Today marked the start of a new school year for millions of students and teachers across the country. And I got to watch it unfold outside my living room window.
It was an intricate orchestration of something most of us take for granted. The bright dandelion colored school buses roaring along quickly and cautiously, determined to deliver their passengers on time for their first day. Flashes of florescent orange as student patrols raced to their posts. A flurry of cars, trucks and vans intersecting from all directions as exhausted parents dropped off anxious kiddos. New and inexperienced teen drivers in rust-covered or dented cars vying for the closest possible parking spot. Kids lugging backpacks full of brand new supplies. School mates clad in brightly colored clothing walking arm in arm, chatting nervously about new outfits, new teachers and new expectations. Even a slowly moving navy blue squad car, inching along, checking on everyone’s safety and compliance with traffic laws.
It was the first time I had been able to witness such a thing as neither a teacher nor a student, but a deep appreciation and understanding of both.
Many of my friends and family members are starting their new years along with everyone else. I think they feel badly that I’m not in the same boat again with them this year. But I don’t feel bad. Even after only one year of teaching, I have a much deeper appreciation for what teachers do… and honestly? There’s a big part of me that is relieved that I am not in that boat.
Most non-teachers envy the life of an educator. Heck, they get to play with kids all year long, they get summers off, pretty decent pay for only 9 months of work, and they have more vacation time than pretty much any other occupation. But what these non-teachers don’t realize, is that the job of a teacher is just about the most difficult job anyone can ever have. Allow me to explain.
- Work Hours: Teachers do not work a regular 8 hour shift. In fact, doing a simple 8 hour shift is darn near impossible unless you have appointments before and after school. A typical day for a teacher lasts at least 10 hours. When I was teaching, I typically worked between 7 am and 5 pm. Teachers usually take an hour before school starts to prepare for the day, then an hour or more after school ends to clean up, organize, check in with colleagues, tie up loose ends, and prepare for the next day.
- Working after work: Any teacher will tell you that their work does not end once they leave the building. I always resented my husband for being able to come home and leave work at work. I was never able to do that. Once a teacher gets home, there’s a plethora of things to do. Correct papers, enter grades into the grade book, lesson plan for the following day or week, return parent phone calls, return colleague e-mails, fill out ridiculous amounts of bureaucratic paper work for any number of inane reasons, fill out charts, create posters, add stickers, and hope you get everything done before “The Good Wife” comes on at 9:00. Also, I realize the non-teachers out there will argue that these things can be done in those extra 2 to 3 hours before and after school. Not necessarily so. Sometimes just cleaning up the classroom and organizing assignments takes up your full time before and after school Especially when 3 kids have spilled glue, 1 kid had a bloody nose, 6 kids managed to get pencil shavings all over the floor, (custodians will only do so much) and you still haven’t finished decorating your bulletin board for the new Language Arts unit.
- Meetings: Staff meetings and committee meetings take place before and after school. Unlike non-teachers, teachers cannot have a meeting in the middle of the day because they have a classroom full of hooligans they are trying to corral into their seats so some learning can be accomplished. Add to this scenario the fact that most schools require teachers to serve on at least 1, to as many as 3 school committees. Yeah… all that time you had before and after school? That’s gone.
- School Breaks: Honestly? I think any teacher will tell you that time off from school is highly overrated. Don’t get us wrong… we love our school breaks, but most of the time they are spent preparing for the next semester, trimester, quarter or school year. Plus, the whole time you’re on break, that back to school date is hanging over your head, taunting you, reminding you that you still have so much to get done and you haven’t even had a chance to relax yet. Those ever-looming back to school dates are pretty much the worst.
- Paid time off and sick leave: Yes, we get paid even when we don’t make it into work. However, there is not a single teacher on the planet who relishes the thought of being away from school. Oh, it’s a lovely fantasy, and we all think, “Hey! I’ll just take a personal day and get some Christmas shopping done!” Um… no. Because as soon as you have that thought, you’re brought back to reality by the amount of work you’ll have to put into preparing for a substitute. Bless their hearts, but typically, subs know diddly squat. (Unless of course you have a sub who has been filling in for you for years and they have everything down pat. These subs are a unique and valuable treasure. Do NOT… I repeat, DO NOT – take these angelic beings for granted.) They don’t know where you keep the materials, they don’t know the classroom procedures or schedule, they don’t know the discipline policy, they don’t know that your prep time was switched to 1:45 instead of 10:25 because there’s a spur of the moment assembly scheduled for 10:35, they don’t know the routine, they don’t know know the students, they don’t know what reading groups the students are in, they don’t know what the hell Daily 5 is, they don’t know that Charlie has gluten, peanut, tree-nut and dander allergies or that Sally probably has some form of undiagnosed oppositional defiant disorder, they don’t know the numbers for the office, the principal, OR the nurse, they don’t know how to run the SmartBoard, and let’s face it… even the best students are only so helpful. By the time you finish filling out the instructions for the sub… you’re 18 pages into it and pretty sure it’s just easier to drag yourself into work with a fever of 105, a slipped disk and a ruptured spleen.
- Testing: You know when you get the school newsletter in the spring, and the principal gives tips on preparing your kids for upcoming testing? And you send your kids off to school with the sage advice of “Just do your best!”? It’s not really that simple. Teachers spend the entire school year preparing for these standardized tests. Their careers pretty much depend on their students’ performance. They study the data from pre-tests all year long to try and figure out how to improve their students’ test scores. However, if Mickey comes to school with only 2 hours of sleep, Tony skipped breakfast, Cindy had the police at her apartment at 1:00 in the morning because of a domestic disturbance, Maria’s grandpa just died, Ryan has severe test anxiety, and Kirsten was working late to help make ends meet… all the test preparation in the world isn’t going to raise their scores. That’s the reality of the situation. And teacher’s hate that their students’ abilities and their own effectiveness as a teacher is based on a stupid test put together by out of touch government bureaucrats who have never stepped foot in a classroom. It’s asinine and we hate it as much as you do.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, my friends. I won’t even go into trying to get specialized services for your students, dealing with administration, FIELD TRIPS, food allergies and art projects using glitter. Suffice to say, the life of a teacher is hard. Really, really hard. And yet, you will never find a bigger cheerleader or stronger advocate for your kid than their teacher.
So, as this new year begins, take the opportunity to thank the people who work with your kids day in and day out. They would definitely appreciate the boost.