The other day I had a chance conversation with one of my oldest daughter’s favorite teachers. After I updated her on Sara’s life, she reminded me of the time in high school when Sara decided to take a stand against what she felt was an unfair application of school dress code rules. She had written a protest letter about the issue and planned to post it anonymously in a prominent place in school. I had told her that if she couldn’t stand behind her opinion, she shouldn’t post it. If she could, then she should sign it. She did.
Shortly after, she was called to the office to answer for it. Sara was about to learn the cost of standing on principle, and she was pretty nervous. Without being asked, and without hesitation, her teacher insisted on going with her to stand in as a responsible adult.
When I mentioned the conversation to Sara later in the week, she immediately recalled the high-anxiety of being summoned to the office and the sweet relief of facing discipline with a supportive teacher by her side. I felt a fresh wave of gratitude for that teacher, (and yes, Leslie Thomas, I’m looking at you) and for all the teachers who every day stand up for, beside, and with their students.
That led me to ask a few of the teachers I know about what motivates them as teachers.
They all responded with some variation on the following themes:
- Seeing a student experience that “aha!” moment when a difficult concept finally makes sense
- Tracking students’ progress and watching them grow from grade to grade
- Collaborating with and learning from colleagues who care as much about kids as you do
- Helping students see that it’s OK to make mistakes, and to understand that they’re part of learning
- Feeling energized by the idealism and enthusiasm of students
- Working with parents committed to the best learning experience for their kids
- Having students return to tell you that you made a difference, not just in their learning but in their lives.
Those seem like really good reasons to be a teacher.
But, why then, I wondered is there a shortage of teachers in Michigan? Why are so many retiring early, or leaving the profession after only a few years?
I asked my teacher friends those questions, too. And sadly, there was a uniformity to their answers.
- Lack of respect for the profession
- Feeling scapegoated for political purposes
- Ever increasing class sizes
- Disparity of funding for schools
- Lack of support from administrators and parents
- Unfunded mandates and “revolutionary” programs that ignore front-line teacher experience
- The shift in priorities from educating students to churning out paperwork that has little impact on student learning
- So much testing–post-testing, benchmarking, unit testing, proficiency testing, mid-year exams, end of year exams–that test-taking seems to be an end in itself
And then there’s the salary. None of the teachers I talked to cited money as a primary frustration. Nonetheless, it’s a factor. Just like everyone else, teachers can’t live—or raise a family—on love alone. In Michigan average starting salary for a teacher is about $36,000. Mind you that’s also at a time when most teachers are heavily burdened with school loan payments and the additional costs of the ongoing education that’s required to keep their jobs.
In many districts, teachers haven’t had a raise in years, some have had salary rollbacks, and all have seen higher insurance costs. It’s not uncommon for teachers to work second jobs on the weekends and in the evenings to make ends meet. Which is extra hard to do, because most teachers spend many hours on the weekends and in the evenings grading papers, writing lesson plans and participating in after-school activities.
Tuesday, May 8th is National Teacher Day. It’s an occasion when politicians and others will trot out platitudes, make meaningless declarations of support and respect, and then continue to underfund, overburden and disrespect the profession of teaching.
Thank teachers, by all means. But don’t stop there. Support, respect, and fund public education. Let your legislators know how important it is to you. And vote like you mean it.
I’ve had many teachers who made a difference in my life. Mrs. Hurry, Mrs. Hawkins, Mr. Tobin, Mr. McMacken, Mr. Stuckey, Miss Adams, Mrs. Snellenberger are just a few of them. Who’s on your list?