, and autonomy.
I do have actual stories, some personal, some borrowed. But, no one seems to understand until they have taught. Actually taught. I don't count Sunday school, or guitar lessons. I'm not sure what your end goal is for this; Maybe it's a series like "Unemployment Stories". But, if you really want to convince people about the ups and downs of teaching, get them to volunteer in a school. The have them share their stories. Then maybe you can get a lawmaker to actually teach.
Since we can't enforce our readers to volunteer at a school (as much as we'd like to!), the following stories—the first volume of our teacher series—will touch on teachers' alleged summers off, and what that actually means to people working within the education profession.
From an email submission, on taking a second job:
Oh, but the summers off! Yes, what a perk. It is, that is undeniable, and I don't claim to not have been aware of this perk when I began my pursuit of teaching. But to make it clear—we don't get paid for the summer, or during the summer. I work all summer at another job, because I have to. And without summer vacation, most teachers, like myself, would probably go insane.
And yet, I fully admit, THIS IS WHAT I SIGNED UP FOR. I knew all of these things when I decided to major in education in college. These are not my issues with my profession. What I didn't knowingly sign up for was the criticism of teachers, the constant doubt of our integrity and our intentions, and the lack of respect for our love of our students and our dedication to their education. Should I have known this was what I was walking into? Perhaps, but how sad is it to think that this is what teachers should expect? It is incredibly disheartening to see the way we are portrayed in the public and to watch these stereotypes perpetuated. Teaching is not easy. We are not in it to make money, or simply to score health benefits (thank you for that one perk, if we even continue to hold on to it), or because we get summers off. It's because we want to teach.
The more this public shaming of teachers continues by those that refuse to understand, the more disheartened we become. When looking towards the future, this is scary. Aspiring future teachers may quickly find other lines of work—for who would knowingly walk into the pit of fire teaching has become (at least in New Jersey, where my experience is based)? As for those of us who are teaching presently, morale continues to get worse. In most other jobs, when an employee is being disrespected or mistreated, he/she can quit and find a new company to work for. Of course, it is never that simple, but the difference here is that we don't just have ourselves to worry about. To restate what was confirmed previously, it is about the students. Where will they be when the good teachers have had enough? Or when the passionate college student decides a business degree will in fact be a more promising path than that of an education degree (and here, I speak from experience again –I've had numerous people ask me with a hint of disbelief and disgust, "You really went to Boston College to become a teacher?). If we want our students to have good teachers, and therefore a good education, we need to respect our teachers and value them for what they do for the kids. It is that simple.
An email submission about working through the summer:
I've been a public school teacher for the last ten years. I teach in a large, diverse, title I high school. I've spent my entire adult life as a classroom teacher. When I first starting writing this, I started ticking off all the things I do over the course of a school year. The long nights of grading after a full day of teaching, the time put in on weekends and during the summer for lesson planning, workshops, meetings and classes to learn the newest practices and theories, the money spent at Target on supplies for my classroom like pencils, paper, markers, and backpacks for the kids that I know will walk into my classroom without them. But I deleted all of that because I think people know those things.
Despite complications, a teacher takes a summer school position:
I am a teacher. In the state I am licensed in I am able to teach preschool, elementary, and high school (social studies). After graduation, I was lucky enough to get a long term substitute teaching job at a public preschool. At that point, I only had my secondary teaching certificate and had the notion that a 10th year, tenured teacher would leave 12+ weeks worth of lesson plans and my fourth quarter would be a breeze. On what was her last day, and day she should have been showing me the ropes, she slapped down a stack of papers in front of me and said "Better late than never to learn how to test them, they're your problem now."
I sat there struggling to figure out how to administer 3rd quarter progress tests to 3 & 4 year old preschoolers while she spent the rest of her afternoon playing Candy Crush on her phone. The following week I discovered her binder of lesson plans were just random pages of Pintrest crafts hastily put together. When I notified the principal, her reply was "They're your problem now..Better start putting lesson plans together." I spent the next 12 weeks scouring the Internet and bugging former teachers and friends I had in the education field for ideas, creating lesson plans, researching early childhood development, obtaining my early childhood certification, and searching for age appropriate toys and materials because the maternity leave teacher sent me a wonderful email warning me she would be returning to "check in" on me to make sure I wasn't using "her" supplies. On top of this, I was also required to participate on committees and events after school- a lot of work for someone making a flat $90/day. I jumped at the chance to teach summer school under the promise that there was an available full time teaching position for the next school year. On my last day of summer school, I was informed the state pulled funding and the position was no longer available. I was heartbroken. Not for the time or money wasted, but for the connections I had made with students. Several families had requested their children be placed in my room, but of course that never happened.
You are aware that teachers only get summers off if they're in dual income households and their partner can afford the 3 months without pay, right?
On the ways in which hours are made up throughout the rest of the year, from an email submission:
We "have summers off." I spend my summers in workshops to get better at teaching. When I'm not in workshop, I spend my time planning. I give up vacation days during the year to take certification tests or go to trainings. I spend one Saturday a month at professional development. Is my summer workload lighter? Yes. That said, I don't know very many people who work around the clock for 40 a year. Most days are 12 hours, if not longer, and you can bet I work part of the weekend. So for a 60-70 hour work week nine months out of the year, I think we can agree that half time the other three months is fair.. at least for what we make. Plenty of people put in long hours, and we all are working hard, but I'd argue we work longer hours than most jobs in this pay bracket. We're not in it for the money, but people need to stop acting insulted when we want to be able to afford to pay our student loans and other bills. Just because we're called to the work doesn't mean we should be broke doing it.
You're right, we don't work the typical 8-9 hours a day expected of other white-collar workers. I work 11 hours a day on a normal day (7am - 6pm), I know of very few colleagues who work much less than 60 hours a week. Our holidays, while long compared to most other professions, aren't nearly as long as most people believe them to be; the combination of assessment and planning schemes of work take up a huge chunk of any holiday and regular mandatory re-training (in core subject knowledge, curriculum, safeguarding, SEN etc) and conferences take up a bit of the rest.
I taught social studies, at a very large school Because a large chunk of my students were low income we rarely gave homework, but we still maintained a lot of activities that were graded. Summers were spent educating myself on new subject standards for the state, workshops, re-working lessons that did not go very well, not to mention department meetings before school, school wide meetings after school, parent meetings when they feel we are failing their child on purpose, and if you are a coach and teach a subject there's even more going on with your schedule (travel for games, 2-4 hour practices with summer camps just to start). Add into when I was teaching during the Great Recession of '08, where every week of the summer had news of more teacher layoffs really brought on the stress of possibly losing your job every summer. Not saying it is the hardest job in the world or the longest hours but it is frankly insulting to the field when people assume that teaching is easy.
If you're a teacher, administrator, or aide, and have more stories to share about what your summers actually look like—even if it's to say you go on long vacations in Majorca—please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.
We are still welcoming submissions about anything regarding the teaching profession—successes, trials, complaints, fixes—and will publish them once every two weeks.
[Image by Jim Cooke, photo via Shutterstock]