I Never Felt Old Until My First Job Interview in Twenty Years, Part II

I went home and thought about what had happened in the interview.  I had tried to defend myself during Mr. Charter School’s tirade against veteran teachers. I told him I had excellent test scores, that I stayed in my district for so long because I truly believed the inner city students I taught deserved to have a good teacher, and that I had always kept abreast of new innovations and pedagogy in teaching–on my own time, with my own money. I told him how my friends from college were all amazed when I put off grad school and went into an alternative teaching program to teach kindergarten in an elementary school, how they all told me how lucky the school system was to have me, and how I put so much into teaching those first few years that I never made it back to grad school. I told him how I’ve stayed with teaching, year after year, despite serious discipline problems, lack of supplies, educational quick-fix programs, and the crush of mindless paperwork from people above me making twice my salary who need the paperwork to justify their jobs.   I told him I created my own curriculum because the district’s was sub par.  I told him I have great test scores.

Teacher

More than anything else, though, even more than feeling old, I couldn’t help but wonder: When did I become the enemy? What about all those first year Teach for America teachers, would they be in the same situation as me if they stayed with teaching nineteen years? Will their years of experience be seen as a negative if they try to change schools after so many years? When did public school teachers become The Evil Ones? Yes, there are bad teachers. There are also bad doctors, bad lawyers, bad hairdressers, bad plumbers, and many bad principals and superintendents. Yes, teachers get great vacation time–but we don’t get paid for it. We only get paid for the days that we work, which to me means it actually is a pretty decent salary–but it still isn’t great, and certainly no one goes into teaching for the money. In my state there is no teacher tenure and teachers’ unions have very little power. Since we are a “right to work” state it is illegal for teachers to strike.  I sign a new contract every year.

Charter schools, like the one I interviewed at, may choose their students by lottery, but they can kick them out at any time, especially for discipline. Public schools can’t. We take everyone who walks through the door, regardless of if it’s the first day of school or the last, and we are held accountable for every single one of them, specifically through test scores. One disruptive student can make all the difference in the classroom, and can keep the other students from getting the education they deserve. A good teacher will be able to handle most discipline problems, but there are extreme cases, and administrators are not always willing to assist.  Neither are a lot of parents.

Some years, especially like now when economic times are tough, the classroom can turn into a revolving door of students coming and going throughout the year. Poor families seem to move a lot, and it is not uncommon to have a student enter a classroom who has already attended five or more schools in the current school year, and may only stay a few weeks in your classroom before moving on again. Children come to us whose parents are in jail, are dead, or are on drugs and are being raised by their grandparents or aunts and uncles. They live in one bedroom apartments and sleep on couches with their brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. We take them all, and we teach them, and we love many of them. We are strict, we don’t feel sorry for them, and we give them everything we can. I’m not making excuses, but when did choosing to stick with it and not give up become a bad thing?

For the record, I don’t intrinsically have anything against charter schools.  I was interviewing at one, after all. What I do have a problem with is all the hype, all the articles and stories and news clips about how public education is failing in this country, and more specifically, how teachers are the problem, especially veteran teachers. Bull. I’ve always said, it’s all about the money. Massive amounts of federal funds go to public education and everyone wants a piece of the pie.  If public education is failing then let’s fix it, but let’s start at the top, not down in the trenches with those who are doing the real work.  If more schools become schools of choice, and public schools are merely the schools for those no one wants, what will happen to those children who’ve been dealt a rotten hand in life?  What will happen to our society?  Will we simply raise the white flag and build more prisons instead of schools?

In the end, I decided not to go for that second interview with Mr. Charter School.  I debated going in and giving a killer sample lesson, and defending myself vociferously in our scheduled “extensive interview,” but I knew deep down that I didn’t want to be there.  Instead, I sent a short email apologizing for canceling and telling him I didn’t think I was the person he was looking for.  I decided it wasn’t the school, it was him, and he was someone I didn’t want to work for.  Mostly, I took it as a lesson on not beating myself up over someone’s perception of me based on their own stereotypes.

I’m not ready to mail in my AARP card just yet.  Even with all the cool discounts.

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4 comments

  1. atomsofthought

    “When did public school teachers become The Evil Ones?” My mom was a teacher. I’m a teacher (as you know). The rhetoric has become so bad and so pervasive that I actually wonder sometimes whether I’m the bad guy for questioning the people above me and despairing at all of the challenges you mentioned in your essay. How did we become the evil ones in the wake of a financial catastrophe that had NOTHING to do with us and EVERYTHING to do with powerful people who did either dumb or clumsy things? How on earth does that happen? With teachers being painted as the evil ones, how on earth do we expect to recruit good teachers and keep them around?

