Thursday, January 25, 2007

Giving Teachers A Bad Name

The hosts of the talk radio show I listen to on my drive to work were discussing a new law here in the People's Republic. San Francisco now requires that every company in the city offer sick leave to employees, even to part-time or temporary employees. Every 30 hrs worked gives 1 hr of sick time.

The first caller was a teacher--I have no reason to doubt she was for real, especially when she (correctly) stated that the law grants us 10 sick days a year. Paraphrasing here, but recalling as accurately as I can: "We call those mental health days. Sometimes we stay home and grade papers, but other times I do things like go get my hair done or get my nails done. Sometimes we're just too mentally drained to go to work."

Sure, because no one else in any other profession gets "mentally drained". Way to make us look good. It's one thing to do what she does, it's entirely different to get on a radio show with thousands of listeners and say something that makes all of us look bad.

I'm a proponent of "paid time off". Employees (of any type of organization) would have x days a year to take off however they wish. If they're healthy employees, they get lots of vacation time. If they're sickly, then they don't enjoy their time off so much. As a teacher I get 10 sick days a year, but I can take a certain number of them as "personal necessity" days. Why the distinction? Why compel me to save them up till retirement--and then increase my retirement pay?! Doesn't sound like the bosses are thinking this process through all the way.


La Maestra said...

:headdesk: I freaking HATE people like this.

My husband and I save mine, but it's because I'm a female of childbearing age, and my husband and I work in the same district and can share our PTO, so we're accruing mass amounts so that down the road we can have a kid and I can take 4 months off at full pay.

One of the few reasons our district is awesome is our benefits. PTO is completely discretionary--we get 10 days/year to use at our discretion, illness or otherwise. We still have to indicate a reason when we call it in for the sub, and if it's for vacation/personal necessity we're technically supposed to get it approved ahead of time, but I never have, and in 5 years, no one has ever hassled me about it.

We also have kickass benefits (I believe the term I heard used by Bush's spokesperson in explaining Bush's proposed health insurance benefit tax/deduction was "Cadillac health insurance"), and the district even pays into a TSA for all employees. All this thanks to our union, which alternately makes me happy and makes me contemplate quitting teaching altogether.

There are some real downsides to working in a district with a really strong union, but this isn't one I'm complaining about.

Darren said...

I always support my local unions--I understand the importance of collective bargaining. CTA and NEA don't bargain for me, though, and you're well aware of the other issues I have with them :-)

rudiV said...

I would actually think that the job of a teacher is relatively low stress. You cannot directly influence students (from my junior point of view) and their life is not in your hands. If a student does not want to learn, you do your best to fix that, but you don't stress over it. Unlike a doctor, if the patient doesn't want an operation that would save his life, I think that that would add some guilt, eventually leading to stress, to that doctor's mind. I can't imagine a teacher being mentally drained, even if it is an OCD English teacher who grades 24/7.

Oh, one may think that I'm putting down the emotions of teachers, but really, I'm simply saying that they have the decision to be stressed or not be stressed. Yes, other jobs present a similar decision, but few are wise enough to notice it.

Paragraph 2 contradicts paragraph 1, I think I should stop thinking. :P

Darren said...

Rudi, you underestimate how much many teachers care about both students and the subjects we teach.

You're right, though--if we didn't care, the job truly would be stress-free. But that isn't the type of teacher most people, including the generic taxpayer, want for students.

La Maestra said...

I know what you mean, Darren. Unfortunately, I don't often agree with or want to support our local union either, but my overall wishes (for better pay and benefits) win out over my conscience (regarding the things the union, specifically many things the other officers and negotiators do.)

Yeah Rudi, what Darren said.

I can't tell you how many sleepless nights I've had over my students, and I'm not just talking about grading. I'm talking about the 1:30 AM "Maestra, I got into a car accident and I don't know if I can make it to the SAT tomorrow" calls. The "Maestra, my family wants me to move back to Mexico with them but I want to stay here and get an education" calls. The "Maestra, I'm pregnant" calls. The "Maestra, I really really want to go to Santa Clara University, but I just don't know how I'm going to pass Physics this semester."

And those are just the ones where the students come to me. Many many more of those sleepless nights and worried mornings are spent on the kids that don't care. How do I make them care? How do I make them succeed? How can I teach differently so that they will understand and be engaged with what I need to teach them? How do I make them believe in themselves? What are their options for after high school? How can I make them see that their choices aren't only college or McDonalds, but that they need to keep their options open?

My third level of worrying comes from the kids with really crappy home lives. How can I convince them that they can make it through the next year, or two, or three, or four, and hang in there until they can graduate and move out and get away from it all? I have kids dealing with situations that no adult should ever have to deal with, and they're 14 or 15 or 16, not adults. I hurt for them, and I worry and pray that they will make it through rather than get sucked in and screw up their own futures.

Other major sources of mental drain? Working day in and day out with a system that purports to care and to be there for the students and help them succeed, but then seems to try to screw them over at every turn. Working with people who have no business working with students. Working with parents who seem to work against the schools and teachers at every turn, and seem determined to sabotage their child's chance for an education. In my five years of teaching, I've come close to quitting only once, but I've seriously considered it many more times. One of those times was this past fall, and if I hadn't had three weeks to get my head back together this past Christmas, I may well have been looking for a new job by now.

My problem is that I care too much, and it's affected my friendships and my marriage (which is, by the way, just fine now, but went through a rocky period because of how stressed teaching was making me.)

And I can't turn it off--I just don't work that way. If I somehow was able to, I'd have to quit teaching, because then I would feel like I'd sold out. I don't want a person who doesn't care to be working with my own children, just as I don't want to have a coworker who doesn't care about their students or how they do.

Sorry for the ramble, but last week was an intensely stressful week for me, and very little of that stress was related to the on-paper part of my teaching job (grading and giving finals.) Most of it was worrying about my students and their grades and if they were studying and if they were going to get the grades they needed to get.

I'm not at all a worrier by nature, believe it or not. I'm generally one of the most laid-back people I know. But I care about my kids, so I worry.

Darren said...

I'm glad you were able to fix things on the home front. If that's not working for you, you won't be able to teach well, either.

Anonymous said...

There's a huge difference between on "not caring" and making an appropriate, professional distinction between what is your responsibility, what is the responsibility of the students and their families, and what responsibilities are shared.

There is no contradiction between being a committed, caring professional and maintaining boundaries. In fact, maintaining appropriate boundaries is a major part of what allows people in high-stress jobs to remain committed and caring and, above all, professional. If you're on the verge of burnout because you're not facing this, I pity your students and your colleagues.

I say this as someone who spent years working with burnouts who rationalized their unprofessionalism by yammering on and on about how, oh, they just care too much and there's absolutely nothing they can do about it. Well, guess who has to clean up the mess when these folks finally implode because they don't take care of themselves? Right - their hapless but still sane colleagues.

Darren said...

This is part of the reason I don't teach summer school, even though I could use a few extra clams. When so many of my colleagues are crawling towards the finish line on the last day of school, I'm still feeling pretty good.

I have no desire to get burned out.

While I care about my students, I don't assume their burdens. I can't, especially since I often have no influence over their burdents. We can care as humans, we can care as adults overseeing children, but we cannot care like their parents can or should.

At Back To School Night I always tell parents that *my* kid is my first priority, theirs is my second. They seem to understand and accept that.

La Maestra said...

I'm not teaching summer school this year, clams be damned. I need the break.

I say this as someone who spent years working with burnouts who rationalized their unprofessionalism by yammering on and on about how, oh, they just care too much and there's absolutely nothing they can do about it. Well, guess who has to clean up the mess when these folks finally implode because they don't take care of themselves? Right - their hapless but still sane colleagues.

I don't yammer on about how there's nothing I can do about it, because I don't believe there isn't.

No one's cleaning up after any of my messes--trust me. In fact, I've done a fair amount of cleaning up after other people's messes in the past five years.

I recognize that there is a huge distinction between not caring and drawing boundaries, and it is the latter that I have spent the last five years learning. I know I'm better at it than I was when I began. Has my teaching suffered? No, it's improved, because I've learned what I can control and what I can't, and where I need to focus my efforts.

It doesn't mean I still don't wake up at 5 in the morning (as I did this morning) thinking about the crying senior I worked with yesterday, or worrying about if the new writing unit I'm beginning will reach my so-called college prep students, who have been an extremely low-performing, low-motivation group of students this year with very poor writing skills.

Despite all I've said, by far the biggest stressor in my job is the expectations I feel I face (from society, government, and from myself) in teaching English. When a student is performing poorly, everyone looks at the student's reading ability and tells us English teachers that it's our job to make students perform better, and our fault if they don't. I can deal with this pressure, but I'm afraid I don't see eye to eye with the politicians and administrators who toss down things like scripted reading programs without any real idea of how they *really* help students (and don't give me the "well, look at their test scores" argument. I have three classes full of freshmen with adequate reading test scores and pretty much ZERO ability to do anything else but answer multiple-choice questions.) And, as this is the direction my job seems to be going, after five years of teaching English, I'm already looking at going into another certificated position where I will be doing something besides teaching English. I don't want to be a robot, and I don't want to feel like a lousy teacher because I'm teaching students things that really should have become routine by the end of the third grade.[*]

So out I go, into a subject area I love, one that is (as of yet) not nearly as regulated, and is constrained really only by student numbers. Will it be perfect? No, but at least I won't have as many fingers pointed at me.

[*] I had to do a unit this year with my honors students--HONORS!--regarding basic English conventions, like the period-exclamation point-question mark, commas, apostrophes, and what constitutes a complete sentence. If I gave them a multiple choice test on it, they'd all do well, but when it came to actually applying any of these conventions to their own writing, forget about it. Along the line somewhere, they just never got enough of it in a practically-applicable form.

Anonymous said...

Let me just throw my own hat into the "Rudi, you couldn't be more wrong" ring. Teaching can be INCREDIBLY stressful. Absolutely, there is only so much that we can actually do for our kids, but we do indeed stress over those kids who don't want to learn.

Mr. Teacher Man said...

Don't forget that we're also held accountable for those kids that don't want to learn.

Old Lady said...

La Maestra, do you really think you can find an area where you won't be so frazzled? I really doubt it! I've been in teaching for about 30 years and it only gets worse, but I love what I do. I love those "A-ha!" expressions and the students who earn "bonus points" because of their extra effort or insight. I've been in special ed for the last 9.5 years and it is awfully stressful. The paperwork the government has placed on us is beyond belief. A friend admitted to me that she hadn't taught for six weeks before the new IEPs were due. (And she's the best of the best!) We care and we're always between a rock and a hard place. If it weren't for the kids and our committment to them, we'd probably quit. Believe it or not, I always look foreward to Mondays.
Take care of yourself and keep your perspective. I believe we make a difference.

Mike Curtin said...

One of the more memorable articles I read in graduate school was called "Teachers as Public Intellectuals" by Henry Giroux. One of his main points was that before unions, teachers were looked at in much the same way as doctors and lawyers; oftentimes, the smartest person in town was the teacher. Unions - though absolutely necessary and important - changed the way that people look at teachers. They commoditized teachers. I think we continue to suffer from a PR problem, resulting in comments like "I don't see what's so stressful about teaching."

The worst part is that many teachers have internalized this view, too. They are embarrassed to admit their profession and they complain about all of the problems they face. They sink to the lower expectations of society at large. I think that may be the case with your friend on the radio.

Maybe that's why I think blogging is important for teachers. It allows them to get up in public and say what they feel and believe. It validates them as articulate and caring intellectuals, not just so many burned-out babysitters.