It’s the middle of June. Most schools are out for the summer and people everywhere are telling teachers how good they have it. I mean, they get the entire summer off – no responsibilities, no schedule to keep, and they get paid. It seems to this retired teacher that now is the perfect time for a reality check on what it is to be a teacher.
Let’s take a look at expectations and what the job requires. Obviously, a teacher is supposed to teach. Elementary teachers offer basic knowledge of all subject matter – reading, writing, mathematics, history, science, music, art, health, and physical education. They provide the base upon which all other learning builds. Secondary education teachers specialize by subject matter taking each of those disciplines listed above to more breadth and depth. Okay, but that’s the wikipedia kind of knowledge of what the job is. Let’s continue.
Elementary teachers have to do things no secondary teacher has to do. They wipe noses, clean up vomit and urine, administer first aid (and I imagine in the younger grades give the magic kiss to boo-boos). They supervise playgrounds with all of the hazards that involves – physically, socially, and emotionally. They teach fair-play, sharing, and safety. They escort their charges to the cafeteria where they are taught some table manners, not to throw food at each other, not to make faces at other children’s lunches, clean up after yourself, and not to throw away lunches. I’m sure they have many other tasks that secondary teachers like me have no idea of and might shudder to think about!
Secondary teachers have a different set of challenges. As a high school English teacher I found our English department responsible for teaching all of the normal things that you would expect – reading, literature, grammar, writing, spelling, and research techniques. As the years went on, we became responsible also for teaching word processing, using the internet, assessing the value and validity of text in print and online, telling truth from fiction. These seemed natural to fall on the English department as they are extensions of reading and writing. When using texts in our classrooms we had always tried to teach students to read with a critical eye, to assess the value of what they were reading, and to delve into the writing to get meaning from it. While these fell to us, I know that other disciplines were also facing these additions to their curricula
Ah, but it didn’t stop there. Here are just some of the other things we found ourselves responsible for teaching in our English classrooms:
- Literature that is rigorous and relevant but will not offend anyone
- How to write letters
- When and how to write thank-you notes
- How to address an envelope
- To answer the telephone politely and carry on a phone conversation with a potential employer or a company when you call regarding information or a complaint
- To answer questions in job interviews
- How to dress and conduct yourself for an interview
- To maintain a social media presence when colleges and employers are looking to learn more about them
- To fill out college applications and write a college application essay
- To write a resumé
- To greet people
- The proper way to shake hands (no death grip, no “dead fish” limp hands, no hesitation, no pumping, and let go!)
More and more schools expect teachers to be numbers crunchers and data analysts. Teachers (especially those in English and math) are expected to teach test prep, analyze the data, and make sure that all of the state tests scores go up based on notions and ideas made in some office somewhere that is not in the vicinity of a school, a classroom, or any children! The great majority of teachers know how to teach, what to teach, how to engage children, and how to get results because they chose their careers wanting to make a difference. They did not get into the job to become test proctors. They have become the pawns of Study Island. They have been forced to give over precious class time to preparing for, practicing for, and administering standardized tests – obviously because testing is a vital life skill that everyone will need.
Teachers also find things that go well beyond the classroom curriculum that will fall to them. We become family counselors, relationship counselors, and life coaches. (Again, elementary teachers might have a different but no less exhaustive list, but I’ll dwell on the secondary experience.) We help them in their college search, discover ways to go to college or trade school, work on scholarship applications and essays. During my years in the classroom my coworkers and I held the hands of and wrapped our arms around students following the death of grandparents, parents, siblings, and friends. We went to the funeral home with them when a classmate took his own life, was killed in a car accident, or succumbed to cancer. We listened as they told us that they were kicked out of their homes because mom chose the boyfriend over her child, they had to find a place to live because their parents didn’t allow them to stay once the eighteenth birthday came, or they felt they could never please their parents. We were the loving adult who worked with them get the help they needed when they were depressed, doing harm to themselves, or contemplating suicide. We knew and adjusted our expectations when they were living in their car, working forty hours a week to help put food on the table at home, or living through the horrors of abuse and divorce. We helped them to navigate the treacherous path of adolescent friendships, dating, betrayal, and pressure. We taught them that they deserve better than an abusive boyfriend/girlfriend and how to get out of the relationship. We taught them that friends who put pressure on them to cheat, do drugs, lie to their parents, or do anything that makes them uncomfortable are not friends. We supported them when they found out they were pregnant and didn’t know where to turn. We advised them and even went with them to talk to their parents about the relationship, the friend, or the pregnancy. We provided school supplies. We provided lunches. We provided clothing. We made Christmas happen. We found health care, dental care, psychological care for them. We walked with them onto the field for senior parent nights when they had no one show up for them. We went to their games, matches, concerts, and plays. While often I found students who called me “Mom,” some of the teachers I know actually became their parents — taking home foster children, taking in those who were discarded by parents, and even adopting them.
