A Teachable Moment

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I had the privilege of teaching beside Stephanie Douglass in my first year with West Town Academy. We’re letting her hijack CG with this important message about the teacher’s strike in Chicago:

Dear ——-,
First, let me post a working link:
http://www.humanevents.com/2012/09/12/hicks-chicago-teacher-strike-is-not-for-the-children/
(For some reason, the one you posted keeps sending me to an error page.)
But now to your question:

Why did I say this article is hilarious?
Well, my boyfriend is a comedy writer, and I like a good, solid comic premise.
And this article, which poses as one that overthrows a common “truth” has a very flawed premise.
Because HELL NO, it’s not just about the students.
For a number of years, I was a teacher in the alternative school system, which, at my school in Chicago, consists of the students that drop out or are kicked out of other CPS schools.

I have copies of my pay stubs. I definitely made under $34,000/year, and I believe in my third year teaching, it still was averaging out at under $18/hour.
(That being assuming a 40-hour work week. And every teacher knows that he or she will be working at least 50+ hours per week in order to do his/her students justice.)
I did not get summers off. We had 2 weeks paid vacation at our school, and all of us were required to teach some component of our summer school program.

And I loved my job. And I loved my students.
But burnout was like the ACME missile in a Roadrunner cartoon.
And the teachers are all Coyote.

Have you ever taught? I mean really taught. Not “trained someone on the new CAD updates” or “showed up to give a lecture to a room full of professionals,” but spent hours per day working with groups of people who are struggling and overcoming barriers and wanting something that they are not even sure they need let alone how to go about getting it, or how to ask for help, or use you for the resource that you are? And in the meantime, emotional bonds are formed, and changes happen and parole officers show up and family members are shot and learning takes place and you just keep processing and taking in and giving back?

And done it for years, repeatedly?

My guess is no, otherwise, you would be racing to get teachers whatever they need.

Teachers NEED a break. One month, two months, whatever it may be, but in order to truly serve the students, you have to recharge somehow.

Right now, I work to assist in managing an organic farm. Two days every week, my coworkers and I train groups of ex-offenders and the formerly homeless in organic agriculture, field techniques, and job readiness.
This means we also have an additional 10 sets of hands on the farm, which is wonderful, and you’d think that those would be the more relaxing days.
Rick, let me tell you, on the days when I’m harvesting 125 lbs of carrots by myself, I do not leave work nearly as exhausted as on the days when I have 4 other people helping me.
Because I am training them and explaining to them and re-explaining and checking their work and calming them so their small argument doesn’t bubble over and get physical and praising them at just the right time so they don’t back off, but instead want to work harder.
Believe me, when it’s just me and a pitchfork, even if I’m doing the work of 5 people by myself, the day is just a lot simpler.

It’s hockey practice vs. playing the actual game.
There is adrenaline, there are the stares of everyone around you, there are unexpected things flying at you, and there are a bunch of bruises at the end of the day that you have no idea how you got.
And teaching is a high, but it takes it out of you.

I must admit, I’m a bit curious as to what you make, and how it relates to this “average” of $76,000. (And, being a Math lady, I can work sit down with you and work out all the ways that you can arrive at an average with MOST of the people not making nearly that amount.) Do you think that you would be satisfied making less than that while having to consistently be engaging, aware, kind, anticipating, and energetic, as well as doing all of those while speaking extemporaneously and answering all manner of random questions in ways that make sense to several different learning styles for 5 hours out of your 8 hour day?
The other three are spent grading, lesson planning, administrating, calming sobbing or overheated students, and, perhaps, eating a 7-minute lunch. Then you finally get home, where you get to process the day, adapt the next day’s lessons to today’s issues, and continue grading, correcting, commenting, and honing the information you’re going to work with your students to absorb and retain.

