Forty-five years ago, I stood in front of my students at Niles East High School in Skokie, Illinois, and tried to breathe life into A Tale of Two Cities. For a rookie English teacher, it was definitely “the best of times and the worst of times.” Some of them loved the book but there were also the kids who doodled in their notebooks and asked for passes to the bathroom. Still, I loved being a teacher. So why did I quit?
Well, believe it or not, it was a ton of work for $6,000 a year. Remember, the picture above was taken in 1969, and that income also supported my husband, who was in medical school at the time. It wasn’t the meager salary, however, that discouraged me. It was the fact that I barely got home from work in time for dinner and spent every evening creating lesson plans and grading essays. Not the easy hours usually and falsely ascribed to teachers.
I left in 1971 to have my first child. In those days, I was lucky I did not have to return to my job in 12 weeks as most teachers do now. By then, my husband was working and his income was enough to support our family. Two more kids later, I was ready to return to work but could not imagine going back to a job that consumed all of my energy every evening.
So do I appreciate teachers? You bet I do. My second career was teaching preschool (no essays to read at night) while I went back to graduate school in early childhood education. Then I moved into my lifelong career as a preschool director. And the teachers and aides I met over all of those years were my rock stars.
When I count my blessings, the wonderful staff at Cherry Preschool is always among them. They work so hard on all of the little details that make the children’s days seem to flow so effortlessly. There are so many acts of love and caring above and beyond the job description of “teacher.” They hold sick kids, comfort concerned parents, consult with therapists, share a child’s day at pick-up, plan labor-intensive projects, create year-end books for every child, make countless phone calls to answer questions…the list could go one and on.
After being a teacher for seven years and supervising teachers for 25 years, I still firmly believe that teaching is a calling and good teaching is an art. As wonderful as it may seem to find an objective mathematical formula for evaluating educators, anyone who has worked with teachers over a period of time will tell you they can spot the good ones by watching them with children. Parents and children can always identify them – they just know.
People don’t enter the teaching profession to become wealthy, gain prestige, or come home feeling serene at the end of the day. They arrive long before the first bell rings to prepare and leave much later in the day than anyone imagines. They spend countless hours at home planning curriculum and looking over children’s work. If a child or their classroom is without something, they buy it. And the good ones possess an intangible quality that cannot be measured by student test scores or complicated evaluation systems. How do you measure the empathy, patience, and love of children that are at the heart of good teaching?
When I first started teaching high school English fresh out of college, I was given “basic” classes. That meant my students were not expected to accomplish very much. I’m sure my Value Added Measures (VAM) scores would have been abysmal. Luckily for me, there was a different educational climate back then. My department supervisor believed the real value of teaching was reaching kids and inspiring them to think and read.
Many of the boys in those “basic” classes I taught were headed straight from high school to Viet Nam. So spending time diagramming sentences or reading Shakespeare didn’t mean all that much to them. Instead we read topical newspapers articles for non-fiction writing, analyzed song lyrics for poetry, and discussed whatever books felt relevant to them.
I like to think I was a good teacher for those boys. And I will always be grateful to my somewhat subjective supervisor who taught me what was really at the heart of good teaching. You have to care about the children you are teaching more than the facts you are teaching, and you have to inspire them to want to learn.
This week, write a note to a teacher you really appreciate. And ask yourself, what teachers made a difference in your life? If you have a moment, tell me.
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