September is the time I miss teaching the most. It is the time when hope reigns, or at least makes itself felt. It is the time when students vow to try harder, teachers bring summer ideas for their classrooms, stay until after their own family’s dinner hour to set up something new. Some years this feeling continues until June, with parents who help out, families who pitch in and a good principal. It will never be perfect. It will never be precise. Teaching is an art, learned the way all arts are learned through trial and error, instincts honed over time, and with practice. I have been reading Mike Rose’s book The Mind At Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker. I see similarities in our struggles as classroom teachers and aides with those who work in service professions: waiting tables, clerking in an office, serving as a receptionist, or delivering packages. In many ways teachers do all those things, and at times, do them simultaneously. In addition to organizing a classroom, we teach thirty to forty human beings, many times in five different classes each day. By the afternoon we have seen between one hundred and fifty to two hundred students. We have guided them to their desks, laughed with them while standing by their chairs as they devise a marvelous question, picked up books for them at the library, kept track of their work and participation. In some classrooms we play music to welcome them, in others we are at the door, shaking hands, commenting on new hairstyles, a great game the night before, a fine essay written for college admissions. After they have left we have sat at our desks grading papers.
We are the receptionist, waiter, delivery person, even food preparer some days. All the time we worry about the child who has missed school or the one who had suddenly started throwing things in the back of the room, not hurting anyone, with an anger that has come on all of a sudden.
Much of what we do is working with our hands. Not the reading and preparing of the texts or mathematics problems or historical maps. Not the investigation of new Internet possibilities in science or geometry we can use in the classroom if we have the technology resources. Those are done in the late night hours after parent meetings and grading and planning for the next day. Investigating is done after our own children have fallen asleep.
Once that first bell rings we are moving about: in the hallways, among small groups or individual students working on their their projects. We are bending, setting a hand on someone’s shoulder, using the sense of touch and sight and listening—constantly listening—to create a room that creates order out of chaos. We build in quiet, silence, we build in talk and tough conversations.We know the decibel level that makes a room unproductive and we know the level of dialogue and story telling and laughter that means creativity and collaboration are taking place. We present work on paper, on an overhead, using a smart board or time on the computers in the lab down the hall. We are handling equipment, moving it from our room to the teacher down the hall between classes. We are delivering items, hefting books or science materials into the trunks of our cars.
This is a good thing– this physical connection to the school where we live and work. To be multi skilled is to do the heavy lifting with our arms and shoulders, and with our hearts as we listen to stories of survival our students tell in the quiet of the afternoon after school is over.
It dawned on me, after reading another column about teachers and their weaknesses, about schools and their inability to turn around the poverty gap on their own, that teachers are viewed as “mere workers” by those who claim to be reforming them. Maybe it is a class bias, not so much against the kids we work with, but against us, because we are in the trenches, are literally sweating it out in rooms with no air conditioning in September and June. We are getting our hands dirty going through the store rooms, the lunch tables, of our buildings. We are paid low wages compared to teachers in other countries: 26th in average pay to compared to teachers in industrialized countries. Those who are the most critical of public school teachers are dismissive of our voices, our needs, our back breaking days. We are workers and workers are to wait on those who are in power. Contrary to countries in Europe and Asia where teachers are revered, we are scorned in many circles. At educational conferences I have had young teachers tell me that their friends, parents and relatives are horrified they have decided to “merely teach”.
Arne Duncan, Bill Gates and Barack Obama went to elite high schools. I wonder how their teachers were viewed, how they were treated, how they were paid. I would guess they were respected in a way much different from the treatment of teachers in the poorest parts of our country. I would guess they were even given credit for all the jobs they held.
I see here, in Minneapolis an administration that is regimenting teachers as much as it is regimenting children. When that happens, you have to ask yourself, in whose interest is it to do this? In whose interest is it to deny music and art and recess and physical education to young growing bodies and minds? It is in the interests of those who need service workers, who need low paid help, who need individuals who will be told what to do and will not question or fuss. This may sound Marxist and that is okay, as Marx was a remarkable philosopher. By using canned curriculum, standardized measurements and coercive supervision, those who have power can be served, waited on, labored for and taught. Include teachers in the group that works with their hands.
We teachers are among these workers. As for me, I am proud to be one of Mike Rose’s people who do intelligent work. I worry about what is becoming of our city, when teachers are viewed with a lack of understanding, support and interest. Many who think they understand what is going on consider themselves progressive, even enlightened. I believe they are misguided liberals who cannot see class bias when it is in their own city, and at the same time who believe they get it. It is a tough thing to do, to tackle the biases implicit in one’s view of the world. I struggle with it all the time. I have begun to be better at spotting it, and I believe anti working class bias is alive and well in some of the most liberal areas of the city.
So it is September. I miss the students. I miss my fellow teachers. I even miss the kids at the door when I come in who are discussing the latest party they went to, who are challenging each other with extravagant stories. I miss the life in every hallway, every classroom, every office in the building. It is impossible to explain to someone who has not taught, what the day is like, the frenetic life in those seven or eight hours. It is impossible to convey the exhaustion. I have wanted to make clear what it means to do this work yet I am not sure who wants to truly listen any longer, who truly wants to know. After all, we are just those “people who work with our hands,” right?