There’s presently a myriad number of stories being published about the problems facing American society and education, mainly with theses focusing on the convergence of a two-year-old pandemic and an educational system that was already showing significant cracks in its foundation. Like this one. Or this one. Or even this from McSweeney’s (which I love, but it hurts because it’s not so far from the truth).
I’m sure once we get past the one-year anniversary pieces on Jan. 6, they’ll re-enter the journalistic bloodstream as the omicron variant makes more school systems bend the knee.
In all the coverage I’ve seen since teachers went from being the saviors of modern American civilization (ahhhh, such sweet times March-June 2020 were) to those responsible for all its faults (July 2020 to present-day) though, I think they’re missing an important element.
Much of our educational system’s greatness — and there are large swaths of great educators across the United States — is predicated on this: for teachers, teaching isn’t just a job.
Call it a lifestyle or a higher calling. But it’s never just been a job that people punch in and punch out of. It has to be with the way our society treats and, honestly, disrespects teachers, even before the pandemic. Lack of respect from the community at large, but mainly the political community makes it have to be something you love to do. That you need to do. Not getting paid at a level commensurate with the education you’ve sought out. Crushing workloads and grading, a lot of which can only be done outside of the actual contracted time.
For me over the first 15 or so years of my teaching career — and the eight years I worked in media and the four years I held jobs during college summers— I was willing and often, even eager (and expected my young student journalists to be the same), to do work outside of work. And put up with parents who believed their child did no wrong and tend to emails while at home or while sitting at my children’s practices. And lesson plan and grade and edit and complete paperwork. I won’t say I willingly or happily went to professional development or to staff meetings. But I went.
But no more. This pandemic and the resulting way teachers are now being treated has made teaching just a job. When I’m in Room 139, I will give my all to the amazing young student journalists who walk into my classroom. I will help them become better writers or social media managers or graphic designers or photographers. I will lend them solace and a place to find support and freedom as this shitty world that’s been created by the pandemic grinds on them. I’ll encourage their creative endeavors and write them letters of recommendation. I’ll steal a bit of their vocabulary (no cap), their music and TV and film interests. I’ll be open-hearted and helpful and firm and demanding and expect the absolute best of them. But when I walk out the doors once our contract time has come, I’m done.
And truth be told, this is what’s going to break our educational infrastructure. Teachers who will give their all during the time there but stop doing work outside of school. Because all of this unpaid work that gets done outside of school is going to start to stop as teachers continue to get slowly pulled apart at the seams. And teachers will start assigning less stringent work, grading it quicker, providing less feedback so they can actually do the work in the time they’re under contract. At the middle and high school level, we’ll stop sponsoring clubs and coaching sports teams. Because if you think the pay for teaching is low, the extra duty contracts most teachers receive are an embarrassment for the amount of time expected, especially if you want those students, groups and teams to be successful.
It’ll be those little bits of unexpected inaction, cobbled together, that will overwhelm the system. Like a tiny loose pebble moving down the side of a mountain that eventually hits just the right other pebbles or snow and all of a sudden, you have an avalanche.
Liken it to climate change. I remember starting to hear about climate issues a good 30 years ago. Small things. Steady things. Scientists and environmentalists were sounding the bell … but largely, they were ignored and now we find ourselves in a crisis.
The same thing is happening now. Educators and the pandemic are screaming out that the current system cannot hold. Hopefully, society doesn’t turn a deaf ear like it has done with climate issues.