Friday, February 12, 2010

give teachers a break

(i took this picture in our driveway, in case you were wondering. isn't he cute?)

i was a teacher once.

from my earliest memories, i never wanted to do anything else except grow up and become a teacher. i had watched my mom juggle raising 2 kids while earning her education degree. she graduated and began teaching when i was in 4th grade, and i have very distinct memories of helping her laminate (that faintly burned plastic smell was so yummy), cut out, and staple all sorts of teacher goodies while she was in school and every summer before school started. we would go up to her classroom and "help" (although, now that i have kids, i am thinking we might have made more messes than actually HELPED, but she never told us otherwise).

so i followed in her footsteps, except, as crazy as it sounds, i was drawn to teaching teenagers. little people scared me. (in large numbers, they still sort of do.) so after getting my english and master's in teaching degrees, i set out looking for a job, ready to take on the world with everything i had learned. or so i thought.

my first job was at an inner city, Catholic private middle school that was 95% african american. it paid less than $18,000 a year, while my public-school teacher friends were making more than $30,000 a year. i thought, well, it's a job, and it's experience, and maybe it will be for just one year. or maybe i'll love it and the money won't matter.

oh, what a naive and idealistic person i was. i found out that year just what it felt like to be judged for the color of my skin, my age, my experience (or lack thereof). the kids loved me, but unfortunately most of the parents didn't. some parents told me to my face that because i was white i wasn't doing a good job--that their children needed a black teacher. it was the first time i had ever experienced racism. of course, i had been on the other side of racism. after all, i WAS born in arkansas. but at that point in my life, i had worked very hard to erase most of the pre-judgments i had about other people who looked different from me. so it was very disheartening to hear people tell me that i wasn't good enough just because i was white.

needless to say, i worked very hard to find a different job for the following school year, and i was very relieved when i landed a job teaching high school english at my alma mater. ok, well that part was a bit weird--calling former teachers by their first names, getting to see behind the scenes: the previously off-limits, mysterious teachers' lounge, the oh-so-clean teachers' bathrooms. but it was a $15,000 pay raise, so i took it before the principal could even finish telling me the job was mine.

well, i have already recounted here my experience with the 9th grade honors class, and the nasty website (which i know was only a few students, but i'm sure others laughed, even if they didn't actually build the site, which to me was just as devastating. i was one of those teachers who wanted to be loved by everyone.). on top of that, i was a tough cookie. i was more rigid than i should have been, even if in the long run it was good for my students. when i set a due date for something, if it wasn't turned in, it was a zero. and then i was told by the administration i couldn't do things like that. i had to set a sliding scale, like 10 points off for every day late. my response? "um, in the real world, their boss isn't going to say, 'ok, for every day this presentation is late, you lose $10.' instead, the boss will simply say, 'you didn't do the presentation? didn't crunch those numbers? didn't finish that report? you're fired.'"

i delivered very difficult tests. after all, this was 9th grade honors. this was the cream of the crop. these students deserved to be challenged.

and so began my demise. parents began talking. not to me, mind you. to each other. spreading rumors. calling me by my first name to their students. getting their kids transferred out of my class.

it was absolutely devastating. if i hadn't moved 2 years later, i am certain i would have been fired.

the horrible part is that i didn't ever really have a mentor, someone who could take me aside and tell me to relax, to stop being so rigid, to help walk me through some of the real-life scenarios that you just don't learn sitting in an education class in a university. the teachers in the english department were really nice, and they cared about me, but a good deal of the time i felt like they were just looking at me, with pity, thinking, "poor kristi." which is not what i needed.

so when we moved, i vowed never to teach again. my mom would ask me from time to time (and still does, although not as often anymore), "have you thought about teaching again?" especially when i would have difficulty finding a job in a new city. but every time it came up, i would panic. literally. my heart would race, palms sweat, room would start spinning. classic panic attack. and that was a clear sign to me that i should never teach again.

now that my kids are in public school, i have felt these waves of panic again. they are getting better, but the first year, every time i walked into the school i got sweaty and nervous. when the teacher would do something i didn't really like, i didn't want to confront it, because i didn't want to be like "those parents."

and at times i have wondered if i am not being a very good advocate for my kids because of my own baggage.

but lately, i have been hearing some negative talk about teachers at my kids' school. and it has really fired me up. i really don't know if any of it is true, because i try to stay out of the gossip circle and away from the school so my kids can have their own space. (lots of other parents at our kids' school do not adopt this same policy...)

the bottom line is, they are human beings, they are doing the best they can, and they are not perfect. parents can get such grandiose ideas of what their kids should be doing and learning in school. believe me, i have very high expectations of my kids' performance and effort. but the teachers? as long as they are loving, kind, and fairly conscientious (and this is an understatement for all the teachers at our kids' school--it is incredible), that's all i ask.

so before we criticize a teacher for having too busy of a personal life, for not giving enough homework, for giving too much homework, for not being "with it," for not writing an email back soon enough, let's stop and force ourselves to give them a break and instead be appreciative for all the time and energy they give to helping our kids become better learners and better citizens.


Amelia Plum said...

yeah and at the end you should include surrogate parents because, unfortunately, that can be a role that's unfairly forced on them. and i hate hearing people gripe about teachers unions and that teachers get paid too much money. uh, no that would be the models, actors, and professional athletes. i think parents have to realize that we are the primary teachers/educators of our children just by our actions/interactions. kids model their behavior of their parents initially so we should definitely try to set a good example, polite, kind, patient, gracious. god knows i frequently fail miserably in this department but definitely try to set a good example about this when it comes to their teachers. if they know you talk badly about a teacher or don't like them it sort of undermines the whole teaching process and the one with the most to lose would be the student.

you might have been rigid but i don't think so. i think you were showing you had integrity, which many give up because they get burned out and beaten down by life.

Sara the sister said...

So...I'm catching up on your blog while the taz devil is napping. Way to be transparent, sis! Love it & frankly, I see LOTS of teachers in my office b/c this job is terribly stressful, & places teachers in nasty double binds almost daily. While we're overhauling the financial & healthcare system in our country, let's talk about our public education system beginning with placing value on our educators.