However, I’m discovering this isn’t enough! Ideas from the public about what teachers should be also teaching abound in the media, on social media, and in everyday conversation. According to what I’ve been reading lately as I’ve been thinking about this post, teachers should be making sure that children:
- Have manners – from how to treat others in public places to which fork to use in a restaurant
- Know what the socially acceptable norms of behavior include (even if the parents have no idea themselves)
- Have good hygiene
- Know how to dress properly by establishing a dress code that is equally respectful of males and females (but schools should not actually enforce this code)
- Are taught respect for all races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, people with handicaps, people with differing opinions, etc.
- Are taught traditional values and that the mainstream or majority race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, opinion, etc. is the right one
- Can change a tire
- Can change the oil in a car
- Know how to do laundry
- Know how to file income taxes
- Can balance a checkbook
- Know how to pay bills and maintain a budget
- Can cook and plan healthy meals and set the perfect table
- Know how to make repairs around the home
And this is just a starter list of the things I have seen!
All of this is what is expected in a country that disrespects teachers, blames them for many of the ills of society, and criticize everything they do. All of this from parents quick to say, “My child would never…” or “why should my child be expected to…” All of this in a society that mocks and holds education and intelligence in low regard (look at the heroes and idols who are often illiterate, ill-spoken, and far from smart!)
People are quick to find the one teacher they hated or who was lousy and equate all of their school years with that one example. They are quick to point out the news story of a teacher who was arrested for sexually molesting a student, getting violent with a student, or drug violations…never noting the hundreds of others in the same district who would never dream of doing that, who are, in fact, hurt and ashamed and even more sickened by that than you are!
When children are raised in this environment, it is no wonder that they come to school lacking respect for both the teacher and the learning. People say children have changed. No they haven’t. Children have always learned what they lived.
The final reality check (and I’ll keep this short and factual) is a matter of numbers. We hear that teachers are underpaid or overpaid depending on who is doing the complaining. Here are the latest statistics that I can find.
- The average teacher pay in the United States is $58,353 dollars – although in 36 states the average is lower than that.
- Alaska, New York, Connecticut, California, and Massachusetts are the top paying states and come in at over $70,000 which isn’t surprising if you do a little thinking on that (or you watch HGTV). The cost of living in those states is extremely high. In Massachusetts and California, for example, the price of a starter home averages in at $243,300 and $305,000 respectively. (The median prices in those states are $409,600 and $548,700)
- At the lower end of the spectrum we find Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Dakota, North Carolina, and Arizona all paying less than $44,000 average per year.
Teachers are required to continue their education and training throughout their careers. At one time I had a “permanent” teaching certificate. However, it magically expired and turned into a temporary one because laws were passed mandating a number of additional classes and credit hours every five years. I have no problem with continuing education. But pay for it. According to smartasset.com the average salary of someone with a professional degree is $89,960. That is more than $31,000 over the national average for teachers.
Our values as a society are truly screwed up. Our biggest heroes make their lives playing with a ball, pretending to be someone on film or television, or singing in front of a crowd. Athletics and the arts are valuable to society. However, I don’t believe that they are more valuable than those who teach, keep us safe, and keep us healthy. Look at these numbers and remember that where you put your money is a good indication of where your priorities.
- Average cost to attend an NFL game ranges from $107 – $569 depending on the team
- Minimum wage in the NFL is $450,000
- A-list movie stars make an estimated $15 – $20 million per film
- In 2017 Jim Parsons and Johnny Galecki made $900,000 per episode on the Big Bang Theory
- Concert tickets will set you back pretty hard — According to Forbes, average tickets to see Justin Timberlake come in around $339, Beyoncé will cost you $294, Taylor Swift or Pink in concert is $270, Paul McCartney is a bit cheaper at $241
- The average price for a Broadway musical (which looks reasonable compared to the concerts) is about $113. But if you want to see Hamilton the face value of a regular top ticket is $199 but tickets have sold for over $1,000
- Police officers average $65,400 per year
- The average salary for a registered nurse ranges from $57,000 to $102,700 (Everything costs more in California) which makes the median around $79,000
- Teachers average $58,353 and, while their pay in most districts (not all) is divided in such a way as to assure pay over the year, many work second jobs over the summer.
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