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Think About the Children

August 1, 2010

If you teach, you probably do think about the children. You think about things like planning activities to engage their minds and motivate them. Perhaps you think about how you can better assist them in responding to conflict. Maybe you think about new materials and books that you’d like to use with them. I know I do. However, when I start thinking about going back to school this year, I also begin to feel anxious. My school is in a neighborhood with relatively high poverty and mobility; perhaps not entirely coincidentally, test scores have been steadily slipping. Morale plummeted under our previous leadership–we had a principal who was not merely ineffective as a leader but also unprofessional, and often malicious. There was no sense of professional community because so much energy had been invested in pitting people against one another. For these reasons, and several others, my past year at school was not a good one, it was very stressful. There were a lot of things that happened that infuriated me or left me feeling truly discouraged about continuing in the profession. It may sound like heresy to the non-teacher, but it was difficult to stay focused solely on the children. Now that it’s time to go back I am summoning up the necessary fortitude. Maybe the work environment will be different, more positive, but I am prepared for the possibility that it won’t. I feel conflicted about revealing this. Over the years I’ve gotten the message that teachers are supposed to be cautious about airing grievances or advocating for changes we deem appropriate. A popular rebuttal to an unwanted opinion expressed by a teacher goes something like this: “Hey, can’t you think about the children?”

I’m going to go ahead and state the obvious: teaching requires a good deal of effort. It requires time, resourcefulness, patience and emotional energy. Oh, yeah, and usually some level of investment of personal funds. However, it doesn’t pay particularly well. Most teachers work in the profession because we want to make a positive contribution to society (both present and future) in the daily work that we do. We give so much of ourselves in the job that we do, yet are routinely maligned for asking for anything in return. Our desire to work for the good of others is frequently twisted (notably by members of the popular press) into assumptions that we are somehow bound to a life of uncomplaining altruism. Teachers’ unions are labeled suspect when they advocate for frivolous things like higher pay, or more generous benefits, or better working conditions. Wanting something for ourselves, or for our own families, is equated with “not thinking about the children”.

Working in an urban district is challenging in many different ways. Urban teachers frequently encounter ineffective leaders, and/or inadequate resources, along with unrealistic expectations of how much we can accomplish in a given work day, week, or year. We may have students who aren’t prepared; many do not have parents who read or converse with them at home, much less help them with their studies. Some students have home lives that nearly break our hearts. I have chosen to work in this environment despite, or perhaps because of, these very challenges. I do think about the children and I think they should have teachers who are supported and respected as professionals. I selfishly wish for a harmonious working environment in which teachers and administrators can collaborate while working toward the common goal of educating our students.

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