I will be the first to admit, there are some crappy teachers out there—I worked with great ones, and I worked with some pretty awful ones–but standardized testing won’t solve that. How do I know this? I was also in charge of the standardized testing curriculum at our school.
Look, I love the ACT and SAT. I can rock those things with my eyes closed and teach them even better. I headed up the Math department of an ACT tutoring company in the suburbs WHILE I WAS TEACHING (Sure, because I love Math, but mostly because DEAR, SWEET GOD, I WAS MAKING SO LITTLE MONEY.). So let me tell you that standardized testing has been good to me. Which is what makes me qualified to say that it is one of the worst measurements of student capabilities.
And even less of one for teachers.

It goes both ways.
I’ll use my Math sections as an example:
Not only would I get 18-year-olds who had never learned how fractions worked, and whom I was supposed to have ready to handle complex Algebra and Geometry word problems in 6 months (Really, think about the amount of time that existed between when you first understood fractions and when you were required to solve complex Geometry problems. It was years, for most of us.), which of course rarely happened, but there is a flip side.
Because I also got students who clearly had a good facility for Math, and whom I could get to engage deeply with the material. And they would test wonderfully.
But some of them were in Math classes with a totally subpar teacher.
Which now didn’t matter, because as far as that rubric is concerned, this teacher had done his/her job, and had no repercussions to face for his/her lack of teaching, and my having to overcome that with a student on my own time.
(I didn’t eat lunch for three years. It’s my favorite meal now, btw.)

And now my caveat about “testing wonderfully.” The students I worked with at the school where I taught were, for the most part, extremely low income. Most of them had children of their own and many other responsibilities.

The students I worked with in the suburbs had me as a private tutor—or in a group of 5 at most. Why? Because someone in their lives could and did pay for it.
I taught many amazing students in the city and the suburbs. But let me tell you, I had some idiots in the suburbs. Kids who didn’t give a crap, couldn’t grasp the material, and overall weren’t moving forward. But they still pulled totally acceptable scores on the ACT. Because they had that individual time with me, and I with them.
Time I couldn’t give to each of my 25 students in the classroom (Try the math—one hour per week, one-on-one, with of 25 students. Yep, that’s 25 hours per week. And that’s just ONE class.).

So I will say to the end of my days, I LOVE teaching standardized testing information and techniques, but I think it is the WORST demonstrator of how a student is progressing.
It’s just convenient for graders. And great for the 4 companies that produce tests.

Look, I agree that it’s frustrating to have kids out of school and unions that may or may not have 100% pure motives, but real teachers work hard.
And it is a fundamentally different type of job than one that involves a majority of the day spent behind a computer or a camera or a counter.
Because teachers are in the business of minds.
And that’s a business you can’t just leave at the door.
We think for days about issues individual students are having.
We worry and stay awake nights over how best to get across the importance of gerunds or the periodic table or historical movements or trigonometry.
We obsess.
And we won’t stop.
Because we can’t.

I get the sense that you’re a Bible-appreciating man, so I’ll end with two solid verses:

Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 5:19

If you both grasp something and teach it, you are raised. Being called great in the kingdom of heaven sounds like WAY more reward than $76,000 per year (if that were even an actual number I could fathom in relation to my teaching wages). So clearly, even at that contested number, we are massively undercompensating our teachers.
And I’ll let our buddy James take it from here, since he said it best–

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. – James 3:1-2

It’s true. Nobody recommends the life of a teacher as an easy one—and clearly it’s been that way for at least a few thousand years.
I teach whether I’m thinking about it or not. Whether I’m employed to do it or not.
——, I’ve never met you before in my life. You’re someone my boyfriend went to college with and occasionally keeps in touch with. But you asked me a two-word question on a social media outlet, and I spent over an hour reading and planning and crafting an answer. I did this after 9 hours of physical labor which included harvesting over 300 lbs of beets with a group of 7 formerly incarcerated individuals who depend on me (among many others) to help get across what they need to know as they take these new steps in their lives.
So I’m tired. Probably more tired than you. But when someone asks a question, a true teacher honors it.
So fine, of course it’s not just about the children.
But sometimes—many times—it is. And without healthy, supported, properly appreciated people doing this work, I can’t imagine this country being what it is, and becoming what it can be.
That said, even if we could calculate an exact numerical compensation for all the good that a real teacher does, I believe we’d best err on the side of overpayment.

Sincerely,
Stephanie Douglass

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