I am a teacher. I know because I was given a Burger King biscuit today. And I got to wear jeans. And a link from ClassDojo popped up promising an inspirational video. And Google’s doodle of the day is related to teaching. It’s Teacher Appreciation Day, after all. A $1.29 biscuit, a cartoon crayon, and a three minute video should fill my empty tank right up.
I’m grateful for all these things. (I even had two biscuits.)
I live in the small town I grew up in. I was in the top five in my high school class in the late 1980s. The other four, all men, are now a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, and a retired Air Force officer. Me, I teach high school three miles from the one we attended, and I see two of the four men fairly often since their children attend our school.
These men are, by our community’s standards, well-off. They live in nice brick houses in desirable subdivisions and drive fairly new cars. They are not snobby or ostentatious. They are kind-hearted and are always genuinely glad to see me. The doctor has cared for my husband, a two-time cancer survivor, for over twelve years now. He is patient and thorough and calm, and my husband’s continued health is due in part to the excellent care this former classmate has given him. These men are great. Their success is not a problem at all.
The problem is this: when you read the sentence, “The five top graduates are now a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a teacher, and an Air Force officer,” you don’t want to be the teacher.
You don’t think, “Man, that must be some teacher.”
Your heart doesn’t immediately cry, “My son could become a teacher.”
You don’t instantly imagine the teacher’s nice car or nice house or–if we’re really being honest–nice anything.
Money and esteem, typical measures of American success, don’t apply to the teacher.
Money? I can’t earn more if I’m the best teacher in the school (I’m not). My students once were fourth in the state on a high-stakes test. My reward? A certificate signed by the state school superintendent. Cashiers at Kohl’s earn fifty cents when a customer signs up for a credit card, but a teacher can’t expect something as gauche as money for being the fourth best in the entire state. I was recognized as a STAR teacher: a brilliant student who made a perfect score on the math portion of the SAT picked his English teacher as the most impactful educator he’d ever had. I got a padfolio, a pen, and lunch.
I am, honestly, properly grateful for these awards. They’re more than many of my hard-working coworkers will ever see, and, really, I can do the noble teacher. I drive my 2004 Sienna and my teacher husband drives his 2000 Tacoma, and we don’t even THINK of newer cars. We live in a modest cinder block house in a good neighborhood. We’re happy enough. In our community, where the entire school system receives free breakfast and lunch, we see enough daily poverty to know to be seriously grateful for what we have. We appreciate our jobs’ benefits and our summers “off.” (We get up at 5:50 AM all school year. Do consider that.)
Esteem? A doctor can make you feel better, sometimes instantly. A lawyer can draw up legal documents and give sound advice. An engineer? Not only can he design bridges, but he can do hard math. And the Air Force? In a word: Jets. Of course these skilled people deserve societal esteem.
I can’t compete with jets. But I went sixteen years without a fight in my classroom.
I can’t do hard math. But I can talk a nervous teenage boy into telling his mother that she’s going to be a grandma.
Although I can’t draw up a legal document, I can give advice. I can talk to a cutter calmly. I can make an LGBT teen feel welcome and safe. I’ve helped suicidal and mentally ill kids reach out for counseling. After all my years in a public school classroom, there is little that startles me, and if I’m calm, my hurting kids usually are, too.
Certainly, I cannot give anyone medical help. But if a student needs to talk about the fact that Grandma died, I’m here. If she is struggling with a sick mom and an angry dad, I’m here. If a student writes about the pain of never having known his father, I’m here, and I’ll tell him the secret: a lot of his classmates haven’t met theirs, either.
I make students feel less alone every single day. I make the outside world seem welcoming and accessible. I remind them of college and scholarships and stable families–things that await them if they will just stay in school and relentlessly pursue the dream while perhaps living in a nightmare.
Why is this not esteemed? Our society is more impressed by a doctor’s ability to complete a two hour gallbladder removal than a teacher’s ability to keep thirty teens engaged and learning for the same two hours. We should recognize that classroom management is a skill set that is worth rewarding. The ability to unify very different students, to create lifelong bonds in just ninety days, to teach things like synecdoche while simultaneously competing with Snapchat–these are true talents. The men and women who possess these skills–the people that our children come home talking about day after day after day–merit something more than a Google doodle and a breakfast sandwich.
My younger daughter is a high school sophomore at the school where we teach. She is profoundly gifted; our older daughter, who is learning disabled, is a graduate of our school. Both girls shared three teachers, and now, discussing them at the kitchen table, their eyes shine as they chatter.”S—— is great!””E—— made learning fun–he was serious, but he joked around sometimes.” “H—– pretends to be mitochondria–it’s real great!” They laugh. These teachers were so much fun. They taught my very different daughters the same things: to be confident, hard-working learners. To be responsible. To dream and to pursue.
Teachers are the only professionals that children need in droves–for music and for math, for volleyball and Spanish. Every student usually has at least thirteen teachers, and perhaps as many as fifty-two. Children don’t need that many doctors or lawyers.
Students spend over 16,000 hours with teachers by their high school graduation. It’s astounding–years ago, my daughters knew nothing about medieval England, atomic mass, polynomials, or word processing. They have spent thousands of hours learning these and so many other things under the tutelage of professionals who wake up daily at dawn, who arrive at work early and stay late, who are inventive and compassionate and kind, who could make more money immediately in the private sector, but choose instead to help my daughters–and students like them–go forth.
I wish our society could see teachers’ skill, reward their merit, and esteem them for what they are: true professionals.
Societal respect–it’s the one thing that would always beat a biscuit.