By Peggy Wuenstel – I’ve changed the way I talk about my job.
I used to be able to say unequivocally that “I love what I do”. I still eagerly anticipate the start of each school year, relish buying new supplies, and planning how this year will be better than the last one. I look forward to the open faces and minds of my students. The grateful looks from their parents as they now release their darlings to our care after a summer of family togetherness. I enjoy the collaboration and companionship of my colleagues, catching up on what has happened in their lives while we have been apart.
For the first time that I can remember in my public school career, there are no new hires in my building this year, even though there are almost 25 new staffers district-wide to get to know. Each of them brings something different to the table and enriches the practice of teaching. What I can continue to say is that I love the people that I do this job for and do this job with throughout the year.
The other way things have changed is how I talk about my job outside the education community I used to be able to say with great pride in any company that “I am a teacher”. Now, sadly, I need to know my audience. Politics, tough economic times, and the increasing polarization of our society have painted a target on my back for some individuals that I encounter. Even those who don’t live in my community, and therefore are not responsible for my salary, often feel it necessary to weigh in on how they believe that I am overcompensated and underworked. They expound on the failures of the American education system, the horrors of the common core, and the decline of America’s youth with absolutely no accurate information on the subject. Everyone feels qualified to outline what is wrong with teaching in America even if they cannot offer any ways in which to reverse the decline.
Several outstanding educators that I know were asked to play “WHAT IF?” this summer, to re-imagine the state’s education system if we could start from scratch. Their comments were insightful, sad, but also inspiring. It is difficult to generate corrective measures for things that you are not invested in, that you do not truly hope to see succeed. These teachers care to their cores. It is next to impossible to keep toiling at something that you do not think has any hope of success.
These educators do not think that the situation is hopeless. This is a lesson classroom teachers learn early. Kids are easily discouraged when the tasks set before them are too difficult. For elementary students, there needs to be about an 80% success rate to maximize learning and internalization of a skill. The child, the teacher, and the system that is consistently confronted with failure will accept that as the inevitable nature of things. It appears that this may be by design in today’s education system.
We have systematically withdrawn funding, public support and respect for the profession of teaching. We have added record-keeping, high stakes assessments, value-added evaluations of teacher performance that hold educators responsible for things outside of their control, and a “customer is always right” model of schools. We have for-profit privateers waiting in the wings to take over the most promising students, receiving government encouragement through voucher funding, tax breaks, lobbyists, and preferential treatment in testing and evaluation procedures. All this has significantly eroded the admiration of the teaching profession.
I, and nearly all of the teachers I have worked with over the years, did not become teachers for the hefty paycheck or the ease of the job. I did want to be respected, and sometimes even loved by the children and families that I serve. I wanted to be valued by my colleagues, sought out as a resource, and remembered as someone who cared. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was required learning for most of us in the teaching profession. There is a second tier of needs that most human beings need to have filled in their existence, beyond the basic food, water, and shelter. Included in that list is to be of service in the world. I have always felt fortunate that I could fulfill that by going to work every day.
That is one of the main reasons that I continue to look forward to going to work. The rush I get inspires me to be active beyond the classroom in my union, my community, my world. So very often the people I meet there are teachers as well. Their collective mantra seems reliably to be “How can I help?” I am proud to be in their company. We have got to find a way to make it possible for the most insightful, compassionate, creative, and hard-working among us to see teaching as a viable option for their futures. We have to insure that the old guard can retire knowing that their replacements on the parapets are up to the task.
We have to believe that they love the job as much as we did and that they will have a world in which they can say it loud and proud, “I love my teaching job!”