Friday, February 25, 2011

I work here

Twice this week I've had conversations with students in which I have found myself clarifying, in one way or another, that the place they think of as school is actually where I work.  For example, seven fourteen year old girls run screaming down the hall at lunch in a pitch that should only be heard by dogs.  Feeling curmugeonly, I walk out in the hall, tell them to stop and add, as they are walking away, "I work here, you know?"

They stared at me as though I was some sort of exotic South American bird and then mumbled "Sorry, miss" and walked away.

In the same vein, one of my students suddenly discovered yesterday that I had business cards on my desk.  "Hey!  You have business cards!" he observed.  Why this came as a surprise is unclear, as he has been in my class for a month, but we'll take what we can get.

"Yes, because I work here" I explained. 

"But the other teachers don't have business cards.  That's why I was surprised.  Why don't the other teachers have business cards?"

Okay, so the kid has a point.  Realistically, the answer to his question is that I made my business cards myself because my school email address is 900 characters long, features elements of my name that even my mom only used when I was really in trouble and ends in an acronym that would confuse some astrophysicists.  So the fact that I have business cards is mostly a result of my ability to operate Word templates and a laser printer. 

Most people do understand that teaching is a job.  As in, we show up each day, get paid to be there, and eventually, we leave.  The piece of this that is missing is the recognition that schools, in addition to being schools, are also workplaces. 

It's this fact that nearly caused my head to explode on the day that a group of thoughtful parents decided to arm the kids with an impressive array of dollar-store toys, turning my otherwise sedate sixth period class into a small army of teenage noisemaking machines apparently sent for the sole purpose of creating a countywide run on Excedrin Migraine.  I was displeased.  One brave student dared to ask why.

"Because this is my job!  How would your mom feel if I let all 30 of you loose in her office with those things?"

Being good teenagers, they insisted that Mom wouldn't mind at all.  They did get my drift, however, and managed to stow the assorted pinata innards after I threatened to take them all away and stash them in my desk until June. 

The fact that people don't think of schools as workplaces, but rather as some kind of oversized storage locker where persons between the ages of 4 and 18 are kept during the hours of 7:00 AM and 3:00 PM is evident in the lack of attention to one particular aspect of the ongoing debate about unions and collective bargaining in Ohio and Wisconsin.  Everyone wants to talk about is the list that follows:
  1. Wages
  2. Benefits
  3. Pensions
  4. The right to collectively bargain
And waaaaaaaaay down at the bottom of this list in teensy print is the thing that teachers should absolutely be talking the most about in the debate: working conditions.

Why is nobody mentioning this?  Surely some PR wonk somewhere has thought: "Hey!  Teachers' working conditions are students learning conditions!  Genius!  Let's talk about that!"

Think about it: teachers' working conditions mean things like:
  • How many kids there are in each class
  • What percentage of these kids have identified learning differences
  • How many hours in a row a teacher can work without being given a chance to pee
  • How much time teachers are pulled away from classes for meetings
  • How many different courses a teacher can be expected to prepare to teach in any given year
  • How much time teachers are given to plan with other teachers in order to improve instruction
Not being able to bargain over working conditions is, simply put, not being able to effectively advocate for the percentage of the population that cannot vote.  Why aren't we talking about this?  First, because in all of the recent debate about education, the voices of individual teachers, the powerful voices of the people who really know how things work (and don't work) in a 21st century classroom are missing.  Why?  We're busy.  We're teaching more and more kids with greater and greater needs every day. 

Why else?  We haven't found a way to make the reality of these working conditions and the impact that they have on students' learning visible to people who aren't in classrooms every day.  It's not quantifiable.  It's not a line on a budget.  It's hard to explain to people who don't face children every day.  But if what we do every day is to be understood, we must talk about what we do and why we do it every day. 

Describing our working conditions and demanding control over them is not "whining" as some are prone to argue.  It is a public service: we are reminding them that teachers and students are the ones doing the work of education every day.  If anyone should need a further reminder as to why these conditions matter, I would be happy to donate some kazoo-wielding tenth graders to the cause.

