“Must be nice to have so much time off!”: this is the most frequent sentence I hear from friends and family I see infrequently.
“You’re always working!” This sentence loops in our house as relentlessly as the chorus of a Megan Trainor song.
Let’s watch these two beauties intersect: it’s the Friday of break, the last day of the semester, and I get home at 5:00 pm.
“Where’ve you been? We gotta catch a plane and the airport is two and a half hours away.”
“I was working.”
“Working? School got out at 11:00.”
“No. The kids got out at 11:00. School gets out when I’m done.”
Here’s the detective report on The Case of the Missing Six Hours:
Lunch; grading 135 projects and essays; filing, displaying, stuffing, and hiding 135 projects and essays; posting grades; meeting with the data clerk; filling out 3 packets of district paperwork; finishing a grant application; answering e-mails; finding the top of my desk; planning the next two days of instruction; thanking the janitor; saying good-bye to another teacher.
Fast forward two delays, a cancelled flight, and a rerouted trip from Detroit, and I’m standing on a beach in Florida with family I haven’t seen in ten years.
“Must be nice to have so much time off,” my uncle says and adds: “tell me, are schools as bad with money as I hear, because I see like four school busses zooming around my neighborhood every day and that sure seems like a lot of gas money.”
I can tell it’s a genuine question so I swallow an imaginary second grade math lesson that would have sounded like this: “How many seats are on a bus? Sixty? Good job! How many kids go to that neighboring school? Six hundred, that’s right! Is there more than one school in the district? Yeesss! Is it better to have buses in the neighborhoods or hundreds of cars?”
I say: “I’m so grateful to have protected time off even if I choose to work a little next week.” And then we spent a lot of time talking, essentially, about teachers “choosing” to work. Because here is the insulting truth: the best teachers choose to work hard. They choose to sacrifice their time. They choose to build academic challenges for students because they know they have an important role that can be filled, but not fulfilled by just anyone.
Because I made a choice last Friday. I could have just shown a movie and then given a blanket final grade to my students. I could show up the Monday after break without plans and waste the first day back talking about break and having the kids write a list of New Year’s resolutions. Some teachers do this. I promise you there are teachers in your and my school who will do this. But title aside, they are not teachers. And though kids may like them, they do not see them as teachers; they see them as “chill” adults. And hey, chill adults serve important societal role: as bartenders.
In eleven year’s teaching, I have never once had a student go out of his way to thank me for making class easy. They thank me for making class hard. They thank me for helping them revise the essays that earned full ride scholarships. For giving them the skills they need for law school. For teaching them to challenge themselves to attend Ivy League schools. For abolishing their fears of public speaking. For inspiring them to write their first book or get a job writing for a newspaper. For that silly lesson on using tone in e-mail because, man does it help them at work.
As beautiful and important as these examples are, they are not always accessible. Can’t kids do those things without you? Sure they can. Thing is, I make the ones who otherwise couldn’t do those things do them.
So when the conversation with my uncle takes a turn to teacher salaries and class sizes, I can predict the bah humbug that would follow my list of carefully packaged facts and statistics. Instead I build an analogy.
“You know how people get really stressed at the holidays? They have a group of people at their house and they have to cook and clean and entertain almost non-stop for several days? That’s essentially teaching. Like the holidays, it’s fun. It’s important. It’s invaluable. But it’s expensive and draining. Can you imagine a Christmas season that lasted two hundred days?”
My uncle looks to my two tiny nephews playing in the sand. I ask him, “remember them in the car? Imagine hosting a birthday party. Imagine trying to keep the attention of ten kids and being responsible for what they learned at the party. Imagine the neighbors drop off their kids and now you have fifteen, twenty, twenty-five kids in one space and you’re in charge of all of them. Imagine thirty-four kids in your dining room and you’re by yourself. Imagine there’s budget for cake and juice, but no budget for plates or forks or party games. In the stress of making sure everyone’s safe, of course you’ll spend money out of your own pocket to make things easier. Imagine the kids have such a good time, the parents bring them back again the next day. You only have to do it for an hour, they say. And when they arrive, each parent hands you forty-one cents—because that’s what you make, fourteen dollars an hour to watch 34 kids. Now imagine hosting that party five times a day, with a four-minute break in between each party to clean up and prepare for the next group. Oh yeah, and to go to the bathroom.”
He smiles and doesn’t say anything. I worry that like most conversations about education, the point is lost.
Two hours later, he’s trying to get the two boys to stop crawling under the restaurant table. He looks up and says, “fourteen bucks an hour, huh?”. And I smile and realize he got it. I also notice it’s the same price as a plate of linguini.