Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Those who can't...

He says the problem with teachers is
What’s a kid going to learn
from someone who decided his best option in life
was to become a teacher?

He reminds the other dinner guests that it’s true
what they say about teachers:
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.
I decide to bite my tongue instead of his
and resist the temptation to remind the dinner guests
that it’s also true what they say about lawyers.
Because we’re eating, after all, and this is polite conversation. 

Mondays are good days for rants.  And this one is longstanding.  Similar to the notion that a stay-at-home mom lives a life of ease, there is an all too common misperception that teaching is an easy job.  Please allow me to debunk some of the more persistent myths.


1. Teachers have really short hours.  When the school day is over, you're done!

The misperception here is that we only work when students have lessons.  However, in order for those lessons to be interesting and educational, we have to plan them.  If the set has an exam at the end of the term or year, we have to know what is on that exam and find a way to help our students learn the content.  We also must deal with marking and if you teach a writing-heavy subject (English, History, Philosophy), marking is the ravenous beast that devours most of your 'free time'.  If you must mark board-set coursework, you may have to deal with a mark scheme that sometimes appears to have been written by mental patients who only communicate in seventeenth century vernacular.  Then there are meetings; department meetings, health and safety meetings, parents' evenings, meetings with parents who children have misbehaved, meetings about how we can have fewer meetings... I could go on but I'd really rather not.  Teachers also moderate extracurricular activities and coach sport.  If you work in a boarding school and someone remarks on how lucky you are to have such fantastic hours, depending on how far in the school term you are, you either laugh until no sound comes out of your mouth and tears flow freely down your cheeks or you bludgeon them with something heavy.  Like a car.

2.  You have summers off. 

Sort of.  By the time summer arrives and the lovely little darlings are released into the wild, you are so exhausted that the Bataan death march seems like a relaxing holiday.  In August you must deal with exam results.  This can mean your Head of Department inquiring as to why your student's marks were so low, mixed or high.  This also means parents demanding to know why little Jago only got a B or since little Tarquin now has an A* can we not get him into Oxford?  Now?  While we're on the phone?  If your school introduces a new syllabus, summer is the time for teachers to incorporate the new material into what they already teach.  Being able to rehash the same lessons year after year just never happens.  You must also find time to keep up with any new scholarship in your subject or new ideas on education (No fear, there will also be copious meetings about these topics within the school year).  And because of item number five below, many teachers I knew in NYC worked second jobs during the summer to ensure a decent income.

3. You're job isn't really hard.  The children just read and write and watch movies.

Again, sort of.  There are 'filler' lessons where teachers decide to relax before moving on to a new topic, where it's the last day of term and you know no one is motivated enough to do real work.  So you put on a DVD and watch the drool pool on the desks next to the little bent heads.  But such passivity cannot last long.  You are responsible for your charges' learning and accountable to a Head of Department, a Headmaster/mistress and many fee-paying or tax-paying parents.  During lessons, you don’t get a chance to go to the loo and hide for five minutes because you are having a bad day or don't feel well.  And sometimes it is easier to man up and teach your lessons when you are ill rather than come up with an interesting cover assignment and risk the wrath of the teachers who have to look after your lessons while you are gone.

 4. Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach.

In other words, if you had any ambition you would have a proper, challenging, well-paying job. But you either couldn't get one of those or you were too lazy to really try.  Not even close.  Before I started teaching, I was a copywriter in a large multinational advertising agency.  I had a PA, an office (well, a little one), job security and a good salary.  I did not leave that career behind because I wasn't driven.  I left because after beginning a part-time postgrad degree, I realised that my job didn't really satisfy me anymore.  I wanted to be around people who were as excited about and interested in History as I was.  Admittedly as a secondary school teacher that engagement doesn't happen often - but when it does, when you have a really great lesson or read an incisive, well-written essay, it's an unbelievable high.  I didn't get that when I saw the Visa advert I had worked on in The New York Times Magazine.  Okay, maybe I did a little bit.  Of course there are teachers who are not very good at their jobs.  And that is mainly because they became teachers because they believed numbers 1-4 were true.  Most don't last long.  Research shows the teaching profession has the highest burnout rate of any public service job and if you're in it because you believed it would be easy, then you usually run far and fast very quickly.  A huge majority of the teachers I have met are dedicated and enthusiastic about their jobs and make a real effort to improve.  Luckily for Jago, Tarquin and others, truly terrible teachers are few and far between.

5.  Teachers aren't paid very much.

Yes, this is true.  It shouldn't be true (of course, I would say that).  Dostoyevsky opined that the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.  I would add schools to that as well.  The opinion that teaching isn’t a worthwhile occupation because the paycheck isn’t big doesn’t diminish the value of our jobs.  Rather it demonstrates the value the speaker puts on money and status and value society puts on what we do.  Big paycheck does not equal valuable and fulfilling career.  Just ask the bankers over at Lehman Brothers.  Oh, wait, you can’t.

All right, the rant is over.  This particular rant, that is.  For now. 


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