10 August 2009

teachers work hard for their money

Full disclosure: I am the child of two public schoolteachers, one of whom was very active in his district union (as well as serving on negotiating and grievance committees).

For the first time, this summer while I was teaching one of my last classes of the summer session, I realized how hard I'm working even while I'm sitting in class listening to my students discuss. I noticed one girl checking her text messages, and I realized the luxury students have, of letting their minds wander. Thinking about this later, after class, I thought about how I never even DOODLE on my notebook while teaching. Not even tracing the circle of the punched hole in notebook paper, which is just about the most mindless doodling there is.

I've worked other jobs, most notably a year as an administrative assistant at a national nonprofit in DC. I spent a lot of my time there doing nothing much, reading the internet, calling my mom (free, untracked longdistance - why not?), secretively reading novels. This was not from my lack of enthusiasm, or my willingness to slack off; it was just that my position did not require a full-time assistant. But there I was.

Studies have shown that US workers spend at least 35 minutes a day of their work hours (adding up to about 3 1/2-4 hours a week) doing non-work stuff, like scheduling doctor appointments, checking personal email, etc. I suspect, with the explosion of social networking sites like twitter and facebook, and with the abundance of handheld web-enabled devices, this 35 minutes will or has gone up.

This footling around is not an option, not really, when you're teaching. I've never taught a full school day, since I teach at a university; my longest classes have been 3 hours and 15 minutes (I give us all a 10-15 minute break about halfway through). But I do know that after my class - whether it's a 3 hour class or a 50 minute class, I'm wiped out. I'm almost always hungry, and usually want a nap. Some days, of course, I'm completely wired and motivated, and I zip over the library and gather books and read articles and feel very productive and brainy. But usually, I'm tired. And it's because for that length of class time, I am utterly, and entirely, focused on the task at hand.

I do not have this kind of concentration at home.

Now, a schoolteacher has breaks - lunch, and usually a free period for grading, planning, whatever the hell teachers do in their free period. But these are short bursts of time. And everyone gets a lunch, no matter where you work, if you work in this country. Which means that you are ON when you're teaching. You're working hard every second. Even a crappy teacher is working, because if you aren't, chaos happens fast, especially in elementary classrooms. Teaching is a LOT like being an actor, a performer; when the students are present, YOU are onstage. And the spotlight is never off you, even when students are writing in class, or discussing in small groups. There's no jotting down your grocery list, or checking your To-Do List for the rest of the day. there's no checking email, twitter, booking travel, scheduling appointments, doing your billpaying. you WORK while class is in.

It's an intellectual work, and that's hard for a lot of people in this country to quantify, mainly because there is no way, really, to quantify it. So they - recalling their experiences as students - think of teachers as people who sit around all day. Doodling, maybe, texting their friends, staring out the window in a trance. And that doesn't sound like a hard job at all, now, does it?

If that was what teaching consisted of, I wouldn't be tuckered out when I got done. I'd be antsy, like I was in high school, when boredom and bad teaching, and subpar classmates kept me in a stupor, staring at the bare branches of winter trees, all day long. If teaching was just footling around, I wouldn't want to DO it.

I wish there was a way to communicate to the people who spend 35+ minutes a day doing Other Tasks while on the clock, that teaching is demanding. That even that free period is spent doing work. That teachers carry cases and bags between home and school almost daily, with grading, planning, correcting -WORK - to do at home.

People bitch and moan about teacher salaries, but I don't see those people rushing out to get these cushy, high paid jobs. if teaching was so plush, there wouldn't be a lack of science & math teachers. There would be enormous competition, and only truly excellent, well-qualified people would get hired. there'd still be bad apples - there are people who are crappy at their jobs in every profession - but there'd be fewer. And they'd be deluxe bad apples.

The one real big perk of teaching in a public school is the holiday breaks and summers off. Holiday breaks do usually bring with them some level of take-home work, but it's still a vacation. And the summers a glorious break (unless you're teaching summer school). But there are no other perks. I'm fairly sure there isn't even free coffee in the break room. A coffee pool, maybe, where everyone chips in to pay for coffee and supplies, but it's not employer-provided. Even as a lowly AA, I had perks to my job that my folks, with their advanced degrees and 30+ years of experience never had.

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