The Truth About Being a Public School Teacher
Good old Socrates. Sometimes I feel like him.
Sometimes former students will pop by my classroom and inform me that they are pursuing a teaching degree, and when I ask them why they usually tell me that “so-and-so” inspired them or they just want to be a positive influence on students or something along that line. I congratulate them, and then I sit them down and give them the following advice:
When making a decision (especially a long term, life changing decision) I always weigh the pros and cons of that decision, and if the cons outweigh the pros, I usually don’t follow through with that decision. However, sometimes that can be overridden if some of the pros are so strong and dear to my soul that I must follow through even in the face of adversity.
First, let’s look at the bad news (the cons):
School Can Be Dangerous – I don’t have to go very far to prove that schools can be a dangerous place to work. For one thing, the layout of most schools are designed to be easily accessible from many different directions. We serve the general public and must educate everyone in our district whether they want to be educated or not. This breeds hostility in some cases, and when family feuds, bullying, and free access to weapons are in the mix, things can and often do get ugly. My little country school has had its fair share of this. A few years ago, a young man drove by the school and opened fire (school was out, thank God) and shot out the front windows of the principals office. Our school also, like every other school, has contingency plans for this kind of thing, but we can only plan for so much. Oklahoma is passing a law that teachers who are CLEET trained may carry a pistol into the school, and we even have an open carry law, so many are speculating that some schools may have this option. This can also be dangerous for many other reasons as Colin Lecher points out.
You Are At the Legislator’s Mercy – Since I have been teaching these past 15 years, three different sets of guidelines have come down the legislative pike by which we are to teach our students. No Child Left Behind, in my opinion, is a complete failure in that it quickly became “No Child Left Untested” and teachers spent all their time teaching to a test rather than teaching more useful skills like analytical thinking, reasoning, and writing skills. Because of this mentality, students who enter my classroom expect me to give them the answers, to interpret literature or non-fiction, and invariably ask “will this be on the test”. Our state is run by a majority of Republicans who are notoriously inept in the area of education and seem to think that educators are mostly women waiting to get pregnant and leave the profession. Our state superintendent’s entire public school experience amounts to a year and ten months as a speech pathologist in a small public school. Our state has also cut funding on education every year since 2008 and is ranked the worst in education spending. We also just instituted an unrealistic A-F grading scale for schools that gives parents an unrealistic view of their school’s performance and disenfranchises high achieving students who are seeking good colleges. No matter what state you live in, teachers will be at the whim of the legislature and of the federal government.
Culture – Some schools have good educational culture, while others have terrible educational culture. What I mean by this is the community’s view of the school’s importance and function in their world. I would say that ours is somewhere in between, but has the potential to be a great educational culture. We have many poor people living in our district, and there is a sad fact of the cycle of poverty that eats away at many of our student’s lives. If everyone surrounding a student is poor financially, have a high school diploma or a GED or less, and receive government assistance, where is the encouragement to ascend beyond that lifestyle? I was a teen once. Did you listen to your parents? I grew up in the district where I now work. My parents both worked, came home late, and my sister and I were latchkey kids who didn’t have any supervision to do homework, do chores, etc. It was hard. Changing the culture in your school is a difficult process, and when your students parents do not care about education, who tell their children “just pass the class”, as a teacher you are fighting an uphill battle.
Administration – I am currently blessed with a hard working, excellent administration with whom I have a good working relationship, who make my school seem like a family. My principal cares very much about our students and teachers and has said to me on many occasions that he wants the teachers to be in on all of the important decisions at the high school. Our superintendent is a graduate of our school, understands the culture, is working to change it for the better, and has been doing a fantastic job to help us be a team. This is a blessing, because there are some schools where the administration is downright ogre like, running their school in military fashion where teachers are told what to teach and when to teach it, forced to obey rules set forth by an administration on a power trip, rules designed to “keep people in line” without regard to the real welfare or morale of teachers and students. Positive morale is probably the most important thing a school can have going for it. Our teacher’s lounge is a fun place to hang out during lunch, not a place where people gripe about their working conditions. If you are considering working in a school, sub at the school and hang out in the teacher’s lounge a couple of days. You’ll get an idea about the morale of the school right away.
