“I’m so tired,” said the man as he woke in the morning. He scuttled about in the dark to find clothes for the day. This woke his wife, who actually had to be at work before the man. She grunted, groaned, and then shouted in an angry voice, “Every fucking morning! Every morning you wake me up! I need to sleeeeeep!”
The man shook his head in silence, feeling bad, yet at the same time resentful. It was her fault he had to work at that horrible place, doing meaningless things, and getting yelled at and humiliated by people far stupider than he was (although he questioned this too, because otherwise why were they his bosses? Why did everyone seem so much happier than he was?)
The above is meant as a brief example of a circumstance I suspect many of you recognize more than you may be willing to admit. It is the disappointment of the morning, of nearly every new day, when it seems like the same aggravations will be suffered, and the same lack of meaning will be provided to your numb mind.
Most of us hate our jobs (I do this–not the blog [people who claim to be ‘bloggers’ are generally unemployed, or retired, or cutting class, or working from their homes and taking a break from their real responsibilities]–I write for a living, and yet I still find most days are frustrating and unfulfilling. This is my dream-come-true career, and yet many days are inspired by frustration and rage against the world.)
I am a former high school English teacher. I was pretty good at it, too. I enjoyed some of the time spent in the classroom with the students (although some, of course, are simply assholes, like we find everywhere in life. Young assholes grow into adult assholes.) The students generally tolerated, or even liked me, because I did not censor their words, like so many other uptight teachers do, making that losing battle the central focus of their classroom rules. I found that the students cursed less in my room, while actually working hard on their writing projects to stick in a contextually appropriate ‘fuck’ or ‘shit’ or ‘pussy.’
The real problem with teaching can be pointed to in numerous directions. All of us tell ourselves some version of a similar myth. Teachers justify their practices and mistakes by blaming some all-powerful and amorphous entity, be it the school board or district, your principal (most of whom are failed teachers with political connections), those other assholes in your academic department, the other teachers in general, the corporations that run the department of education and publish increasingly biased and bland textbooks, the social activists of every political stripe always offended by something, and, most important, the goddamn parents, who have raised their kids to have no respect for anything, and who either do not care about their child, or defend them from even the most horrible thing. These among other things. There are always enough obstacles to get in a teacher’s way, to be blamed for another terrible day.
It is rare that a teacher has enough humility to blame themselves for anything. Aware of the importance of their jobs, teachers try to use this as a shield, painting themselves, all of them, as selfless heroes only in it for the children. After all, they certainly don’t get paid enough. Most people hated their teachers in retrospect, and never had much respect for the profession. When they hear that someone is a teacher they, often shake their heads and mumble something like ‘I could never to that.’
Teaching is an extremely difficult job. It requires a dedication that, sadly, most in the profession do not have. The whole administrative and professional structure of schools and school districts do not lend themselves to altruism, or even the hope of a better future, no matter how much lip-service the politicians in charge attempt to give it. And make no mistake: superintendents, regional and otherwise, alongside the other up-and-comers who may have never spent time running a classroom, are politicians, often very good at their jobs. What they are responsible for has more to do with budget considerations, and containing negative press, like any corporation. They negotiate contracts that limit advancement, stagnate wages, and shake their fingers and threaten anyone who does not buy into their system.
The young teachers coming into the classroom, as the older ones die off at an early age, or stumble into forced retirement, are trained very differently in college than in days of old, those days we have transformed through nostalgia into better than whatever it is we have today. (Of course we believe this about everything, from social interaction, to the value of whatever nation we come from–myself being from the United States, I cannot help but also suffer this fate, the sanitized version of history we are taught, which paints a noble, heroic picture to which we could never compare.) The teachers today are taught with grids and pie charts and Venn diagrams, these numerical equations based on the bare minimum achievement required to maintain state and federal funding. This being the case, of course schools will cheat on standardized test scores. Only the truly despised are allowed to fail; some generally stupid kid with a sweet personality gets bumped up into classes far too advanced for their abilities, ensuring them a life filled with charity and unending failure.
Standardized tests are really the only things that matter these days. We get presented with instruction on two of the days before the students even begin, and an air of panic consumes us; and the principals, under their own endless strain, shriek at their staffs that anyone might lose their job if they do not maintain a certain average. Principals, by the way, often work for the entire 12 months of the year; those people who claim that teachers get nine weeks off in the summer, and so their job is easier than the daily grind of sitting in an office making phone calls, have no idea what they are talking about. There is the emotional drain, the true intellectual exhaustion to recover from, in addition to the fact that teachers barely make enough money to survive. This is why they get jobs in the summer as camp counselors, and other continuing experiences being responsible for children. Or they take mind-numbing classes in order to get to the next level on the pay scale, where, being firmly middle class, their taxes are raised until their salary might in fact be lower than before the Masters degree.
