Grading papers. Sitting in a cafe between two tables with chatty white girls on either side of me. I’m not trying to generalize or say they were basic, but could a conversation get more bland? Even unintentionally overhearing them, I craved a little salt on my tongue.
So the girl on my left, she starts saying that maybe she’ll become a teacher, and she, like, read this article about things you don’t know about teaching until you teach, and like, “I know you get the summers off, but I don’t know if I could go three months without a paycheck.” And I was like, girl, forgive my intrusion, but let me tell you how it really is.
First, I tried to find the article she alluded to but I wasn’t able to; perhaps I misheard that part of her conversation. I was trying to grade a factoring and rational expressions exam, so I really wasn’t paying attention to the conversation; you just become attuned to certain things when you’ve been teaching for a while, kinda like how you always hear your name when it’s said even if you hadn’t been listening for it.
And second, when I intruded into their conversation, I was quite polite and incredibly brief, in a single sentence saying only two of the points below. The rest came later, when I opened my computer to enter exam grades and I failed to find the article. By this time, she and her friend had left to go to some famous restaurant in Milwaukee that her mom always asked if she’s been to that she didn’t even know was here until she Googled it and it, like, was only five minutes away, “So should we go?” And I’m glad they did.
1. No summer pay? Hell no
Most teaching jobs are salaried positions, so even though you might not be teaching in the summer, your salary is usually divided among paychecks that are deposited either semi-monthly or bi-weekly, depending on your school. So you still get paid in summer. And let’s reiterate the fact that teaching jobs are salaried positions, so no matter how many hours we put into the profession, there’s no such thing as overtime.
2. Summer School: it’s a thing
The entire idea that teachers don’t work in the summer completely ignores the fact that many students, for far more reasons than I can go into right now, do not pass a grade level and need additional learning time during the summer. And if it’s not too obvious already, summer school students need summer school teachers. When all is said and done and students are truly gone for the summer, a teacher might only have a week or two, at most, before the new school year begins. Is that a summer off? If you consider the fact that the average US employee has ten paid vacation days a year, this is still within the range of normal time off, so no, it’s not really having the summer off at all.
3. Not Teaching =/= Not Working
Even if you don’t teach summer school, and even if you do, that time off is hardly time spent not working. Many teachers use their summer time away from teaching to redesign curriculum and assessment for the school year ahead. Occasionally there’s a stipend for leading this charge, but more often than not there isn’t.
4. Summer Off, Nights and Weekends On
A significant percentage of teachers take home work every day or commit time during the weekends to grade papers, apply data to instructional practices, and plan lessons and exams for upcoming classes. Whereas many jobs get nights and weekends off but still work through the summer, a teacher rarely stops during the school year. It’s almost as if all that time we give up during the school year is simply made up for in the summer. It’s not that we get more time off: we just literally take every minute of it all at once.
5. Teaching isn’t only Teaching
Teachers do a hell of a lot more than just teach: In addition to the grading, data analysis, and lesson planning mentioned above, teachers also attend mandatory professional development to maintain their teaching licenses and serve a plethora of non-teaching roles alongside their classroom responsibilities: On any day, I’m also a motivational speaker; a mandated reporter dealing with issues of child abuse, sexual harassment and assault, and neglect; a manager trying to balance a room full of thirty different voices, learning preferences, and behavioral needs; an immigration advocate attempting to help students understand a myriad of complex and convoluted laws; a safety office de-escalating explosive student interactions; a first responder administering band-aids and cough drops or cleaning up vomit and blood (nosebleeds aren’t uncommon) or referring students to doctors for any number of reasons; a counselor helping students understand feelings of inadequacy, oppression, perfectionism, and depression; and the list could go on, but I think I’ve exceeded the allowable limit of semi-colons in a single sentence.
