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Sea of Faith

Maybe you have been in a situation such as the one that I found myself in this weekend.  I was with friends at a get together — shindig, soiree, hootenanny, wingding… call it what you will — and I found myself not only defending myself but also my profession…

While sitting around a campfire, one of the partygoers, who has mentioned this issue before, reiterates some of his feelings about our work: “I don’t know,” he says. “I just don’t think I’m going to ever get over it… how much time teachers have off.” Among other things. Mind you, his wife is a teacher (albeit not in San Jose Unified).

In my head, a number of thoughts are spinning. One of which is the “Really?!?” sketch from Saturday Night Live. A second is the logical response that I would espouse if I was in the mood to spend the time and energy to continue defending the fact that teachers are, in fact, professionals. Instead, I decided to wade into the fray…

Teachers are contractual employees for 186 days of the year (that is, unless we are furloughed). I don’t recall when not working was the same thing as being “on vacation.” I don’t get vacation time. I barely get sick days and no tell days that I cannot use on certain days. True, I’m not in the classroom fifty out of the fifty-two weeks of the year, but this is not exactly my choice. And I might add, why is it that someone’s anger over working fifty out of fifty-two weeks of the year has to be directed at teachers? That’s like when we ask our students to put their cell phones away and they cry foul. “But he has his phone out!”

Just because I’m not in the classroom as many days of the year as you spend in your office does not mean I am your enemy. And it doesn’t mean I “work” any less. If you would like to be a contractual employee and only work for 186 days of pay, then by all means, march into your boss’ office and demand a pay cut, no vacation, and only occasional sick days (which end up making you work more when you have to plan for them). I am sure your boss would be happy to oblige you doing as much work in less time for less money…

My fellow partygoer continues, “Yes, but you make the same amount I do, and you work a lot less.” Ah, yes, the money argument. Did I mention this man is 28 years old and near the beginning of his career as an architect? I compare his ceiling to mine. If he is a successful architect, he can start his own firm, negotiate contracts for commercial properties or entire complexes of homes. In other words, his salary has no limit. If I am a successful teacher, I will be lucky to make $80,000 a year three decades from now (that’s 2043 for you non-math folks).

Additionally, teachers haven’t even received a cost of living increase in some time, which means when you account for inflation and other increases, that $80,000 has a lot less buying power, especially in 2043 after I have possibly had children and sent them through college. We are in a unique profession where we are constantly forced to think about the hard facts of salary and living in our school community. I won’t lie that I often find myself thinking about having to eventually take a position as an assistant principal, not because I particularly want to, but because I may have to in order to provide for my family and live near the school where I work. I find this a terrible thought when I know there are many excellent teachers in the classroom who realize that they cannot stay in the classroom and have the lifestyle that they deserve and want for themselves and their families.

So yes, I may make as much as you do now, but explain this to my colleagues who find themselves in the middle of their career. While most professionals who are ten years into their careers are enjoying growth and opportunity, we can comfortably say we are slowly moving step-by-step up a pay scale. Yay. And this may sound elitist, but I do believe teachers deserve to be paid more. We are college educated. We do post baccalaureate work. Many of us have masters degrees and are board certified. Yet we are not paid like other professionals who go through similar education and are regarded in the same way. No one complains doctors make too much. No one argues over the salaries of lawyers. And aren’t we as important as lawyers and doctors? When building a society, on what other level of importance would teachers go? Also, who taught them to be doctors and lawyers?

I also have to address the fact that I somehow work less than he does. I may be preaching to the choir here, but it’s obvious teachers have terrible hours. If there is a teacher who honestly only works from 7:30-3:00, then please give me their name, and I will trademark their secret and sell it on a late night infomercial. The idea that our jobs start and stop at the bells is simply absurd. The planning that goes into every lesson everyday for multiple preps is work. The countless times we replay our lessons in our minds and how we constantly think about how to improve them is work. Thinking about our students’ lives and their strengths and difficulties is work.

Waking up in the middle of the night because you had a dream about teaching and you scream, “Yes, we should make team names from literary characters for each period and keep track of points for… well I don’t know yet but this sounds awesome!” is work.

Realizing the depressing fact that you are having trouble reaching a particular student or regretting a conversation you had with a student or even finding yourself moved to tears because you care so much and you want so much for your students but you don’t always find that happens, is work.

And lest we forget, that’s just the curriculum work we do! Let’s add in fair share, supervision, IEPs, 504s, staff meetings, department meetings, PLC meetings, parent-teacher conferences, committees, and the like. Yes, you may build buildings, but don’t you dare forget that you learned how to build those buildings. We build the minds that build the world.

What really gets me most is the idea that everyone has an opinion about me and my profession. You know how much time I spend thinking about architects? None. I don’t think about your career. I don’t know your career. I don’t act as if I do. I don’t care how much money you make. I have no opinions how to best design buildings. I sure don’t offer a solution to the “problem” with architecture. And I don’t make you out to be the enemy. I have never been in an architect’s office, and no architect has ever been in my classroom. No doctors either. Nor lawyers. Nor CEOs. Nor politicians. That is, of course, except for the future architects, doctors, lawyers, CEOs, and politicians who I’ve had the pleasure of teaching.

So please, afford me the same respect I give to you by never pretending to define who you are by your career. I, as many teachers would, invite you into my classroom, into my world. Then maybe you can start to see what I see.

After the party, I was reminded of the poem “Sea of Faith” by John Brehm:

Sea of Faith

Once when I was teaching “Dover Beach”
to a class of freshmen, a young woman
raised her hand and said, “I’m confused
about this ‘Sea of Faith.’ “ “Well,” I said,
“let’s talk about it. We probably need
to talk a bit about figurative language.
What confuses you about it?”
“I mean, is it a real sea?” she asked.
“You mean, is it a real body of water
that you could point to on a map
or visit on a vacation?”
“Yes,” she said. “Is it a real sea?”
Oh Christ, I thought, is this where we are?
Next year I’ll be teaching them the alphabet
and how to sound words out.
I’ll have to teach them geography, apparently,
before we can move on to poetry.
I’ll have to teach them history, too-
a few weeks on the Dark Ages might be instructive.
“Yes,” I wanted to say, “it is.
It is a real sea. In fact it flows
right into the Sea of Ignorance
IN WHICH YOU ARE DROWNING.
Let me throw you a Rope of Salvation
before the Sharks of Desire gobble you up.
Let me hoist you back up onto this Ship of Fools
so that we might continue our search
for the Fountain of Youth. Here, take a drink
of this. It’s fresh from the River of Forgetfulness.”
But of course I didn’t say any of that.
I tried to explain in such a way
as to protect her from humiliation,
tried to explain that poets
often speak of things that don’t exist.
It was only much later that I wished
I could have answered differently,
only after I’d betrayed myself
and been betrayed that I wished
it was true, wished there really was a Sea of Faith
that you could wade out into,
dive under its blue and magic waters,
hold your breath, swim like a fish
down to the bottom, and then emerge again
able to believe in everything, faithful
and unafraid to ask even the simplest of questions,
happy to have them simply answered.

Like Brehm, I did not say any of that around the campfire. I tried to explain in such as way as to protect this guy from humiliation. I tried to explain that teachers often speak of simply being treated as professionals. It was only much later that I wished I could have answered differently.

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