What do you do for a living?
When my husband and I answer this question, we get opposite reactions. I’m a freelance classical clarinetist, so it’s likely the person asking the question has no idea how to respond, having never met a freelance musician. He’s a high-school Spanish teacher, so it’s likely the person asking the question feels no need to respond: Having been through high school, he considers himself an expert. I end up struggling to describe a strange hodge-podge lifestyle, while my husband barely gets a follow-up comment.
As efforts to strip teachers of their rights gain headway across the Midwest, I’m starting to think that most Americans don’t actually know any teachers. Growing up in an affluent suburb of Chicago, the only one I knew was my mother, who taught a first-year class of Hebrew at our synagogue. Public school teachers? My parents certainly didn’t run with many in their crowd. In high school, as my classmates and I bandied about ideas about our future careers, law, medicine, business and the arts figured highly, but teaching was never mentioned.
Strange. We grew up in an excellent district led by powerful, influential mentors. We acknowledged their impact in graduation speeches and tearful goodbyes as we went on to attend top schools across the country. Yet their profession didn’t figure as a player on the stage of our futures. It wasn’t until I met my future husband that I started “seeing teachers,” like the bumper stickers that implore drivers to “see motorcycles.” I’m sure it had a lot to do with our immediate connection, but it was suddenly attractive, and even sexy, to talk to a young man who was interested in dedicating his life to helping kids learn. It was also exotic.
Among our crowd here in the Twin Cities, my husband is still an anomaly. Our corporate friends look at him and sigh enviously every summer, “How long do you get off again?” To which he always replies, “Hey, you can be a teacher. What’s stopping you?” They change the subject, ask for a “teacher story.”
If you don’t hang out with teachers, these might be unfamiliar. Here’s my favorite: At parent-teacher conferences a few years ago, a father showed up at my husband’s table to talk about the progress of his twin boys in Spanish class. My husband frankly remarked that they weren’t performing up to their abilities. The father laughed and replied, “That’s probably my fault. I always told them foreign languages weren’t worth a shit.”
Hey, you can be a teacher too!
According to bloggers, media hosts and some government leaders across the country, it’s a cake job with ridiculous benefits, endless vacations, and great hours. Over the radio I heard a Tea Party protester in Chattanooga read from his sign: “Fifty thousand unemployed Tennesseans would love to have your job.” Interesting concept: current teachers — lazy, complaining, greedy — should bow out so that a new batch of more appreciative workers can be plugged into their places. Who would say such a thing if doctors were the subject in question, or pilots, or even musicians? My husband spent five years getting a teaching degree, four months studying abroad and two years getting a master’s degree, and the public assumes he can be replaced like a cog in a machine.
What’s stopping you from becoming a teacher?
I’ll tell you. I know plenty of parents who tire of their teenagers in a matter of minutes. Try engaging a 15-year-old at 7:50 a.m. Now do it with 34 other 15-year-olds in the room. Now do it all day long.
My husband asked our corporate-type friends if they came home from work tired; not a one answered yes. They admitted that their jobs were neither mentally nor physically strenuous. They mentioned how much downtime they had built into their workday. By the time they get to work in the morning, my husband has already put in two hours. Those who mention that teachers are done by 2:30 p.m. seem to forget that they make up for it on the other side. He gets to sit down for a 30-minute lunch, but that’s it. And he comes home drained — he’d go to bed earlier if it weren’t for the endless grading of papers.
If it’s so bad, then why is he doing it?
A week ago, my husband was interviewed by a student teacher. She asked, “What do you do to motivate yourself on the days where you just don’t feel like teaching?”
“I don’t have those days.”
“No, you know, on the days where you don’t want to go in to work. Those days.”
“Sorry, but I don’t have those days. Ask my students.” Two of his students were in the room listening. They confirmed it.
I can confirm it too. His alarm goes off at hours any musician would call obscene. He’s never pressed snooze, never stayed in bed moaning about going to work, hates calling in sick and would be totally fine if they added more days to the school year because there’s not enough time to work everything in. He’s in his 14th year. And he’s teaching your kid.
Think you can hang with that sort of crowd? Then go ahead. What’s stopping you?
Rena Kraut performs, writes, and lives in Minneapolis.