I wrote a column for the print AJC on national Teacher Appreciation Week, which I will post later today. I decided to post this essay first to kick off the week. This was written by a local teacher who asked me to withhold her name.
Here is her piece:
It’s teacher appreciation week, again, and the fact that teacher morale is at the lowest it’s probably ever been shows that our nation is ignoring the reason that the week was started in the beginning. Think of it as the educational equivalent of taking the “Christ” out of Christmas. A holiday we’ll go on celebrating arbitrarily since it no longer has anything to do with teachers themselves.
Maybe you’ll send an apple with little Suzie on Monday. Or have little Tommy write a heartfelt note on Wednesday. Then pat yourself on the back on Friday for whatever dollar store treat you gave in thanks to the one person who spends more time with your child than you do. Some of you will do it because the classroom mother bullied you into taking part. Or because that’s what your parents did. Or because you want the teacher to tack on bonus points for your child to have a higher grade. Whatever. It doesn’t matter why you do it (and trust me when I say that the irony of a gift from a parent who just cussed me out at the last conference night isn’t lost upon my colleagues or me). The fact remains that more often than not, the gestures have little or nothing to do with the teachers themselves.
Still, let’s be clear about something right from the beginning – I appreciate those tokens. I’m honestly not mocking them – heartfelt or not, it’s always nice when someone gives you a pat on the back. There’s a file that I’ve kept for over a decade with every hand-written note of appreciation I’ve ever received from my students, and on my roughest days in the classroom, I pull it out to remember why I do what I do.
It’s been getting a lot of use these last few months.
Like many of my colleagues, I went into education because I truly believe teaching is the most important job in a democratic society. It is without hyperbole when I say that I believe when public education fails, a democratic society won’t be far behind. It’s the cornerstone of the United States with far-reaching power in how we live, vote, and behave. Teachers mold not only the future professions of our country but also the present citizens who walk the streets. The responsibilities and the intrinsic rewards for teachers are massive and overwhelming all at once.
It’s exhausting. And often thankless.
We’ve reached a time in this country where teachers are the only profession being asked to ignore the fact that we live in a capitalistic society. When a teacher complains about pay, they are just being selfish and should be glad that they have a job. Because, as we all have been told from a friend or family member — you knew what you were getting into.
Well, obviously, I didn’t. None of us did.
I never expected people outside of education to create impossible standards and expectations. I never expected to be villainized in critically acclaimed documentaries about super heroes who never show up. I never expected to receive a contract that reflected a lower salary than I’ve made in the five years. And I certainly never expected to have my first amendment rights taken away when all I want to do in the world is in defense of my job. In fact, just in writing this, my job is in jeopardy for saying what so many people are feeling.
It’s beyond exhausting and thankless – it’s soul-crushing.
I’m not sure when this happened to education or when the expectations for teachers reached an all-time high while the compensation reached an all-time low. But I do know that we’re involved in a war on education in which we claim to be fighting for the children while the shrapnel seems only to be killing teacher after teacher.
Here’s my battle-cry: we are not in an either/or situation.
I can be in the fight for the children AND still expect reasonable pay. Until I can pay for groceries or my light bill with my students’ appreciation or their test scores, school districts across the country must be willing to pay teachers for their services. That’s not being selfish, just practical. And I’m not talking about the overtime spent tutoring or at meetings or at school carnivals or lesson-planning while falling asleep at night or grading essays or writing letters of recommendations for the students. I’m talking about a decent hourly wage. You expect it in your job, so why can’t I expect it at mine?
Each of us has a memory of that teacher who touched his/her life and likely changed our path in life. That’s how important this job is. I can’t say the same about any other profession with which I’ve come in contact. And yet, every other profession is able to talk about their jobs and how they’re compensated without anyone giving them a crazy look or mentioning the hours that they don’t work (seriously, stop telling teachers that you’re jealous of their summer breaks – we hate that. We’re only paid for 186 days of work, so that’s all we work. None of us get paid for the summertime that we “have off” unlike the paid vacations that many of your jobs provide). My point is, stop thinking of me as the bad guy. Help me. Help us.
You know as well as I that neither you nor your children will ever stop to remember the educational lawmaker who played an important role in your lives.
Again, I love my students. That is, after all, the one factor that keeps me going back to my profession year after year, that’s true. But don’t use that against me. Don’t pretend that I must choose between caring about them and caring about my own livelihood. Why must I choose between one or the other?
The fact that I care about what I do is exactly the reason why I will eventually not be able to afford my home. The reason I won’t be able to live in Atlanta anymore. The reason I’m held hostage into signing an unfair and possibly illegal contract year after year. The reason that my workday keeps getting longer while my pay keeps going down. The reason that there continues to be fewer teachers to appreciate each year.
Maybe that’s the real reason the week has nothing to do with us anymore.
State governments don’t care. Boards of education don’t care. We don’t expect them to. They are simply balancing a budget because that’s what we hired them to do. Well, I, too, am balancing a budget – my own. And I can’t keep paying bills when funding continues to be cut. I can’t continue to keep a career that simultaneously pretends to appreciate me yet continues to pass laws and budgets that reflect just the opposite.
There are many of you that won’t agree with me, I know that. Many of you who will read this and feel that I’m just bitter, angry, and should be glad that I even have a job. Many of you who will thank a teacher in the press then go back to your offices and pass laws against them citing them as collateral damage of a zero-budget balancing mentality. Many of you in the same profession as me who will continue to work countless hours and spend money that you don’t have on your students because you’ve bought into the idea that they matter more than you do.
Instead, before you think those thoughts about me, think about that teacher who changed your life. The one who gave selflessly his/her time, energy, and self-worth to improve you and your history. Think of how much that teacher meant to you and your path.
Now, what is that worth to you?
If you truly want to show your appreciation for that teacher, in lieu of a gift card this year, make a phone call. Let those in control of balancing budgets and passing educational reform laws know that you won’t accept the budget being broken on the backs to teachers any more. That your child’s education will not be collateral damage in for people who cannot simply balance a checkbook. That you won’t sit idly by and watch a democratic society fall apart.
Do it for the fact that the teacher who might have changed your child’s life might be one who just left the profession because it cost more to them to stay in it.
Be the Superman or woman that your teachers are waiting for. If you don’t save us, no one will.
Oh, and Happy X Appreciation Week.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog