Teaching Is Hard, but the Old Arguments Aren’t Working

This week I read yet another editorial written by a teacher, outlining the vicissitudes of the job and imploring non-educators to recognize our plight and stop blaming us for not magically turning every child into an A+ generating perpetual motion machine.

The author wasn’t wrong about anything. I don’t teach highschoolers anymore myself, but I teach and supervise people who are studying to become high school teachers, so I remain intimately aware of the problems facing public educators. Those articles always make me wince, though, for a few reasons: 1. They all say the same things. True things, for the most part, but the same things. 2. Some of the things come across as defensive, even martyr-ish. 3. They don’t persuade the general public, probably in part because of the first two items in this list.

Let’s stipulate to the difficulty of teaching. That shit is hard, yo. We could talk for days, all of us, about the hardness, and the exhaustion, and the low pay and the lack of appreciation and and and. Actually, I think most people who aren’t teachers do in fact know that teaching is hard. Oh, they don’t know exactly why or how, not having done it themselves, but they have some idea. But here’s something we need to remember: Their jobs are hard too. I come dragging home every day feeling like I’ve been mugged. But you know what? So does my husband, and he’s not a teacher. He spends his days having meetings and coding and lab testing GPS guidance software for aircraft. I do hours of course prep and grading evenings and weekends. I have my books and papers; he has a special computer designed to run only from his company badge so that he can work at home evenings and weekends. Most people work hard, and even the ones who don’t work hard think they do, so MY JOB IS HARD AND MAKES ME TIRED is going to be a non-starter in almost every rhetorical circumstance. Unless you’re talking to someone who lives off a trust fund, their response is going to be “No shit, sparky, that’s why they have to pay you to do it.”

The martyr issue is a challenge to tackle because I know I’m going to piss some people off, and I don’t mean to. Here’s one simple example of a trap we too often fall into: The Summer Argument. Virtually every editorial I read from a teacher responds to the jackass mantra “You have no reason to complain! You get summers off!” with some frankly weak sauce about how we really spend summers prepping for the next year and attending professional development seminars and flogging ourselves with riding crops while we wait for our hair shirts to dry. I don’t teach summers (though I could if I chose to). I do a lot of work during that time. Last summer I wrote the accreditation report for my college’s English Education program. Yes, it sucked ass. Two summers ago, I edited my first book. That was a self-imposed project, but it also was very taxing and very time consuming. So, sure, I work during the summer. For the most part, though, I work at my own pace and in my pajamas at the kitchen table, while I’m also doing laundry and leaning down periodically to throw a toy for my dog. Full disclosure, Keeping It Real, summer is fucking awesome, and I try not to deny that because it makes me appear disingenuous. The real response to sneers is, of course, to remind the sneerer that I don’t get *paid* for summer; I am lucky enough that I can afford to take a 9-month salary, but for a lot of teachers “summers off” amounts to a forced unpaid vacation. That’s a legitimate conversation about the way the job is structured. “Actually, being off for 3 months isn’t that fun,” just makes you look like a tool. It’s okay to acknowledge what you like about your job. We don’t have to be in all-suffering mode all the time to make our arguments about the changes we would like to see in public education.

One obstacle is that teacherhood suffers from the same Catch-22 as motherhood. The mythology of “the calling” imbues the title with immense symbolic baggage, such that others believe that telling you over and over how much they appreciate your sacrifices is supposed to be enough, since the gig itself is its own reward for someone with the proper spiritual connection. It’s like those encomiums that infect social media around Mothers’ Day, all about how much we love Mom because she never asks for anything from anyone and does all our laundry and makes all our meals and wipes our bottoms for us and sleeps only two hours a night. If that is true about your mother, you need to get off your dead ass and help instead of praising her for letting you be horrible. Except, women have been well programmed to buy into this horseshit, so it’s hard to give up the myth. It’s hard to imagine what we would have left if we did, especially when our identities are so enmeshed with the narrative of the sacrificing mother.

Likewise, it’s hard for teachers to extricate ourselves from the narrative of our martyrdom. As the tale reads, we give and give and give and give some more, not for the pay, like those earthly professions, but because we are CALLED. My friends, I urge you to climb down from the cross and recognize how this hagiography is harming us. We can either be professionals or we can be saints, but I don’t think we can have both. Focus on specific ways in which we can improve education and the profession. Make it less personal so that other people–people who vote and politicians who draft legislation–recognize our arguments as valid and objective. I’m not saying we aren’t poorly treated; we are astonishingly poorly treated in some ways. I just think that’s not the most rhetorically effective focus anymore, at either the political level or the personal level.

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DrShell is an Associate Professor of English at a small liberal arts college. She teaches world literature, composition, popular culture, and speculative fiction and serves as faculty sponsor for the Secular Student Alliance. DrShell lives in tame suburbia with her husband and son and a pack of rescued pets, where she spends a lot of time running, taking Body Pump classes, and thinking about getting another tattoo.

1 Comment

  1. January 19, 2014 at 6:33 pm —

    Living off a trust fund is totally exhausting! You have to decide major shit like whether to get out of bed, whether to put on pants, whether to give the staff time off (answer is always no), and what 3-star restaurant is next on your Michelin bucket list.

    But seriously, the summer thing is so obnoxious. Soooooooo obnoxious. Maybe it’s that a lot of educators haven’t really ever not had summers off, so they don’t really quite get how it compares to not having summers off, only that now they have to do some work rather than play with the neighbourhood kids. Maybe this would be less of an issue if everyone got six weeks of vacation like they should.

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