A Month of Sundays

The title for this blog comes from an informal conversation that I once had with another teacher about our respective plans for summer.  If I remember correctly, I inquired about what her plans were for the month of July and she responded, "I have no plans.  July is my month of Sundays."  As a new teacher at the time, her rationale made perfect sense to me.  You see, if you have never been a teacher or have never lived with one, you think of Sunday very differently than do the approximately 6.2 million teachers in the United States.  You may have friends over to watch a football game, you may enjoy some kind of outdoor activity, run errands, clean the house, read the paper or catch up on laundry.  You may attend religious services or spend the day with your family.  Some folks volunteer, serve in the National Guard or military reserves or just enjoy having nothing to do.  Of course, other people go to work at their paid jobs on Sundays or work a second job to supplement their incomes.  Firefighters, police officers, nurses, doctors and people in retail businesses do not get Sunday off just because it is Sunday.  Teachers do many of these things as well.  It's what we do in addition to all of these ordinary life activities that differentiates us from much of the rest of working America.

You see, on Sundays (or Saturdays depending on religious observance) we grade, we plan, we read, we prepare, we organize and we steel ourselves for the breakneck pace of another week in the teaching profession.  It's this fact that irritates teachers when we are confronted with an intoxicated dinner party guest who informs us how lucky we are to have "summers off."  It's also the kind of general aggravation that inspires responses like spoken word poet Taylor Mali's piece on Def Poetry Jam "What Teachers Make." The truth is, most folks do not think on a regular basis about what it is that teachers really do.  I've heard everything from "crowd control" to "herding cats" to "glorified babysitting" but in reality most people's experience of education is painfully limited to their own individual perspective or to the experience of their children.  Teachers are always the oppositional force in this equation.  I do not mean that most people dislike teachers: in my experience this is not the case.  What I would suggest instead is that teachers are always on the other side of an irreconcilable duality: the phrases "parent-teacher conferences" and "student-teacher interactions" are just a few examples of this divide in action.  The fundamental lack of understanding of what happens to teachers when they walk out of the school building is precisely why my students laugh when I joke about never leaving school and sleeping in my classroom closet upside down like a bat.  They can't actually image where I go at the end of the school day. 

Much like everyone else, I go home to everyday concerns of house, family and pets, but when I go I take my classroom with me.  First of all, there's the papers.  The grading is positively oppressive.  Admittedly, it is my least favorite part of the job, but with steadily increasing class sizes (up 15-20% over the past five years) it takes up greater quantities of my time every year.  This is the point when the kids would intervene and say "Well, if you didn't give us the work, you wouldn't have to grade it!" While true, this is clearly not the answer to my paperwork problems.  So I find myself trying to modify the local school curriculum so that I can meet all my benchmarks while negotiating the district's labrynthine grading policy without spending all of every weekend marking papers.  Why not do it during the school day, you ask?  I have two 45-minute prep periods each day, and a 45 minute "lunch period" as well.  That would mean that if I spend exactly one minute grading each students' work each day, I would be able to possibly eat a sandwich and maybe make it to the bathroom during lunch.  That is, if I didn't have meetings, planning, e-mails or a photocopier that crawled out of the Cretaceous period to contend with.

The most powerful illustration of a teacher's day that I have ever seen is to be found in Dave Eggers and co.'s recent book Teachers Have it Easy: The big sacrifices and small salaries of America's teachers.  The researchers did a side-by-side and minute-by-minute comparison of the daily life of a teacher  and that of a pharmaceutical salesman.  Let's just say that approximately six pages of the teacher's daily life went by before the salesman had roused himself from bed and only one of them had time during work to drop off the dry cleaning.   Why not be a pharmaceutical salesman, then?  Well, some 50% of new teachers do quit within the first three years and while there's a compelling argument to be made about compensation (or lack thereof) being a part of this, there's an even more serious issue of time.  This job eats your life.  Sure, you figure out ways to make it work, but it's not a humane way of living many weeks out of the year.

Why don't people understand this?  Mainly because they don't see it.  People don't see, hear or know what teachers are doing outside of the confines of a 45 minute period.  That's precisely why I am writing have taken to writing this blog.  I am not perfect, nor am I a saint, but I am human, a fact which somehow escapes the common teaching discourse.