Sunday, December 23, 2012

Spare me

The unfathomable horror that took place in Sandy Hook Elementary last week has, as of late, sparked an apparent paradigm shift in the general public's perception of teachers. Where just a scant ten days ago we teachers were scum-sucking, lazy leeches that greedily lived off the public teat and had the gall to have their Hoffaesque union strong-arm poor downtrodden taxpayers into giving them undeserved raises and pension plans when in reality they are glorified babysitters and have only work nine months per year, we are now being lauded as heroes who are willing to sacrifice our time, resources, and even lives for the well-being of our students. Although devastated and heartbroken by the incomprehensible madness of last week's tragedy, several of my fellow teachers are comforted by this seeming outpouring of sympathy and recognition for all that we do, and are quick to share links to open letters to teachers, blogs, articles, etc., that all of a sudden portray us as hard-working, misunderstood martyrs.

Not *this* teacher.

I gave up the prospect of a career in research to become a teacher, but did not do so out of a sense of martyrdom, selflessness, or civic duty. I became a teacher because during my second year in graduate school, I taught an introductory science course as an adjunct, and fell in love with the profession immediately and irrevocably. Once I completed my master's thesis, I did not look for work as a scientist. I stayed at my typesetting job, took a plethora of subject-area examinations to give myself the best possible chance at landing a teaching job, and after a couple of unsuccessful interviews, was rewarded with a job at the local high school.

I live in Florida, a right-to-work state. I am not a member of the union. This is not out of some sense of heroism or lack of solidarity. I am neither pro- nor anti-union, and find the "if you're not with us you're against us" rhetoric to be mind-numbingly stupid. I am not member of the union for the very simple reason that I live on a pretty tight budget and would rather spend the union dues money on other things.

I came into the teaching profession at a time where the state government decided to reduce spending by freezing teacher wages and eliminating tenure. As such, even though I'm well into my fourth year as a teacher, I'm still making roughly $40K a year and working on a year-by-year contract that can be terminated at any time. What's more, these conditions are not likely to change anytime soon, if ever. In case the reader is curious, other teachers who came into the profession at the same time I did and joined the union are in the exact same predicament as yours truly.

In the short time I have been a teacher, I have had to take several graduate classes in education in order to earn a professional teacher certification. The fact that I had two college degrees at the time I was hired is irrelevant, because neither my bachelor nor master's degree is in education. I am now not only professionally certified, but am also one week away from earning a second master's degree, in education this time.

Owing to the vagaries of inclusion policies and the pathetic weakness of so-called class size amendments, I teach classes of as many as 36 students, ranging from "arrived in the U.S. yesterday and therefore speaks no English" to gifted students.

Because a few of my students are gifted, I have had to pick up an endorsement in Gifted Education, a process that required I take five additional classes -- no piggy-backing on the graduate education courses, I'm afraid -- and pay yet another certification fee.

Sound tough?  It isn't.  Why?  Because it's a GREAT job!!!

Like everyone other 47-percenter, I worry about money. After all, I have a mortgage and an elderly dependent to worry about. Be that as it may, I want for nothing. I eat out whenever I feel like it, and go to several concerts and sporting events. If I decide I want to teach myself astrophysics, I can afford to go online and purchase a textbook without an ounce of fiscal regret. If I decide to over-tip the gorgeous and voluptuous red-haired siren who cuts my hair because she caters to my obsessive-compulsive "wash my hair *after* you cut it, and rub my scalp clean with your awesome fingernails" needs, I do so. When I told my students that I had picked up professional certification in various subject areas, they asked me if that would earn me a raise. I laughed. When my students saw my Gifted endorsement certificate, they asked me if I would earn more money for being highly qualified. I laughed and thanked them for making my day. When my students found out that I was in the process of picking up a second master's degree, they asked me if it would mean a higher salary. I laughed, thanked them for making my day, and told them to always stay positive and innocent. "But don't you care, mister? Why don't you demand more money?" My answer: "Of course I'd like more money. But I spent the majority of my childhood living in abject poverty. A salary that allows me to pay all of my bills and still have enough money left over to go see Slayer practically every year is a good salary. No one in their right mind goes into teaching for the money." And I meant it.

Like every other teacher, I work a ton of hours after school and/or at home preparing lessons, labs, and assessments, grading work, and staying current in both my subject areas and classroom technology. This is hardly a sacrifice on my part! I love writing word problems that include my students in outrageously funny, physics-related scenarios. I love playing around with equipment while evaluating demonstrations and lab activities. I love reading my students' oftentimes hilarious reading journals in which they try to come up with equally outrageous scenarios to demonstrate their mastery of a given concept.

Like every other teacher, I find myself constantly "parenting" my students, listening to their problems, settling their occasional disputes, keeping them on task, encouraging them when things get tough, and supporting them unconditionally. This is hardly a sacrifice on my part! I love my students -- in a non-creepy way, of course. I love teasing them good-naturedly. I love telling them absurd autobiographical stories that always have a moral just to give them a short mental break, all the while letting them think they've somehow managed to steer me off the subject. I love their groans when I come up with a particularly cheesy pun that they enjoy in spite of themselves. I love ad-libbing nonsensical tall tales to help them remember concepts, such as the time I convinced my chemistry students that wolfram had been renamed tungsten because it had originally been named after the scientist who discovered it, John L. Ram, and that the element's original name came about because Ram had gone mad and became convinced he was a werewolf, before finally cracking up and explaining that tungsten is Swedish for "heavy stone," a good description for an element so strong it has the highest melting point of any transition metal, which is why it is used in high-temperature applications such as light bulb filaments and in high-impact applications such as mining drill bits.  I love my students' sense of humor. I love the fact that I have an enormity of cat lovers in my Physics classes, that the Physics midterm I administered last week included several problems in which cats were catapulted, pushed and pulled, dropped off cliffs, and launched into outer space, to name but a few feline ignominies, that my students enjoyed the problems so much that they lamented that I hadn't written more, and that when I told my students that I had written exactly as many flying cat problems as there should be, they immediately knew that the number of problems was Lucky 13. I love cheering them up when they're down. And I especially love that they have the inexplicable ability to cheer me up when I'm down, something that came in very handy last year when I was in the throes of the most brutal depression imaginable, and my only respite from abject misery was my job.

I freaking LOVE my job. It pays enough, it's a ton of fun, and it keeps me sane. So please spare me the current surge in sympathy, because it is undoubtedly going to revert to ignorant antagonism as soon as the passage of time dulls the shrieking brutality of the Sandy Hook tragedy to a faint whisper. If others are envious of my job, I challenge them to pick up a fistful of college degrees. I challenge them to become certified in Earth and Space Science, Mathematics, Physics, and Chemistry. I challenge them to convince my supervisors that they can do my job better than me. I flat-out challenge them to come get my job. No, I fucking double-dog dare them to come get my awesome, cushy job. Until then, they can shut their fucking cake-holes and worry about *their* shitty jobs.

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