    You make really good points. Our salaries are quite good considering that we’re paid for about 9/12 of the year. I wish society understood that we aren’t paid for all of that wonderful vacation. No matter how you say it, it’s like nobody gets it. And nobody gets the work that goes into teaching well. You know as well as I do that to teach well, especially where the need is greatest, often demands the total sacrifice of your personal life to work. The same is true for people in other professions; the difference is that in many of those professions the commitment is generally acknowledged and understood, and nobody questions it.

    Ummm, what else did I want to add? Oh, I know this won’t happen in our current climate, but for years I’ve begged whoever would listen to extend the school year by weeks, a month, whatever. Pay me a little more (or don’t, even), spread whatever unpaid vacation days are left throughout the year. I don’t know. The perception those summers create is part of the problem, though it shouldn’t be. And of course, more importantly, they hurt learning, especially for the poorest in society.

    It’s a thorny problem. I’m a teacher with only five years of experience… But I see what you see, especially that veteran teachers like you are hard to find anymore. I miss their wisdom and experience. I love my age-group and all, but I hate that I HAVE to be surrounded mostly by them and that the profession (or somebody) drove out veteran teachers with all of their experience, and in the process demolished the rich institutional knowledge they accumulated, preserved and passed along to each new generation of teachers.

    OK, I’m done! 🙂

    • Mind Margins

      Thanks for bringing up all your points. I really had to hold myself back or I would have written a book on the subject. This current anti-teacher mood is very strange and hard to take. It seems to be more of a political issue than anything else. When I bring up some of these same points to my friends who have school age children, they are amazed and perplexed. Most are not even aware of all the budget cuts that are going to impact their children next year (and the following year will supposedly be even worse, at least for us here in Texas). Veteran teachers are leaving in droves, and I think it will have an impact. I have always enjoyed mentoring new teachers, and love their energy, zeal, and idealism those first years of teaching, but now I’m seeing most of them leave after the first one or two years. The ones who get picked up by the new charter schools are being run into the ground, too, with long hours and less pay than the public schools. So sad.

      And I’m really getting tired of reading these articles lately about how only the “lowest” college students go into teaching anyway. So insulting!

      I don’t think it will really hit me until school starts that I won’t be back. Despite all the negatives, I really will miss it, especially the students!

  2. atomsofthought

    I’m getting tired of that “lowest” college students thing too… Well, I’m tired of all of it. I hear what you’re saying about the politics… I think a lot of parents individually are happy with their kids’ teachers, but many of them, maybe the ones with the loudest voices, aren’t happy with the system, or more likely, they’re just disengaged and don’t understand what’s happening (in Texas, in particular), which is bad enough. I taught in Texas for most of the last six years and it looks like I may be going back for the next school year (I was going to move to Kentucky to be closer to family… I don’t know if that’s going to work out). Texas public schools educated me. My mom taught in Austin until she and my dad moved to Massachusetts. The budget cuts break my heart, and it breaks my heart even more that the public hardly seems to notice or understand what they entail, especially when these are cuts that actually hit the poor AND the wealthy, not in equal measure, but in real terms nevertheless. So even when the most empowered are about to hurt a bit, there’s no outcry. I don’t get it.

    I’m not against charter schools either, but the problem you just raised of teachers being run into the ground there (and paid less than public school teachers) tells me that in general charter schools may be unsustainable, at least when it comes to educating effectively. There will be exceptions, but I don’t know… I’m worried.

    Well, here’s hoping things pick up. They’re bound to eventually, right? I’m sorry to bring up teaching for you… I’m afraid it’s not the first thing you want to think about these days. We will miss you!

    Take care.

    • Mind Margins

      Don’t be sorry about bringing up teaching. I will always be a teacher. It’s not going to end just because I no longer get a paycheck from the district.

      My only big beef about charter schools is how politicians think they’re the new holy grail of education, because they are successful without spending the money that public education does. They pay their teachers less, however, and can expel any student they want, anytime, for pretty much any reason. Public education takes everyone who walks through the door and is held to the same standard.

      I read a great book a few months ago that you might be interested in, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, by Diane Ravitch. I learned a lot.

      So sorry to hear that things may not work out for you in Kentucky. As Bowling for Soup says, come back to Texas!

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