Saturday, March 28, 2009

Speaking Out for Teaching...

In my current job I travel the state and talk to people about teaching. My official title is "Teacher Ambassador." Occasionally, I have to arrive at my point of presentation the night before, usually because it's too far away for driving in the morning and then speaking to a group and pretending I have any brain cells firing. Such was the case this week when I drove toward a college campus three hours from my house. Knowing I had to be there at 8 AM, and knowing I didn't want to get up at 4 AM to do it, I drove there the afternoon before and had the pleasure of eating in a local restaurant near the campus.

Well, I guess I could call it pleasurable. I always feel a little odd, eating alone. On this night, I felt the need to tell the hostess, "Table for one. I'm traveling." Lord knows, she didn't give one hoot. But I felt I had to explain lest she consider me a loser. This particular restaurant was one of the Southern down home cooking variety, and I ordered beef stew, mashed potatoes, fried okra, and biscuits. By the time my sweet tea and biscuits came, I didn't give one hoot that I was sitting alone either. I settled in for the feast.

And then it happened. Just as I pierced the first hot, just-fried piece of okra with my fork, I witnessed this exchange between two women sitting at tables across the restaurant from each other:

"Hey, Louise! How ya doin'? How's Bobbie Lou?"

"Hey, Edna! I'm good! Bobbie Lou's a sophomore in college now. She's going into teaching. I tried to talk her out of it, but she feels drawn to it."

I don't know what happened just then, but when I came to my senses that piece of okra was on the floor two tables up the aisle. The lady at the table beside me looked at me like I was crazy, but all I had to offer was "oops."

Okay, so here I am, a Teacher of the Year for a state that has almost 100,000 teachers, and I feel that it's my responsibility to set Louise straight. I must stand up and make a speech, I thought. At the very least I need to pull up a chair, sidle up beside her, and explain THINGS.

But I was frozen. I was playing out the scenario in my head. I would just walk over, say "may we talk a minute?" and then sit down with a complete stranger. That seemed, well, weird. Would I introduce myself? Would I say "I'm the Teacher of the Year in this state" and then she would say, "So what?"

I kept telling myself that these people came out for a nice dinner and probably didn't anticipate sharing it with a complete stranger. But that didn't help. I still felt the urge to go do my teacher-ly duty...I was just about to push my chair back...and then I stopped in my tracks. What stopped me was that I was dressed for traveling, and I was looking pretty grungy. I didn't want to represent my state's teachers that way. I was afraid I'd give her ammunition - "Well, honey, you can't even afford good clothes." Hmmm... So Louise never found out why it's a good thing Bobbie Lou is going to be a teacher. But now she'll know...if only she'll read these words:

Five Reasons Bobbie Lou Will Be Happy As A Teacher

1. Okay, let's talk about the money. I'm pretty sure that was your first line of fire when it came to encouraging Bobbie Lou to pursue another profession. And I get it. Of course, teachers should be paid more. And so should law enforcement officers, and firefighters, and soldiers. And as long as celebrities and professional athletes are being paid obscene salaries, and CEO's are getting bonuses that are more than I'll make in a lifetime, I will argue that our society has things a little mixed up. But the point, Louise, is that Bobbie Lou will be fine. Don't forget in order to even compare a teacher's salary to the rest of the world you need to add two extra months - most salaries you hear about are based on a ten month salary schedule. And there are opportunities for more money in the summer - there's summer school and consultant work available for teachers who may tutor or present workshops. Oh, I do get it, Louise. But I can tell you that I've survived fine on my salary. I even did okay as a single parent for nine years. I don't own a yacht and I don't travel to fancy destinations. But I do okay. And all the money in the world can't give me what I get back (see #2).

2. I know it's cliche to even talk about "making a difference." But are there any other professionals who shape the future of the world like teachers do? Is there any other profession with such a hold on the social inequities and injustices we see in our communities? And besides your parents, who in fact made you who you are today, Louise? I suspect it was a teacher. Wouldn't it be amazing if Bobbie Lou could be that person for someone? Or for many someone's?

3. Being a teacher means working in buildings full of laughter. Not only is the soundtrack of a teacher's life full of childlike laughter but also includes the sounds of chorus concerts and football game cheers...all the things you loved in school yourself, Louise. Bobbie Lou will be able to participate in the real-life version of High School Musical and The Cat in the Hat. She'll witness first love and first heartbreak and children trying to determine who they are and who they will be. Her life will be full of stories that will entertain her entire family, including you, for generations to come.

4. Bobbie Lou will work side by side with friends for life. Being elbow to elbow in the trenches with committed educators who feel the same way about kids is a job satisfaction that many can never experience. If you're skeptical, just go visit a faculty meeting in a school. You'll feel the air of "we did it - we made it through one more day together for these kids." You'll want to be a part of it yourself. I always tell teachers that one of the best parts of teaching is working with our best friends. Something about planning lessons together, hanging out around a copy machine and working through the stresses of teaching together, and listening to each other's teacher stories makes a group bond. You'll be glad Bobbie Lou has such a strong support system at work.

5. And last, Bobbie Lou will pull from many areas of expertise to teach her students. But she also will pull from the lessons that she learned from her first teacher - you. She will model all of the morals and values that you taught her, from kindness to empathy to love for other human beings. In a way, Louise, that makes you a teacher, too.

Louise, I hope you'll reconsider and support Bobbie Lou's decision to be a teacher. There is, of course, no finer profession.


Adam said...

Do you want to come give this speech to my mom? See is always asking me if I still want to be a teacher. I know the pays not great but Im not becoming a teacher to get rich. Its for the same reason that I spent 4 years in the US Navy. I want to help people. So thank you for giving me some good explanations to tell people when they ask why I want to be a teacher.

Donalyn Miller said...

When I was working through my teacher education program, my mother stuffed my mailbox with brochures for pharmacy school. She thought being a teacher was a waste. I think she has changed her mind when she hears my stories and sees how happy I am to be working with kids.

Can I add that starting the day with the Pledge of Allegiance makes me teary-eyed, and that working in a building with its own library is a special thrill for me?

No matter the challenges, the worst day of my teaching career will be the last day I get to do it.

Thanks for this marvelous post. The next time you need an okra-throwing partner, count me in!