Pay – The average salary of a current college graduate is $46,000, but an average teacher with a bachelor’s degree starts out in Oklahoma at $31,000. An Oklahoma teacher will have to work 25 years and have a Doctorate to reach the average starting salary of a current college graduate. We educate lawyers, doctors, politicians, engineers, scientists, welders, farmers, beauticians, sanitation engineers, and plumbers, but still make less than all of them. The pay is terrible, and is a hardship that all of us face, causing us to work until we are nearly 75 before we retire because the retirement is so poor. If you become a teacher, you will never have the material possessions your friends will have, your kids will have less than their friends, and your wife or husband will hopefully have a better paying job, making at least what the average college graduate makes or you are both destined for a life of meager means.
So now, we weigh the pros:
School Can Be Wonderful – I have had my fair share of students who simply do not want to do anything at all, but then the ones who show up to learn outnumber those students entirely. Many of my students understand the importance of an education because we are actively doing things to educate them about education. I tell my students nearly every week that nothing in this life will ever be handed to them on a silver platter save their U.S. citizenship, and it is up to the individual to determine how their lives will turn out. There are many opportunities to be grasped, and it is my job to see that my students are given all of those opportunities. It is ultimately up to them to find their place in society. I know that I am there to teach a subject, to teach them how to reason, how to analyze text and write about it intelligently, but I am also there to teach them how to be good and productive citizens. In this way, being a public school teacher is probably the most rewarding profession on earth.
We Train Professionals – We may be at the legislator’s mercy, but we do not have to let poor decisions sap our joy. For example, we spent many sessions in conferences and workshops learning how to implement Oklahoma PASS only to eventually adopt Common Core. At a recent conference, we were told that PASS would not go away, and that Common Core would be added to our teaching guidelines. More recently, a member of the state department told me that Common Core would replace PASS. They cannot make up their minds what they want to do, but until they do I will do what I have always done: teach students to think for themselves, reason, analyze what they read, and write like professionals. I cannot speak for the other disciplines, but all of my objectives always boil down to those standards. In my classroom I am training free thinkers, students who will go out into the world and affect change for the good based on the skills they learned.
We Change the Culture – Currently our school is participating in a grant funded GEAR UP program. GEAR UP is a federally funded program that works to create a college minded culture school wide from elementary to high school. So far, we have seen many benefits of the program from parent information meetings to teacher/administration summer conferences. What our school is doing that is a little different than what others are doing is that we are actively thinking about the educational culture of our school. If only every school were to be this serious about their educational culture, I’m sure schools across the country could change for the better. In my classroom alone I encourage students to take the ACT, the PSAT and bring professionals in to give guest speaking sessions about their field. We write business letters, work on a resume, and I teach them interview skills. My students may come from the poorest of financial backgrounds, but with my help, they can break the chains of poverty and move on to go to college or use vocational school to better themselves. In this way we are changing the culture of our district.
We Change Lives – I could write a thousand words a day about the many students I have helped to reach their dreams over the years. In 15 years of teaching, students will come back to my classroom to tell me all that they have accomplished, and that they have me to thank for it. I am flattered by this, and humbled. I currently manage an evening alternative education program, but also teach two Advanced Placement courses along with four sections of American Literature. I see the high achievers with the low, and care for each one of them the same. I have troubled students in alternative education who have life issues so terrible that to discuss them would bring tears to your eyes. The truth is that I have Advanced Placement students dealing with some of the same issues. What all of these students have in common is that they all need someone to lean on, to tell them they will make it, to encourage them when they are down, to praise them when they do well, to love them no matter how they treat you, and above all believe in their success.
What We Are Paid – I love Taylor Mali. His poem “What Teachers Make” is probably the best thing that could be said about what teachers are paid. Yes, we don’t make much money, and that needs to change. For example, teachers in Finland (a country with the highest NAEP scores in the world) pay their teachers more than doctors. Their standards for hiring teachers are much higher, though, and our legislators should do some research about that country’s education system, a country with a 100% literacy rate. However, as a teacher, the joy I have is seeing a student finally get a concept that has eluded them for an entire semester, or when that student who never speaks finds new life in a small group session. I love to see my student athletes make good grades on tests even though they are riding the bus to games at ungodly hours, studying for finals along the way. I love it when a student finds a nuance about a text that I never saw after reading that text fifteen times and after studying it in college classes. I love it when my students have that epiphanic moment when they realize what they want to do with their lives, where they want to go to college, or what profession they want to pursue. That is what I am paid, and it is shinier and more precious than any gold could be.
If you are trying to make the decision to be or not to be a public school teacher, ask yourself the following questions. If you can say yes to all of them, then teaching is for you:
Are you a patient person?
Do you genuinely love others unconditionally?
Do the pros above (at least for you) outweigh the cons?
Do you care about seeing others succeed even if you never get any accolades?
Are you an idealist?