All those “other jobs as specified” take a toll on the emotional health and wellbeing of nearly every teacher in the profession, and with the amount of work that must be brought home just to manage it all in a timely manner, there’s hardly any time to decompress, reflect, and recover from the second-hand trauma we experience as we teach and support and love our students. Teacher burnout is a legitimate work-related risk that all teachers struggle with on a daily basis. Sometimes we need those summers off just to make sense of all the shit we had to deal with throughout the school year.
7. Snow days aren’t always fun days
Maybe a single snow day or two is fine, but pretty much every state mandates that missed instructional days are made up: for some this might mean the school day being extended by a few minutes every day and for others it means the entire calendar is shifted back, sometimes making previously-planned school holidays into class days or extending the semester into the summer period. Furthermore, every snow day necessitates revising the scope and sequence of your class, which rarely if ever is as simple as just pushing back a lesson to make up for the lost time.
8. We don’t even make that much money
For all we do, we should get paid more, but let’s be honest: we don’t. A guest speaker at our professional development meeting yesterday remarked that, “Teachers aren’t paid like superheros,” but perhaps we are: Peter Parker and Clark Kent make meager paychecks as reporters, but Spiderman and Superman don’t earn a separate income. Batman isn’t rich because he’s Batman; he’s rich because he’s Bruce Wayne. And let’s not even mention the Incredibles: Not only were they not paid for their work, but they were also fined and fired for the collateral damage of their profession. So maybe teachers are paid like superheros, mainly on account of the fact that neither of us is paid at all.
9. Ignorance is insulting
Maybe you’ve heard that ignorance is bliss, but that’s a very self-centered perspective: If I don’t know something, it can’t hurt me; but if I don’t know something, it can still hurt all the people around me. And when people make statements such as “those who can do and those who can’t, teach” or wrongly assume that teachers get an entire extra summer of time off, it hurts all teachers who overhear it and perpetuates myths about the teaching profession that negatively impact teachers, their families, their financial wellbeing, and even if not most importantly their students. Not only does teaching demand a primary mastery of what’s being taught, but also a secondary mastery of being able to explain those concepts and skills to novice learners, a tertiary skill set of interpersonal communication and management, the quaternary skill of organization, a quinary mastery of self-regulation and at times compartmentalization, a septenary mastery of time management, an octonary ability to respond swiftly in times of crises, and so on. Teaching isn’t just teaching, and those who don’t know it make it harder for all of us.
10. Teaching touches everybody
Maybe you have the opinion, or have heard the opinion of others, that “I don’t have kids, so why are my tax dollars paying for public education?” Or maybe you’ve thought that “I’m not a teacher so I don’t really need to know what teachers do.” But the reality is that teachers touch everybody’s lives, whether you have a kid or not, whether you are a teacher or not, and even whether you know a teacher or not. If you think of the next generation of adults that will lead this country, those adults are the kids in our classrooms today. If you think of the next generation of doctors who will serve our communities and maybe finally find cures or vaccines for HIV and cancer, those adults are the kids in our classrooms today. And even if you think of the future criminals who have the potential to do incredible harm to our communities, yes, even those adults are the kids in our classrooms today. And teachers are one of the few people who’s job it is to help guide these young people from one path to the other, and though teachers can’t positively impact everyone who might be headed down a dark road, we can still provide opportunities for many children to see the world in new ways, to develop passions and interests and aspirations, and not only to become smarter citizens, but more engaged citizens. So maybe you don’t have kids. Maybe you don’t have friends who are teachers. But if you enjoy anything from restaurants to the phones and apps you use or the banking and television and internet and medical services you rely on, somewhere down the line there is not just one teacher, but many who are responsible for preparing the people responsible for these services to be able to provide them to you in the first place. More so than any other individual profession, teachers not only have the power but the purpose of influencing every facet of society and our country for the entire foreseeable future and beyond. We not only demand respect, but we deserve it, and if you want economic prosperity, safer cities, and healthier communities both tomorrow and today, teachers are the ones most capable of helping provide young people the opportunities they need to build that future for themselves, and therefore build that future for you.