The realities of life as a teacher: An introduction to a four-part series.
By: Dave Palmer
For many people who have not been in a classroom or received formal training in education, it is difficult to imagine a day in the life of a teacher. Many have most likely painted a mental picture of what it might be like based on their experiences in school. However, the reality is very likely far from their fantasy land of an easy job that gives you an average of 16 weeks of vacation every year. The truth is that many teachers’ vacation time is unpaid, teaching has never been an easy job, and the focus politicians take in reforming education is much less progressive than in times past.
In order to truly see the face of modern education, it is important to first paint a mental picture of what life would be like in other professions if people who worked in those positions had the same limitations and problems teachers have to face on a daily basis.
Imagine for a moment, you are a construction foreman who has won a contract to build an important structure. However, instead of being allowed to use the materials and tools you feel would best suit the job, the entity that drew up the contract added a clause which states they get to pick the tools and materials. Suddenly, instead of being able to choose DeWalt tools for the job, your crew has to use the Black & Decker tools provided for the job. Instead of being able to choose quality materials at a reasonable price, you are forced to use substandard materials that are anywhere from several years to a decade out of date in order to build the modern structure demanded by the blueprint. You must complete the structure on time , up to code, and under budget. If workers are absent, you must take time after work to let them make up the work they didn’t complete when they were absent. If it even looks like you are going to run over budget, your crew has to take a 10% pay cut, and if you don’t complete the structure according to the contract agreement, your company gets a failing grade and you must assist your workers in finding a job at another company that doesn’t have a failing grade.
If you are more of a business or office-oriented person, then imagine a typical day at the office, but with a few differences. Every time you as a boss tell your employees to get back to work after catching them at the water cooler, they get to tell you “Okay, just give me a minute,” or “Man, can’t I even get a five minute break?” or “Why are you always picking on me? Joanna from accounting is always screwing around. Go talk to her about not working.” Then, you have to utilize the following protocol in order to finally fire them: First, a verbal warning, then you are required to stay after work and make up the time you wasted, then if you refuse to do that, you get suspended for a day with pay. Then, if you do it again, the same protocol has to be followed until you collect enough documentation (and we’re talking about at least four or five instances of the same or similar offenses) to finally fire them. Oh yeah, and if you fall behind schedule or it looks like you won’t be able to get your work done on time, you must pick up the slack after work on your own time without pay. And if you go over budget, your whole office staff has to take a 10% pay cut. If you fail to complete anything on time and under budget, you have to follow the same procedure that the construction crew mentioned above had to follow.
Now, imagine that you only work nine months out of the year, and therefore only get paid nine months out of the year. If your employer is so inclined, they can offer you your nine months’ salary over twelve months by taking your total salary and dividing by 26 pay periods instead of 18 pay periods. If not, then you must find temporary work during the summer months (most of which employers will tell you you’re “overqualified” for) or risk not being able to meet your needs.
During the 40 weeks you are employed, you must work 70-80 hours a week preparing 6 presentations that are an hour long, or at activities that are designed to educate students for an hour at a time as well as correcting their in-class assignments, homework, and tests. Tests usually must be prepared in multiple forms to prevent cheating, and all assignments must be scrutinized for copying and/or plagiarism. This is in addition to all the paperwork schools expect teachers to complete during school hours when teachers are supposed to be educating students.
No wonder so many teachers quit the profession within the first five years.
However, the solutions that politicians (who are not educators) propose never seem to involve better teacher education programs, more support for first and second year teachers, or a clear cut remediation program for ineffective teachers that would help them become more effective. Instead, they utilize high-stakes testing, teacher evaluations that in reality have only a few line items associated with actually evaluating their classroom abilities, and firing teachers who are rated ineffective. Your school is told that it might get a funding cut if your students don’t pass a test written in 2013 using information from a textbook published in 2000. If students leave your district to go to one that has up-to-date information, you also lose funding, practically ensuring that your district can never afford to buy the materials necessary to be successful.
None of these things happened by accident. Every policy decision affecting public education and its funding has been carefully crafted to ensure that public schools don’t stand a chance against private schools and privately funded charters. Public education has been set up for financial failure, and therefore has been set up to fail its students. This introductory column only barely scratches the surface of how the failure of public schools was engineered and in some cases still is being engineered for failure through unrealistic expectations, punishments for not upholding said expectations, defunding, restrictive policies, high-stakes testing, increased class sizes, decreased teaching staff/paraprofessionals, and superfluous paperwork requirements for educators. Stay tuned for columns that address these thesis points.