Monday, February 20, 2006

This Is Disrespect

It's not the investment banker at a friend's friend's party badgering you about what you make, what you make, about the shoddy return on the $125,000 investment you made in undergraduate education... And it's not the commenters on various edu-blogs who accuse you of unmitigated greed when you suggest you should be paid more for a career that requires post-graduate study and 60-hour (minimum!) weeks to do it right... Or the other ones who scoff at your efforts, label you a "failure" or a "droid," comparing the skill set required to raise student achievement with the skill set necessary to snake a toilet... And it's not the people who act impressed when you say you are/were in Teach For America but look bored as hell and embarrassed for you if you omit the TFA and just say teacher...

No, it's here. They're in your living room, and you're all drinking wine, these people you've known since you were 1, long-time friends of the family, you've slept-over at their homes, ridden bikes with their kids, built forts in various backyards, those sloping, rocky backyards of your privileged suburban childhood. They're visiting and they'll take you out to dinner later, but first they're asking about your job and your career, and you're trying not to be on the defensive, because these aren't bad people, you like them a lot, actually, but every question they ask and every comment contains at dig at you and what you do and you find yourself explaining and defending more than you should, more than should be necessary.

They thought you were in a "management" position at your school, assumed it because you'd been there a while and "management" should be an ultimate goal.

They want to know what's next. Or are your career plans just like [mutual acquaintance with no career plans].

They want to know how long you think you're really going to keep doing this. When will you be a principal? When will you move on to university?

Speaking of, they want to know when you're going back to school.

It's not the words, it's the assumptions behind them. It's the assumptions that carries the disrespect. It's the assumptions that undervalues what you are doing, implies rather strongly you should be looking upward and onward, looking past. They don't mean ill by it, and in fact, they probably mean the whole thing as a compliment: We respect you so much, we find it odd you are content with so little.

The other forms of disrespect are fine; they come from small-minded fools who have made up their minds with insufficient evidence. It's this kind that leaves you sucking wind. It's here, in the clear message that you should be doing more important, more impressive things. That your current locale ought to be a stepping-stone to greater things, because really, you aren't going to be just a teacher your whole life, are you? It's in this lack of understanding of how important, how critical this work is -- in general, yes, but in under-resourced communities specifically, in the places our society/government has pre-ordained for failure. You want them to show you what else you should be doing. What else is as clean and powerful as this?

Just a teacher. Do this and then become a principal. Do this and then write Kozol-exposes, or Esquith-memoirs. Do this and then go work at a policy think tank. Do this and then create the latest curricula that can be mandated across entire districts, entire states. Do this and run for school board, leveraging your TFA credentials and connections. Do this and then teach other people how to do this, like you did last summer.

Just a teacher. You wonder if this is what drives so many into the embrace of the charter school movement, the desire to avoid the label and implied settling, the need to define themselves at first blush as fundamentally more. Are they still teachers, or are they KIPP Associates?

Just a teacher. You cannot ignore them really, or write them off because they are well-intentioned, well-educated, well-traveled and successful. They are an accurate cross-section of what it means to be all those things in America. They like that you're doing this, but if you keep doing it, there will come a point where they shake their heads in little sad side-to-sides, wondering why you lacked the ambition to reach for something greater.


Anonymous Jeri said...

I was once told "If you want to make a lot of money, move around, but if you want to make a lot of difference, stay put."

I believe it, having been at my school longer than any other teacher.

But you know, it never was about what they were going to think of you. It's what you know about what you do, and it's about what the kids think of you -- years later.

Hang in there; I recognize that feeling; I agree with you it is demeaning both to assume what they assume and to have to refute it. Skip it. Smile and nod.

1:29 PM  
Blogger foxjaws said...

I hear you. I was always appalled at the assumption that teaching was a stepping stone towards greatness in administration. People find it hard to believe that you "just" want to teach. That's it. But that's everything.

5:00 PM  
Blogger Caroline said...

They're idiots; roll your eyes inwardly and change the subject. As a non-teacher, I'm in awe of teachers, and it's not because I'm wondering why they're not more ambitious. It's the most important job I can think of, especially working with kids whose lives and futures you can truly change.

6:02 PM  
Blogger Alexis Walker said...

Most people--even spouses of teachers, if they aren't teachers themselves--have no idea what we are doing. Yet everyone can remember some teacher who made a difference, and I'm willing to bet they think that particular teacher is still out there somewhere teaching, just the way Mom and Dad are always and forever your parents.

7:20 PM  
Anonymous Lori Jablonski said...

I made the decision to take the plunge and go into teaching months before my 20th high school reunion. I arrived at the event not sure if I was going to come clean that I was on the verge of chucking my very important sounding work as a public policy advocate (ok, ok...I'll just say it: I was a lobbyist) to re-enter the world we were about to spend the next five or six hours drunkenly mocking. I had avoided all earlier reunions, convinced their only purpose was to demonstrate to the cool crowd that unlike them my life did not peak in high school. But the 20th drew me in. Marriage, divorce, business success, business failure, good kids, doofus kids...we all had been living real lives; surely the old high school trips would be gone. Yet, I was still reluctant to admit to the teaching thing...obviously I need to impress with my bitchin' lifestyle and impressive career. Teaching just sounded so ordinary, so mediocre.