When I was teaching I did not care in the least about the standardized tests. As a result, my students were under far less pressure when they took them, because everyone else seemed to keep hammering them from the tip of September, until the time the tests were actually given in March. One or two days a week would be dedicated to reviews of old tests and rallies to play up their importance, by nervous teachers. Sometimes they would have breakdowns, and would take mental health leave, something that was actually a part of the contract. Everyone understood this danger and everyone knew what it meant. My students, by the way, generally did fine. There were also limits on the number of students we were allowed to fail in a school year, or even a marking period, and so some kids got unearned C-‘s, smugly mocking their teachers because they didn’t really have to do anything.
I was also a press leak. As one of the union representatives of the very large first school I worked at, I was responsible to be the press liaison. I got to know several of the education reporters with both the big local newspapers, as well as the education websites that were rapidly replacing them. This was in a very large city, with a very dense population, and a district divided into elite schools for the rich kids and politicians’ children, and the rest underfunded, moldy buildings in the gutter. I worked in one of these.
The year when I got closest to my press contacts was a year that began with all of us being told we would lose our jobs at the end of the school year. We were transforming into a charter school. Charter schools are in no way better than public schools. Like a public school, there are good ones, and mostly trash. The only real differences are that teachers at charter schools have no job security, and are victims of the whims of a handful of people on a board of directors, making their decisions based upon the idea of turn what was once meant for the public good into a for profit business. We were told we could reapply for our jobs, but that only a few positions were available, making the atmosphere that year one of aggressive competitions and smears.
The students knew about this too. Most did not care, and we were supported by a handful of emerging social activists who would someday lead protests on college campuses. And the enthusiasm of the staff was absolutely nil. We stopped caring by October (that is all of us, and not just a few who did so every year). We showed a lot of movies, and handed out numerous worksheets copied from the accompanying workbooks that went with the bland, boring textbooks. There were never enough of these for a full class, and so we were forced to Xerox them–about 125 for four classes, and another 50 for the other subject all of us also taught.) Over this time the school collapsed into complete chaos. There were days when one of my classes, with more than 30 registered students, saw zero show up. Other times it was two. Kids were in the hallways literally shooting dice, with cash being slapped down on the filthy floor. Others were having sex or getting high in the stairwells. There were fights every day.
I once witnessed an administrator walking by a dice game with a clipboard in his hand. As he approached, and the students hesitated, he raised the clipboard to cover his eyes, then kept right on walking (he would be losing his job too). I had been out in the hall, chatting with them. Two of them were my students from another class period during the day. I was having fun with them, jeering them, and subtly offering educational tips and tales to feel like I was still doing my job.
One time, near the end of the school year, two teachers actually got into a fistfight in the hallway. I was coming up to a crowded circle of students, screaming and rooting different people on. There were so many fights that this could almost be ignored, like the crashing of the surf on the beach. That wasn’t me, however, more interested than outraged, I suppose. When I wandered up I realized that it was two Math teachers who had openly trashed one another for years. I had no respect for either of them, one a frightened mess who never faced the class and scribbled through entire lessons on the board. He gave instructions with his back to them. None of them learned anything.
The other was the school basketball coach, a big, lumbering guy of limited intelligence, who had sat on the bench his senior year in college, thus making him perfect for the job. His class consisted of exaggerated personal stories about when his high school team challenged a future NBA star, and he had blocked a shot, and rage-filled impatience over the fact that no one turned in their homework. He spent much of his class time bullying the students. Sometimes kids would take a swing at him. Sometimes they connected.
One of the students asked me, “Hey, Mr. -? Who you think goin’ win?”
I looked, sniffed, shrugged, then shook my head. “I don’t care,” I responded, making like an administrator and walking on.
I told all of this, and more, to the press. I was quoted, repeatedly, in a number of articles from the series on school violence they were doing, as “a teacher who chooses to remain anonymous,” although most people at work knew that it was me. But no one blamed me. Everyone, even the administration, seemed to understand. They took it out in other ways, on other people, blaming someone new every day.
This story is not only related to teaching, of course, but has become an important part of our daily lives, seeking to escape our own guilt by pointing at other people, and anonymous sources, perhaps even secret societies that run things from underground, like mole people in early 20th century fantasy novels. And this blame, this anger over the too-rapid pace of our everyday lives, spreads out everywhere, until we simply wish to lock ourselves inside our gated (or walled off) homes, and take out our frustrations on the only people left to blame: our families.