Sounds surprising, right? Especially after the Chicago Teacher Strike, after reading daily about how awful public schools and teachers are, and after dealing with my horrendous first year teaching experience. Then there’s the recent and provocative essay “The Exhaustion of the American Teacher,” in which the author blames all adult stakeholders–especially parents–for the demise of the American student and burning out of teachers, contending that educators are unfairly singled out and asked to change, to make heroic and impossible efforts to “fix” the schools, while parents and policy makers and politicians aren’t asked to do anything.
I don’t disagree with the article’s premise.
But I do believe there are still reasons to believe in the power and efficacy of teaching and teachers.
I’ll admit I don’t have classrooms with thirty-plus students. I don’t have to worry about excessive standardized testing in every class. I don’t have administrators breathing down my neck, asking me to fill out countless forms to please the higher-ups. But I do teach in a public urban high school, with many of the issues that plague our system: abused, abusing, and neglected students, too-much testing, and sometimes inflexible curriculum and scheduling.
Nonetheless, there are still many reasons to embrace teaching, and they aren’t just June, July, and August.
Countless Small Wins
I’m hard-pressed to think of another profession with the potential to have so many small victories and breakthroughs every day. Take this past Wednesday, for example. Jujuan, Deonte, and several other students voluntarily stayed after school for English tutoring. They helped me teach a student from another class, Rick, about appositives and complex sentences. They raced up to the white board, grasping green and blue dry erase markers, then explained the basic structure of a literary analysis paragraph. They wanted to be there, to get better. I smiled inside and out. Pretty big win.
Earlier in the day, I told Kirsten that somebody fixed my classroom speakers. Her eyes lit up–she lives for music. At the end of class, I played one of her suggestions off the class playlist. Small win.
Some of my former FMD (Functionally Mentally Disabled) students emphatically fist-bumped me in the hallway, asking when they could be in my media class again. Small win.
Demetrias, an oldest child who lives with her mom and four younger siblings, often taking on enormous childcare responsibilities, entered class with some good news. She asked it I could help her apply for an advanced media summer program. Bigger win.
There are still many pain-in-the-ass moments during the school day, and it’s not easy to ignore and filter them, allowing for a fertile environment for small wins and breakthroughs. But it’s possible, and it’s one reason why teaching is still great.
You Can–And Have To–Say No
The demands keep piling up our our desks and in our psyches like an overflowing garbage bin. We need to raise test scores. We need to stay every day for tutoring, if necessary. We need to call parents. We need to sponsor more clubs and activities. We need to fill out paperwork.
Not going to do it all. I’m not superhuman, and I’m not able to save all souls. I’m not going to make excessive personal and professional sacrifices to do things that parents, local businesses, politicians, and other adults should be doing more of, like helping to build character, crafting more sane education policy, and providing opportunities for youth to be positively engaged in communities. I’m only effective day in and day out in the classroom when I put on the brakes and have peace of mind.
This point may seem like it doesn’t belong in a list of why teaching is still great, but here’s why it does: If you can, do your best to say no to or ignore everything that isn’t directly relating to teaching and nurturing kids. Nowhere in my contract does it demand me to FIX SOCIETY, even though that’s the explicit and implicit message us educators receive daily. As tough as it is, we can embrace and enjoy teaching by saying no.
It’s Not A Desk Job
Some days, due to testing or being flat-out tired, I’ll spend a good chunk of my time in my twenty dollar faux-leather chair. Most days, on the other hand, I have the opportunity to buzz around room 137 and Fern Creek’s hallways, creating opportunities for small wins. No two days during the course of my nearly nine-years teaching have been the same. I never wake up and think, Damn, I’ve got to face another day just like yesterday, or like last week, or like last month. The variety of challenges and encounters teachers face keeps it exciting and, despite being exhausting at times, boredom does not come into the equation as far as work satisfaction.
I’ve used Edublogs with middle and high school students. While I’ve retracted my more permissive stance on cell-phones in the classroom, I’ve tested out Poll Everywhere and other services that allow students to use their gadgets. Via Skype and Google Drive, I’ve connected my class with students in Miami to collaborate on writing and media work. I’ve utilized all sorts of tools to challenge students to create authentic digital storytelling projects.
There is no end to the possibilities that technology affords us. Some tools are better than others, for sure, but this is part of the journey. Like the idea that teaching is not–or shouldn’t be–redundant, stagnant work, technology tools offer us opportunities to innovate and experience variety on a daily basis. Some courses and curriculums are better equipped to utilize technology, but every classroom experience can be enriched by the digital world.
Many teachers–including myself–have griped about inflexible and mandatory professional development within their school districts.
There is good reason for the discontent, as often teachers are excluded from the design of the training sessions.
But teaching is still great is you tap into online communities and independent organizations like ASCD that offer outstanding networking and professional growth potential. Twitter has also become a lifesaver for some educators, who set out in the sea of 140-character messages and links from educators around the world to share and build on ideas. Personally, I’m fortunate to be a part of three organizations outside of my school district that help recharge my batteries, so to speak. They are Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf Teacher Network, the National Writing Project, and the Teacher Leader Forum. I’ve met dynamic folks in person and online through these organizations.
Teachers don’t have to feel isolated within buildings and school districts, but the onus is often on us to find the professional networking and development that suits our needs.
If you’re a teacher, why do you embrace/not embrace your job? What are some other reasons why we can still be optimistic and satisfied with our profession? If you’re not a teacher, what do you have to do in order to ensure work/professional satisfaction? What can be done so more educators feel valued? How else can other stakeholders truly contribute to making public education better?