Sometimes It’s Just Damn Hard

I’ve been teaching a long time; for the first time I’m in a position to say that, in my heart of hearts, I don’t like my job. The joy of teaching isn’t there for me anymore and that joy is exactly what kept me going when less joyful aspects of this work inevitably reared their ugly heads. Through all the ups and downs and sideways of teaching, at its very core was, for me, the joy of the classroom itself. My heart feels almost broken right now because today is the end of spring break and beyond the usual bummer about vacation being over is an additional element I never thought I’d feel: dread.

They say when you love your job you never work a day in your life. My first four years of teaching I worked like a crazy person, I wanted to quit every day, Sunday nights were an exercise in self-discipline as I geared up for another week ahead; but never, never, did I feel dread for the work itself. Teaching has been nothing short of a vocation for me my whole career and even when I was drowning in it there was never a doubt it was exactly what I needed and wanted to do. In that respect, work never was “work:” work was always “school.” It was a place I learned and loved and grew and evolved and thrived. What I realize now is that in this moment, work for me has become what it is for the millions of Americans working in cubicles around the country: it’s a paycheck (and a pretty crappy one, at that).

What has brought this on? Teaching is a political nightmare right now. Between the testing and the unrealistic and unrelenting (and, dare I say uninteresting?) state standards and the economy that strangles us to the point of being truly unsure if our next paycheck will be real or an IOU, our creativity and zest for teaching is being smothered to the brink of asphyxiation. We are watching our beloved and hugely talented colleagues receive lay off notices. We are losing our special education instructional aides, our English language development bilingual aides, and stipends for things like after-school activities and library positions are disappearing. Enrichment events like field trips? Forget about it. Be it staff or activities, most things that make school relevant for the vast majority of kids are on the chopping block. It feels like with each new day comes a new email with more dire news. Frankly, I’m exhausted.

Sadly, what exhausts me even more than the standards and the budget are the reactions of others; particularly bothersome to me are two distinct reactions: the chicken and the ostrich.

First, the chicken, Chicken Little to be exact. The drums of war are beating as the situation becomes more and more a version of “us” against “them” everyday. In fairness, district personnel are (perhaps by definition) vastly removed from the reality of a classroom teacher’s experience. The superintendent makes a grand gesture of donating ten thousand dollars to the general fund and freezes his own salary, thinking that alone will inspire his troops to keep the battle going. However when his salary is literally five times mine (not including the housing and transportation allowances), his temporary freeze feels like not much more than a pat on the head. That said, times are tough and to a certain extent even the most well run, most compassionately led, most student centered districts are having to do things that are not necessarily in the best interest of kids because the money simply isn’t there.

In my opinion my district doesn’t meet the above three superior standards; however it certainly isn’t the bottom of the barrel either. We are financially solvent and led by people who, for the most part, have good intentions. They may be misplaced, mismanaged, and/or mishandled intentions, but in general we are all there for the good of our kids. Call me Pollyanna, but that is how I see it. Perhaps that is how I have to see it because if I didn’t I’d walk before even the school year was out.

At any rate, there are those on my staff who send emails with multiple exclamation points and question marks and capital letters and those war drums seem to be beating louder and more frequently. Call for action? Absolutely. Rally the troops? Go for it. But for God’s sake, spare me the dramatics. The situation on its own is so dramatic already that the addition of an email with a subject line like, “WHAT ELSE WILL THEY TAKE FROM US??????!!!!!!!!!!!!!” is just too much for me to bear.

Now, the ostrich. I would imagine every school in California is dealing with some sort of version of this tale of woe, and yet in mine parents are bailing ship, thinking that if they just get their kids into a “good school” the troubles will all go away. Let’s test that logic, especially as it comes from parents in my school’s neighborhood who label the high school (literally on) the other side of the tracks the “good” one.

That school and our school are the same or comparable in almost all ways: funding, check; staffing, check; facilities, check; course offerings, check; small learning communities, check; extra-curricular activities, check. So what is the problem? What is the difference? Perception, that’s the difference. Our students are darker, poorer, and more of them speak multiple languages. Perhaps perception is too kind of a word. Perhaps it’s really something awful, a kind of white flight that is happening within the limits of this town as some parents seem to think if they could just get to the school that is more white, more English speaking, and more home owning, all of the troubles with “schools these days” will go away. I said I wanted to test that logic; clearly there is not even logic to test.

All that said, here I sit on the Sunday afternoon before the end of spring break burdened by this unfamiliar dread. And what on earth do I do? Do I quit effective June 12th? I’ve been teaching since I was 21 years old; I don’t know a me without teaching. I don’t know a world without teenagers looking to me for the next step. And, honestly, I don’t know that I want to know one. I am younger in mind, body, and spirit because I spend my days with young people; I am better for my interactions with them as well as my contemporaries; I am more compassionate, more understanding, more knowledgeable, even more worldly (I don’t say this lightly; the closest I’ve ever gotten from moving out of the bay area was San Jose).

So I don’t want to quit the kids or my colleagues; that much is clear. But, sadly, quitting the profession means quitting them. Or does it? I don’t know the answer; all I know is I have to sit in this dread a while longer to understand it.

To be poetic, sitting in a mess sucks. And sometimes, we have to just sit there to figure it out, no matter how badly we want to get up, leave it behind, and take a long hot shower to wash it all away. At least we’re all sitting in it together. Kind of like my family and garlic; if everyone is eating it, no one will care if you stink. So I guess we will all stink of dread together until we figure out a way not to anymore. The lesson for the day: if it isn’t fun anymore, we better find a way to make it so because Lord knows no one else will do it for us.

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