01 June 2008

Running out of steam

I have worked many kinds of jobs. I have been a gas station attendant, a grocery store cashier, an office jockey, a child care worker, and, most recently, an event planner. But none of these are anything like the job I do now: Teacher.

For those of you who only know teachers as those annoying pests who stood at the front of the class and lectured you when you didn't do your homework, move along. We all have our crappy-teacher stories. Hopefully, many of us have awesome-teacher stories too. I'm well aware that most people's crappy stories (or lack-of-impression stories) outnumber the awesome. Mine do.

As a teacher, I try really hard to have an impact on my students, although I won't always make an impression. I have found in other ares of my life that people either really like or really hate me -- there isn't much room for in between.

But there comes a point in the school year, where having an impact subordinates itself to another goal: surviving until the end of the year. It's that time of year. It has been for about a month now. Many people think that teachers are whiners who get paid too much for glorified babysitting. That we complain too much, considering that we get 2 months off in the summer, 2 weeks at Christmas, a week in March, plus all statutory holidays. And we only work 6 hours/day.

Here's what most people don't know:

  • Teachers only get paid for the days they work. In Nova Scotia, that's 195 days per year. We do get our paycheque 26 times a year, but it's basically a forced savings program. They pro-rate our pay over 365 days. In case you can't figure out what that means, we don't get two paid weeks at Christmas, we don't get paid for holidays, we don't get paid for a week off in March, and we don't get paid through the summer. In fact, all that time off has as much or more to do with the children than with the teachers, although I'll admit that you'd be hard-pressed to find a union willing to give up those breaks.
  • Summer vacation is not just some evil teacher-devised plan to unload your kids for a couple of months while we trot off to Europe. Depending on where you live, it used to serve a specific purpose. In some places, it was so the kids could help out with the busy summer farming season; in others, the idle rich would pack their kids off to the summer home for match-making and courting season. In others, cramming large numbers of kids in a small room during the two hottest months of the year is dangerous. Is it necessary? Probably not. But in North America, nowhere has been able to take a step toward a British-style school year, en masse. Plus, I wonder how many parents would actually want that. I don't have children, but I can only imagine it being easier to find childcare for two straight months as opposed to occasionally for a couple of weeks. Easier from a childcare-provider standpoint, too, since I think it'd be easier to employ reliable people for a longer one-shot than for a couple of short stints.
  • I would kill to take a week off in February and go south. One day I actually might. But teachers are at the mercy of sanctioned breaks, and cannot schedule vacation time that suits their emotional or mental needs. March is all well and good, but some of us struggle to survive that long.
  • Have you ever spent time with 38 kids in one room for an hour or more at a time? I have. And most public-school teachers have. If you think that keeping track of all of those kids, period, is "glorified babysitting", then you're welcome to come spend a day with my students. On top of that, take care of their emotional needs. Consider that, for example, 25% of the females in a junior high or high school classroom are going through PMS/menstruation at any given time, that the boys are going through puberty, that almost no one acts like they do at home when they're at school, and that they're all in competition for attention -- with each other and with you.
  • I don't know a single teacher who only works a six-hour day. And that includes the old, "lazy" ones who are itching for retirement so bad that the kids can see their sores. At my school, I show up "late" -- 20 minutes before classes start. I'm not exaggerating when I say that 85-90% of the other teachers are there an hour and a half before they have to be. We also don't get to go to the bathroom when we want. We don't always get to eat when we want (although, as a diagnosed hypoglycemic, I tend to break the eating rules regularly so I don't pass out and die in front of the kids). Most of us work through lunch most days (especially early-career teachers). We routinely stay late (an hour or more), and unless we're super-disciplined and organized, we bring work home.
  • Teachers do complain a lot. I don't deny it. But I doubt we complain any more than any other group of employees. The difference is that a lot of our complaints get broadcast in the media. When Departments/Ministries/Boards of Education want to make changes to how/when/what/how long/where/for whom teachers teach, often comment is sought from teachers unions or other professional associations. Because teachers ultimately have no power when it comes to decision making, I guess a lot of this commentary comes across as whining. But my guess is that if you worked a job where you didn't have time to go to the bathroom, you'd whine too.
Does any of this mean that I'm giving up? Not at all. I don't know many teachers who have. I sit in the staff room, and I listen to the teachers say "I don't know how I'm going to make it through," but I have yet to encounter one who has just stopped trying. In fact, despite the fatigue, many are more revved up than ever. With curriculum outcomes, course alignment, and common assessments, no one can afford to drop the ball at this point.

Just understand that, until a better system is implemented, teachers do need those two months in the summer. We spend the first one sleeping, and the second gearing up for September.

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