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Sunday, April 17, 2011

So, You Want To Be A Teacher?

Last week a colleague of mine was drafting a speech that she would deliver to a group of college students planning on going into education.  She asked a simple question of the teachers who crossed her path on the day the speech was to be presented: "What can I say to them that is positive?  I don't feel I can be a cheerleader for education anymore."

I have been personally struggling with this very question.  Well before the mess that Governor Walker made of my career I was questioning the direction of education and the way public education was perceived and portrayed in our society.

Public education has unfairly become an easy target for blame in all societal, economic, and political debates.  Every politician claims that he will be the one to finally "fix" education.  Unfortunately, those politicians are "fixing" education in a way that is more like a puppy in for spaying than an automobile in for a tune-up.

Wrapped up in my colleague's question is a chain of other questions inspired by such an environment.  Why did I go into teaching?  How do I stay positive with my students when I don't feel valued?  Can I still make a difference?  Is it still worth it?

The short answer to the questions above is that I perceived education as valuable to the future, valued in the present, and a worthwhile way to spend a life.  I also understood that I would be making enough to pay my bills and have benefits there for me to help me through the worst times.

Experience has made me aware of both my naiveté and my insight.  It is from this experience I would draw upon to try to inspire future teachers while also doing my best to be honest with them:

What you do to make a living should reflect what it is you value most. 

Education is, indeed, a worthwhile activity.  Regardless of where I actually wound up working I would have personally valued the situations in which my job allowed me to train, teach, and help another human being grow.  I value the story of a life; I know that lives take the most dramatic turns as a response to new information, understandings, and experiences.  Teachers often talk about this as the "light bulb" or "aha" moment.

Teaching can provide a lot of these moments.

I have also learned that I should have gotten out of the academic bubble as soon as I was hired.  It was too easy to focus only on what was happening in my classroom because I believed that the union would take care of the politics, my salary, and my benefits. The union can be helpful but as an uninformed and uninvolved teacher I was implying consent to many policies and practices that I don't agree with.

A teacher must accept that he has little control over what he will earn.  Part of the reason I chose to go into education was that it was supposed to be a guarantee of financial stability.  I chose stability over the potential for excess wealth.  Unfortunately, this choice isn't valid anymore (or is at least far less universal and certain). 

I know that teacher salaries will be cut, and I fear that those cuts will be drastic now that the possibility is there.  I also understand, though, that the people making this choice will have to be realistic as well.  There will likely be some bad years, but unless we do away with public education, salaries will have to provide a living (and hopefully incentives) to dedicated teachers.   

Going into education today means that you have to accept that you will make less than similarly educated peers with equivalent experience.  This is nothing new; I had to accept this as well.  Now, however, you will also have to settle for a much more limited benefit and retirement package.  This means that you have to be more careful in planning medical expenses and retirement benefits.  In other words, this is just one more thing you can't ignorantly let someone else manage for you. 

Remember that you should pick a career based upon what you value most.  I'm reminded of the old saying about marriage: "a person who marries for money will earn every penny."  A profession is like that as well.  If you chose a profession simply because it pays well, you will leave work every day with a full wallet and an empty heart knowing that the next day will be just as unfulfilling.  Can you live with that?

Since February 11th I have had many difficult days.  I have had days where my profession and my person have been misrepresented and maligned.  There are times when the unknowns become overwhelming and I have to withdraw from the fray to restore my sanity and see the bigger picture:  I have always done the best I am capable of with my students and I can be proud of that.  Even with a cut to my salary I will still be living better off than 90% of the world's population.  While I cannot change what is happening in the politics related to my profession, I can still work to change for the better the lives of the students in my classroom.  While "What will happen in my future?" is always an unknown, I always have control over "What will I teach today?"

***** 

I have a bonus piece of advice for future teachers:  seek out the advice of the "senior" members of the staff.  This, in itself, is a political minefield.  However, an experienced teacher you know can be trusted will be your best ally.  They will not judge you harshly for your weaknesses and they will likely confess to their own.  If you are moving to a new town, they will have advice on everything from who is the best mechanic to how to handle that difficult student in third block.  Age does not automatically equate to wisdom or integrity, but those who have all three are worth taking the time to get to know.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Re-Strung Necklace

Poem - Four Views of Your Hands

I
Woven between my fingers,
your essence and
your power. You are
the warp; I am the weft.
When our hands move
we make a pattern
that rivals the rarest
Persian rug.

II
I hear your music and
soul in the clicking keys;
your fingers make deep,
moving currents of your
love on the page.
I am amazed at the
way pain and love can
be conveyed by such a
singular, monotone that
only changes in frequency,
not in quality.

III
With one hand you are
able to control the car;
I hold the other so
that I can distract you
from your driving.
We roll along in ecstasy.

IV
There is wisdom and experience
in your perpetually cold hand;
Rubbing, and kissing only warms
it for a moment. As I trace the
contours and lines around the
nails, I see a flush come to your
face; I know your hand will be
warm for some time now.

Note: This is an old poem. I'm not certain when I wrote it; I do
know it had to be early in my relationship with Colleen. I don't
remember if I shared it with her either. I hope I did.

Viterbo & La Crosse 3/31/11