I'm not sure if there is anything more melancholy than gussied-up, cocktailed-out soon-to-be 40-year-olds slow dancing to Journey and Styx in a mirrored hotel ballroom. Dancing led to commiserating and then the whole taking stock of our lives thing. That's when I confessed...I hated my job and was trading it in for a classroom. I expected pity, maybe some nods to my bravery, perhaps even polite contempt. But then a funny thing happened. One, two, three...honestly I lost count...of my fellow alums quietly approached and asked me how I was doing it. The thought seemed almost taboo...too inconceivable to utter out loud, but they wanted out too. If only they could walk away from the very lucrative but unfilling corporate and legal careers they had staked out...If only their husband or their wives would understand...If only they didn't have such a monster mortgage...If only their kids weren't in private schools...

Fast forward six years later. Honestly, the hit to my lifestyle has been much more pronounced than I expected, something that I'm getting used to, but not always easy to take. And I still miss real lunches, dressing up in cute suits and being able to get certain muckey-mucks to return my phone calls. But I've never been happier in my life...I go to work every day knowing that it means something in a very tangible way and that I'm pretty damn good in the classroom. The teenagers I spend my days with are smart, funny, lovable, engaging, frustrating, enfuriating, heartbreaking...I love them and I love what I do. I don't recall ever really thinking that in the years I worked "shaping" public policy-making.

7:50 PM  
Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Yep, we get the, "But you're too talented/educated/smart/creative to be a teacher..." speech right at the same time people decry the quality of students who go into teaching.

I've been asked a million times why I'm not an administrator. Not very good at kissing up, for starters. Enjoy the give and take with students too much.

But why feel guilty? It may be so 60s of me, but it's about more than the prestige.

8:37 PM  
Anonymous Lori Jablonski said...

By the way, beautiful line: "What else is as clean and powerful as this?"

8:48 PM  
Anonymous He Who Can't said...

How about "just a hedge-fund manager?" Don't fool yourself- they may have money, but either they have an inkling into how empty their careers are and hate themselves, or worse- they don't. Also, think about how many great people you've met whose parents were teachers. And then think about how many utter worthless douchebags you've met who have rich parents. And then enjoy this week off, it's part of the job.

10:53 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...


Thanks for the awesome post. I wonder about the why of it all. Why have we arrived at this point where it takes so much courage to say I want to serve the next generation? Why doesn't it take courage to say I won't serve? Is this leftover M. Friedman/ R. Reagan era garbage? Or is it too much of the apple-on-desk, cute-bulletin-boards, puffy-sweater-pledge-allegiance-school-ma'arm-ness that undercuts the importance and the seriousness?


This week of is the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life. Without question.

1:13 PM  
Blogger Mike in Texas said...

I've been repeatedly asked by my family if I'm going to be "just a teacher" all my life, and isn't it a shame that with my brains I could be doing something else, and why would my wife (who is a vetinarian that I put through school) want to spend her life with "just a teacher"

These are the people I make sure I call at work everyday during the summer hehe.

3:48 PM  
Blogger Johanna said...

Amen. I think I'm going to forward that article to my parents and to my boyfriend (who, oddly enough, is a teacher).

4:21 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Reading posts like these really uplifts. As someone considering entering the field, I'm glad I'll have good company in the teacher's lounge.

10:10 PM  
Blogger ms. frizzle said...

Hmmm... I know what you mean, I've heard a comment like this from time to time... but I must know the right people, because for the most part, people respond really well to what I do for a living and respect the fact that I've been doing it long enough now that it's clearly a career, not a dalliance. One thing that helps me is that I bring up my going-on six years of teaching before anyone else does, and make a little joke about "bringing the average up" - which kind of highlights to people that this is a tough career that not too many people stick it out in, at least not in NYC... that earns respect... then again, my particular school situation might satisfy people's need for "ambition" in the workplace.... I dunno. In any case, of all my friends who graduated at the same time as I did, I am the only one who has really built a history in one career, one position, and that gets respect, too, from people who are still trying to figure it all out.

8:27 PM  
Blogger Polski3 said...

Very well said. I have nothing to add to the great comments of the previous commenters.

7:57 PM  
Blogger RLSCO said...

I taught for 34 years. I used to "defend" my job. But I grew to learn that most people don't want to hear it. So I started saying, "I just do it for the vacations", or "I'm in it for the money", or "How stupid were you when it came to a career choice? You work much harder and longer that I do and all you get for it is money". This type of nonsense makes them change the subject. I don't need their approval for what I do. All the people I respect most are teachers (certainly not administrators) and they are the only ones who will ever understand.

6:19 AM  

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