As a teacher and a writer, I’ve got something to say.
I don’t write this as a complaint, but rather, because I am getting so sick and tired of the constant maligning of teachers and teachers’ unions that I am seeing everywhere I turn: Facebook, newspaper editorials, TV, etc. My own mayor, Richard Daley gave a speech last week, slamming Chicago teachers and implying that they are lazy. He said, “Our teachers work six hours a day. What do you think of that? Thirty hours a week!”
People who use this argument—that teachers don’t work enough to deserve a respectable paycheck—are the same people who believe that having gone through the school system is all you need to have an informed opinion about the state of education. It’s not. My contract requires that I be at school from 7:30 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. That’s 7 hours and forty five minutes. Not six. Furthermore, as a high school teacher, I spend an enormous of time outside class doing grading and planning—even with the prep time I have during the school day. If you take a grade school teacher, like my mom, who has taught in the Chicago Public School system for almost thirty years, these teachers have almost no prep time built into their school day. The total number of time most grammar school teachers spend away from their classes each day (in order to do things like eat lunch, grade, plan, etc.) is about twenty minutes. The rest of the time, they are teaching. How many office workers spend every moment of their work day—aside from a twenty minute lunch—doing focused, intense work?
But since we all went to school ourselves, we all know what teaching is like, right? Wrong. If your only firsthand knowledge about teachers is having been a student yourself, then you really have no idea about the demands the job requires. You probably think it’s an easy job because your teacher made it look that way—which is what good teachers do. But let me assure you that it’s not.
I’m not going to spend too much time in this post talking about the rewards that teaching brings and the way that it changes live for the better, every single day. Nobody seems to care about that, at this point: it’s easier, and more satisfying, to simply attack. But we teachers understand the honor and the importance of what we do. The only reason I’m able to write is because someone taught me how to. I believe in myself because my teachers, in tandem with my parents, made me feel like I could. Teachers didn’t just teach me how to fulfill my dreams; they taught me how to discover those dreams in the first place. We do change lives. We do influence the future. We do something meaningful every time that bell rings. And that’s why, despite constant attack, derision, and underpayment, people still do it. Our detractors can never take that away from us. But rest assured, WE are the ones who are in that classroom every day: not the educational pundits, or the newspaper reporters, or the documentarians, or the armchair Facebook commentators, or the politicians. It’s us. I wish that people who question our commitment to kids would think about that.
Let’s ask ourselves: Is it really teachers who are the problem? Is it really teachers (or for that matter, policemen, firemen, social workers, and nurses) and their “fat” pensions who are making this country broke? Or are we scapegoating a profession because that’s easier to do than to look at the real, systemic problem—that maybe kids aren’t succeeding because parents don’t put in the time with their children that they once did? That maybe the reality shows and the celebrity “role models” that are disgustingly overpaid and over-covered in the media give constant messages to our children that being smart and hardworking doesn’t pay, but being superficially beautiful, vapid, and ditzy is the way to become a millionaire?
You know what I think would solve this? If the news media spent half as much time covering a day in the life of an average public school teacher as they’ve devoted to the implosion of Charlie Sheen. Then maybe people who see what teaching is really like—and then maybe, just maybe, they’d support our outrageous belief that we deserve respect, fair treatment, and a chance to remain a part of the American middle class.