Monday, January 26, 2009

Hardly a melancholy good-bye

Mildly Melancholy (blogroll) lost her job earlier this month, but don't go looking for tears of sadness.

In a spot that many teachers have inhabited, MM feels that the job was totally overwhelming her anyway and that it was totally owning her life, and not in the way that breeds a successful existence. Her dilemma is not uncommon:

"is it really a fair trade when a person's mental and physical health is on the line? who is more important, the kids with the potential futures or the teacher trying to help them achieve that future? the reality is that the two fates are intertwined--if the students are the cause of the teacher's distress, the teacher can't function properly, and that cycles back to affect the students."
And her answer?

"NO. ABSOLUTELY NOT........... here's some dude telling a teacher that was successful for something like five or eight years, no, you should keep teaching no matter what. your health and well-being and happiness are secondary.......come on, dude. that is fucked up. seriously. this is what we get for venerating the martyr teacher--the one who sacrifices everything--family, health, time alone to rest and recuperate--in books and movies. people that take this job and keep it do it because we know it's incredibly important, and we all work hard because we know we can never work hard enough, because the work will never be done, because these kids need so much and most of it we can't give them. and some people are willing and able to make those sacrifices and yes, they are inspirational heroes. Are they realistic role models for the legions of young teachers out there? No way! Look at the demographics of charter school teachers, just as an example--young people, the vast majority upper middle class, unmarried and without children. You know why? Because the teachers with families and outside responsibilities (you know, the real world, the one that is causing heartbreak for so many urban children, is a force the rest of us have to deal with too) can't deal with stressful twelve-hour workdays when they face another entire workday at home that night. I can't even imagine being a regular public school teacher with children, let alone a baby or two! I've been tired for five years, and i'm single and childless!"

I can't say that my wife and I haven't had a conversation along these lines. We look at each other and think, "How do people that are teachers manage to have kids"? It really does seem near impossible to fathom coming home after long 12 hour days and taking care of another little one, hence part of the reason we don't have kids. Our lives are built around teaching other people's children, often trying to get them to learn really basic life skills that parents are too lazy/busy/drugged up to teach them. My wife and I spend our vacations preparing for the next time we teach. When we go to cities around the country we take pictures for lessons, buy materials for the classroom, and research primary sources to enhance involvement. The teaching really never takes much of a pause. The time for a family really isn't there.

Then again, my wife and I love our subject matter and love to share that love with students. While on the East Coast this summer, my wife and I are looking to get into the New York Stock Exchange Teacher Outreach Program. It isn't because we have to, it's because we love the subject matter anyway and we feel like it will make us better teachers having learned more. Being passionate about the subject isn't enough of course. That passion has to be translated to your teaching of the kids, because your kids will have what you got until you show them why it is interesting and important. And this takes quite a long time of trial and error, slowly creating that reputation of being the dynamic, tough teacher.

I can't say that I was in MM's shoes, but I can say that I have a pretty good outline of how she feels. Had I been in her position I would have told her that the most important things she can do are in her classroom, and that the hour long class period does matter in the long run. You never know when your passion will impact a child, you just have to be ever persistent about it.

As for the idea of the martyr teacher or the realistic teacher? I know plenty of really good teachers who manage to have a life. Every year the planning becomes easier, the classroom management gets easier, and the focus becomes more about teaching and less about surviving. If you've been around eight years and still feel like it's Year Two, then someone isn't guiding you in the right direction as an instructor, or you aren't learning about what helps bring about good teaching. At the same time, I've also seen plenty of teachers that have lost the passion and are sitting collecting a nice paycheck while the hard working ones need to step up to make up for their mistakes. While it would be nice to see them get the heave ho, I remind her again, what matters is what's going on the in the classroom.

Give her blog a look-see, and be sure to check out some of her other posts about her termination (liberation?). It's hardly melancholy.
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