First posted 7/07
NOTE: The idea for this piece came from an email chain letter I received about eight years ago. This is my version of that chain letter and I assure you all of the events here are true and happened to me during my teaching career.
Last winter it happened again. While having lunch with friends I mentioned grading a mountain of papers and tests over the weekend. In unison like a Greek chorus, they said, “Yeah, but you get three months off.” The chorus continued as they reminded me of Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter break.
Yes, I get a summer vacation, but not exactly three months. And yes, I get a few more days off at Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter than they do. But, can I please tell you what I, and thousands like me, do for ten and a half months of the year?
I teach high school English and Journalism. I’m Head of the English department and sponsor of the school paper. (And, please put your red pens down now, there will be mistakes, I'm sure.) I’m a member of the Student Assistance Team that identifies, refers and counsels high-risk students. High risk is concerns about drugs, alcohol, depression, anger, eating disorders, phobias, gender identification, isolation and mental health issues to name a few. I’m in charge of the English department’s curriculum review process and yearly budget and I've served on the Library Evaluation Committee. I’m on the Middle States Evaluation team that prepares all aspects of our school for scrutiny by other educators across the state.
I’ve been sophomore class sponsor, junior class sponsor, forensics coach and play director. I absolutely love my job and I love all my students. I’m lucky to work in a school district with supportive administrators and a staff who feels the same as I do. I wake up everyday looking forward to nine periods of excitement. Each day is different and there’s never a dull moment. My students are smart and funny, passionate and challenging, and they keep me on my toes. They are my own little Alzheimer's prevention corps forcing me to use my brain to keep those electrical charges zapping across miles of synapses.
But, on a normal day, in a normal week, here’s what I do. This is all true. Pat Conroy and Stephen King couldn’t make up this stuff.
I arrive at 6:15 AM for a parent conference carrying the 150 essays and tests I spent four hours grading the night before. I review daily lessons for two general English classes, two honors English classes, and two Journalism classes while I make 100 copies of eleven handouts, and on the way back to the English office break up a scuffle in the hall wondering if I should get my latex gloves in case there's blood. I make sure my computer grade book is up to date by entering four classes of quiz grades so I can export for weekly sports eligibility, and fill out three Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for identified students, updating the Learning Support department on their mainstreamed students in my classes. I'll email or call three parents and leave messages that will be deleted when their kids come home and discover the English teacher’s voice on the answering machine or email address on the computer. I'll finish writing two college recommendations and figure out a way to teach the end of Romeo and Juliet without mentioning the word suicide.
I'll meet with the editors of the school paper, the students organizing the clothing drive for the homeless, the Junior Class officers and on the way to the English office have a chat with a student about her college entrance essay. I'll practice random acts of kindness, and try to figure out a way to make adverb clauses fun. I'll check out the girls' the lav for smokers or cell phone use and talk to the student wearing the “Big Johnson” t-shirt about violating the dress code.
Over the years I've called the office about the exploding furnace and geyser in room 40, the creative, anatomically correct, yet borderline pornographic pictures drawn on the lockers in the Juniors' hall, the "I can see my breath" arctic frost in room 218, the Sahara Desert heat in room 37, and the hundreds of live crickets in the girls’ restroom - don’t ask.
Just before I leave the office for first period I'll make a mental plan for a department meeting after school focusing on the new state standards for public education, send the day's lesson to my student in the detention room, send three weeks of lessons to my student receiving home bound instruction, make a note to remind students about field trip money, yearbook deadline, class ring orders, senior picture schedules, musical auditions, prom tickets, eye exams, sports physicals, the test tomorrow, homework tonight, and inform a starting lineman on the football team he will be ineligible for tonight’s game if he doesn't finish writing his Shakespearean sonnet. As I walk into my first period class I'll send a student to get the custodian to remove the dead mouse from the overhead light.
In my classroom I’m to maintain a warm and caring environment, be a paragon of virtue and a positive role model. No second chances for me if I get caught driving under the influence, having an affair, or dealing drugs. No signing bonus, no overtime, no stock options, no profit sharing, no travel allowance, no company car, no expense accounts or business lunches. I do, however, have a free pass to all athletic events, band and choral concerts, musicals, class plays, and graduations, which I am expected to attend.
During the day, I’m to check for signs of abuse, depression, drugs, and eating disorders, and to be on the lookout for weapons, bombs, harassment or antisocial behavior. If I fail to report any of these behaviors I could be arrested. I’m to instill in my students a love of learning, a desire to excel, a zest for life, positive self-esteem and respect for the law. I’m to prepare them for the 21st century but teach with a “back to basics” philosophy. I’m to add to my certification every five years with at least thirty credits in my field at my own expense and update the English curriculum on my own time. As a member of the Student Assistance Team I must continue my education on the drug culture and language, awareness of troubled teens, and laws pertaining to both. I must be computer literate keeping one step ahead of the young “Bill Gates” in my classes, integrating technology into my lessons, and checking all web-sites for offensive material. All my grades must be updated daily on my computer grade book so parents can check their child's grade from their computer at home making sure all homework has been turned in and there's an A on all tests. If something is amiss, I'll get an email or call immediately. Summers are spent taking classes, attending workshops on adolescent behavior and reviewing, updating and revising the curriculum.
And you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love this stuff and I’m not alone. Thousands of other teachers do this and more everyday, some with a starting salary just above the poverty level.
I’m not holding a scalpel over someone’s heart, or guiding jumbo jets onto a runway, or researching a cure for AIDS, or negotiating world peace. But, one of my students may do one of these things someday. Don’t you want them taught by someone who is well-rested?