“I never used to think about retirement,” the public education teacher said. “I thought I would teach forever. Now though, thinking of retirement is the only thing that keeps me going.”
This teacher—I’ll call her Miss P, short for Miss Pedagogy—has been teaching since 1985. She has a master’s degree in her field and has completed independent study with experts of international acclaim. Long ago she lost track of how much money she has spent on her own continuing education. In addition to those costs, Miss P spends an average of $1000 a year on her classroom. Much of that money goes to student needs and resources that enhance learning.*
“I love teaching. I love my students; I even like most of them,” Miss P said, chuckling the way you do when something used to be funny, but isn’t anymore. Her attempt at levity flattened as she continued. “But I can’t do it anymore. I just can’t.”
Those who know the life of teachers could guess possible reasons.
- Declining benefits, lengthening school year, stagnant wages.
- Shortened lunch and planning periods, increased class size.
- More and more assessments, less and less time to teach an ever expanding curriculum.
Indeed, these things are frustrating for Miss P, but not frustrating enough to make her leave the career she loves.
She talked about how expectations of parents and administrators have changed over the years. In fact, let’s just think for a minute about what we, the consumers of public education, expect from our teachers.
- Come to school early or leave late in order to tutor our children.
- Sponsor clubs and organizations relevant to their subject (or to our student’s interest).
- Take our money for tickets and concessions at our children’s extracurricular sports events.
- Attend at least some of these sporting events.
- Chaperone school dances.
- Attend competitions such as Science Fair, History Day, Band Contests, and Odyssey of the Mind.
- Take our children on field trips that exceed the limits of the school day.
- Take our children on overnight, multi-day learning excursions. (Miss P, like many of her colleagues, has taken kids on international trips during her own spring break.)
- Meet us for parent conferences when our work schedule allows—typically long before or way after school hours.
- Put our children’s needs before their own families’ needs (see 1-9 above).
Oh. We also expect them to take a bullet for our kids if some maniac comes onto the campus brandishing assault weapons. And do you know what? I am positive that nearly every teacher I know would do just that. Miss P certainly would. I’m not saying they should; I’m just saying educators are generally loving people who would instinctively give their last full measure of devotion to protect children in their care.
But, I digress.
It’s not the growing frustrations listed above or the increased expectations that have caused Miss P to spruce up her resume and scan websites for job openings. Nope. It’s something else.
The Bigger Problem
“The thing is,” she told me, “no one ever gives me the benefit of the doubt anymore. Not the parents, not the administrators, and certainly not the school board. There’s this assumption that I’m going to harm the children in some way; that I am the enemy, not the advocate, of students. It’s exhausting.”
THAT’s what’s exhausting? Well, yeah, and all that other stuff too. But could it be that the blatant disrespect of the teaching profession is in fact the cause of the other more visible problems?
Here’s a thought: how about we just go ahead and treat our teachers like the professionals they are? The average teacher is an enthusiastic expert in her field, not a mediocre bureaucrat manipulating the system of tenure. Despite her dwindling wages, she works long hours and attends school events after work and on weekends and (get this) loves doing it. Really. Take a minute and think of all the educators you know who are awesome. By far the majority, right? Right. So, can we please stop talking about the occasional incompetent teacher as if she is the norm? She’s not.
The Beginning of a Solution
There is a lot wrong with public education in the US. Both staff and faculty deserve higher pay, better benefits, and more resources. Schools need more teacher’s aides, cafeteria workers, and office staff. We need smaller class size, more recess, better access to technology. We also need more school bus drivers and we need an additional adult to ride the bus to insure the safety of the children and the driver. Y’all think about this: there are often 50 or more students on a school bus with ONE–1!–adult. I cannot imagine supervising that many kids by myself in a stationery space. But DRIVING?! Unreal. And yet, it is still the safest way to get to school by a long shot. I’m telling you, these people are superheroes!
It can be overwhelming to think of all we need to do to make US public schools as effective as they should be. It’s a lot. But look, we can start right now–this instant. Right now, today, we can begin giving our teachers the benefit of the doubt; let’s start saying “I believe you,” “I trust you,” “Thank You,” and “I’d like to help.” Seems to me that’s the least we can do for those who daily give their lives—both literally and figuratively—for the children of this nation.
*Some of Miss P’s money goes to cleaning supplies. At her school, the maintenance staff does little more than trash collection in individual classrooms (budget cuts, you know). Plus, her school is infested with mice. She’s complained for years, for more than a decade actually, about the ubiquitous mouse poo that testifies daily to the pests’ presence. Until she gets an active response, Miss P will try to keep the room as clean as possible in an effort to deter those furry little delinquents. All in a day’s work.
This post was originally titled “Teaching: Miss P’s Retirement Rationale” and was published in 2014. As of 2022, Miss P has not retired. She made it through a school year and a half online, and is back in her classroom, persisting in spite of it all. She still thinks about retiring every single day.