Teaching: It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Education, especially higher ed, was supposed to be recession-proof. Apparently, it wasn't global pandemic-proof.
One of this week’s news headlines announced “School districts ask parents to fill in as substitute teachers as COVID cases rise in Central Texas.” I had two thoughts in quick succession: 1) I could sub, and 2) oh, heyllllll no.
While I’ve been teaching in higher education since the late 90s, I was a Montessori-trained pre-k teacher in the gap between undergrad and grad school. I love kids and the two years I spent teaching three-to-four year olds were some of the most rewarding of my life, but it was—and I use this word for lack of a stronger one—grueling.
My final year was such a potent cocktail of wonder, fulfillment, joy, frustration, and struggle that it sent me to grad school at a brisk trot. I have attempted to mentally untangle the experience ever since. What would it take for me to return, even just as a sub, to teaching k-12? I feel some guilt admitting this, but it would take a LOT.
According the National Education Agency (NEA), a recent survey showed that public k-12 teachers reported the highest levels of burnout of any public sector. Teaching through the pandemic has been an avalanche of disasters for teachers, but even before COVID, education was a tough career choice.
STORY TIME: Let’s look at some reasons using my personal experiences.
MONEY: We can start here. In the mid-90s I taught at a private school—exploited labor at its finest. The school was known as the top private preschool (just pre-k and kindergarten) in Dallas. Called “tony”1 in a magazine article, the school had a reputation for getting kids into likewise prestigious private academies that required entrance exams and interviews for kindergarteners in addition to breathtaking tuitions. The owner of the school and the school’s families—who’d been on wait lists since birth—ranged from merely conspicuously wealthy to the idle scions of household brandname dynasties.
Teachers, on the other hand, were paid so little that we were eligible for food stamps. Because the hours were 8-4ish and we didn’t work summers, it was considered part-time, so no benefits, either. Nobody is attracted to teaching because they think it will be easy or that they’ll get rich, but when teachers can’t afford to live in the neighborhoods where they teach, people need to quit scratching their heads over the teacher shortage.
INTENSITY: I remember hearing my recent-college-grad peers who were working in non-education sectors saying things like
“well, today, when we were singing show tunes in the break room…” or
“I was bored out of my mind…”
I can’t speak for all educators, but these were not experiences I’d ever had in my workplace. From the minute I arrived in the morning to prep the classroom until the last tiny chair had been stacked on a table at the end of the day, caffeine-fueled laser focus was key. Even with sniper-level attentiveness, some little kid was going to feed another one pea gravel on the playground. The one with an allergy was going to locate the only wasp for miles, poke it with a stick, and swell up like Jabba the Hut.
And, while I was on the phone to Jabba’s mom, the child tugging at my pants leg and trying to hand me something was revealed at closer inspection to be proffering a booger.
“Is that a booger? No, thank you. Please use a tissue.” (Wedge that one into the crowded file of things I never thought I’d hear coming out of my own mouth.)
And that’s all in between trying to teach pre-literacy and social-emotional skills and prep these kids for entrance exams.2
I have it on good authority that older kids try to hand their teachers boogers less frequently, but require hyper focus for other reasons.
Everyone knew not to call me for at least an hour after I got home from teaching the smalls. I learned to appreciate quiet and solitude as I daily recalibrated my hearing and regrew my nerves from the constant noise and stimulation. I was in my twenties.
SOCIAL VALUE: Ever find yourself at a gathering and need to end a conversation with a teacher? Try these perennial faves.
“How sweet. You must love kids.”
“I’ll bet that’s so much fun! You get to play all day.”
“I wish I got summers off.”
“Do you babysit?”
When I went from teaching preschoolers to college students—and they are alike in many ways—I was uncomfortably aware of a sharp increase in other people’s perception of my social value. Countries that respect and value k-12 teaching as a profession seem to have more successful education systems than we do. Connect those dots.
BEING BLAMED FOR THE COLLAPSE OF DEMOCRACY and occasionally physically assaulted is another feature of the profession that rankles.
HIGHER ED: NOT AS STABLE AS IT LOOKED
A long-standing myth surrounding working in higher education was that, as a sector, it was recession-proof. When the economy was good, people could afford to send their kids to college and take classes themselves. When the economy was bad, people wanted to go back to school to get better jobs. From the late 90s until COVID, this theory mostly held up, although the last five years or so had revealed some fissures in the towers.
Enrollments had been declining. From the mid-twenty teens, our annual all-hands faculty meetings featured at least one presentation on the growing gap between enrollment dollars and debt from campus amenities that the institution had invested in during the previous period of irrational exuberance. International students especially, were taking their full-tuition dollars elsewhere. Student loan debt was driving large numbers to community colleges and trade programs. COVID was a final blow to many institutions and it gave administrations what amounted to emergency authorization to reorganize and make huge cuts to full-time and even tenured faculty, replacing them with food-stamp-eligible adjunct instructors.
We find ourselves here, with teacher shortages so severe that schools are asking parents to sub and occasionally even having to close down.
I have loved teaching college students over the past couple of decades. I’ve heard people bemoaning Millenials and Gen-Zers’ work ethic and general awfulness, and wondered if the complainers actually knew more than one or two of them. The ones I’ve known—many of whom have become friends—have given me hope for the future.
My former students have gone on to make the world a better place in very concrete terms. One has spent the past several years working to address Texas’s maternal mortality problem at the policy level. I hear another almost daily on the news reporting on social justice issues. Many serve underserved and traditionally excluded communities worldwide. They are scholars, writers, therapists, teachers, scientists, artists, attorneys, editors, and warm/funny/smart/delightful people. I could not be more proud of them.
I sometimes miss scribbling all over a white board, drawing number lines to represent levels of formality in diction; stick figures to illustrate how we locate the rhetorical concepts of logos, pathos, and ethos; spidery synthesis maps; and a zillion boxes and bullet lists and stars. I can get all breathless just thinking about this stuff. And, yet.
Will I return to teaching? Insufficient data available at this time. Who knows what education at any level is going to look like on the other side of COVID? Maybe the great resignation will inspire or force us to provide greater support and resources to teachers. Maybe we’ll pay and respect them more.
Don’t feel bad. I’m a college English teacher and I had to look it up at the time. According to the dictionary I consulted, it means “fashionable among wealthy or stylist people.” Tip o’ the hat to the wordsmith who wrote that original piece. Spot on.
I’m sorry to keep using italics, but, the concept of entrance exams for five year olds still blows my mind.