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The First-Year Teaching Blues

My first job out of college was as a waitress, at Serendipity 3 in Boston’s Fanueil Hall. I didn’t know it then, but I was training for parenthood: learning to juggle the needs of many people, all of whom thought they took priority.  Primary difference between waitressing and parenting? Mostly my kids aren’t drunk when I serve them dinner.

I waitressed all summer after graduation because I hadn’t gotten a high-school teaching job. I’d done my student teaching, gotten my certification, sent out job letters, gone on interviews. I’d hoped to get a job where I’d done my student teaching but they’d hired someone with more experience.  And then the Friday before Labor Day weekend, the superintendent’s office called me, offered me a job, and told me to show up for the first day of school.

I had to be there at 7:30; school started at 8:00. That first year, I taught six sections of five different classes, which meant I saw about 125 kids a day, five days a week, The kids were done about 2:40, we had to stay until a little after 3:00.  The school was in a small suburb of Boston, about a 40 minute drive, depending on traffic and how hard I was crying.  I cried every day.

I cried because I was twenty-two and trying to teach kids who weren’t that much younger than I was. On my second or third day, a kid raised his hand and asked me how old I was. Like an idiot I told him and he slouched back in his seat. “I pahtay with people oldah than you,” he drawled (it was Massachusetts, after all. They all had wicked bad accents).

I cried because on my first day a student who I’d met when I was student teaching had raised her hand in response to the very first question I’d asked as a Real Teacher. I had called on her, ready to start shining the beacon of learning into her mind. “Did you color your hair? It’s kind of purple,” she asked.

I had in fact, colored my hair. A delicate shade of aubergine, to be precise. When I hadn’t gotten a teaching job and figured I was looking at life as a career waitress/aspiring novelist, I thought what the fuck. But that’s the thing about teaching, right? The scrutiny of the Oscar red carpet ain’t got nothing on a roomful of vaguely bored teen-agers. They’re scanning your hair, your shoes, your jewelry, the weird little tuft of hair by your ear, the smudge on your cheek, the weird thing you do with your mouth when you talk.

I cried because the class of mainstreamed special ed kids got in regular fist fights and several of them were taller than I was; one kid threw a desk; another kid hid my chair.  Only after the miraculous Ellie Leveroni (yes, that was her name and she was one of the best teachers in the history of teacher-dom) marched into that classroom on her crepe-soled shoes and said “if you don’t stop being jackasses I will suspend every one of you right this goddamn minute,”  that they shut up—permanently. She looked like an Italian grandmother to me, although I realize now that she was probably not much older than I am now. She could’ve made rocks love Shakespeare, and in some cases, considering those kids, she sort of did.

I cried because one day I called my class a bunch of shitheads, and then promptly locked myself in the teacher’s bathroom, sure that I was a miserable failure. Mrs. Leveroni assured me that she liked to swear once each marking period, “just to keep the kids on their toes.”  I felt better–and I’ve followed her advice ever since.

I cried because I was exhausted. Up at 5:30, drive to work, deal with 125 personalities all day, drive home, read and grade student papers, prepare lessons for the next day, fall into bed.  Rinse and repeat, grinding away at tending to all those students and all their needs. From September to the very end—the sweaty, aching, listen to the sound of the suburban lawnmowers floating in the window end—of June.

It took a week to decompress from all that crying, and by then it was the second week of July; I relaxed for about two more weeks and then by early August the teaching nightmares would start: the dream where I would realize I was supposed to be teaching a class all term but I’d never showed up; the dream where I was lecturing and realized I was naked; the dream where the entire department showed up to observe me and I’d forgotten every word of my lesson; the dream where I talked and talked and no one listened (of course, I have that particular dream now, as well; it features my children in starring roles).

The nightmares signaled that it was time to put together the lesson plans, the work sheets, the research projects, the book lists.

My friends—and the governor of Wisconsin and the commentators on Fox News—say “gosh, you have the summers off.” And I guess I did, sort of. But like every other teacher I knew, I had a summer job: I went back to waitressing, because the cash I earned in tips wasn’t taxed, unlike my princely teaching salary of $22,000. That’s about $40,000 today—before taxes.

I taught high school for four years and by the end, I wasn’t crying every afternoon on my way home; I had amazing teacher moments where the kids would tell me how much they’d learned in my class. But I quit. I had lovely supportive colleagues (Mrs. Leveroni, where are you?) and I was good at what I did, but still, I quit.

Now I’m a college professor, with fancy letters after my name.  I decided that seven years of graduate school and living in Manhattan on a graduate fellowship of $6500 (how did I do it? I don’t know. It can’t actually be done) was easier than teaching public school.

Listening to the nonsense mouthed by Governor Walker in Wisconsin and the Fox fat cats (how much do those blonde Foxies make, do you suppose? Are they paid in make-up?) has reminded me of those teaching days—the smell of chalk, the grimy feel of chalk dust all over my hands, the exhaustion.

I’m still wildly underpaid compared to my peers in the academy—we humanities types never rake in the big bucks the way they do in the business school or the sciences—and probably there are lots of public school teachers who make more money than I do now.

But I begrudge them not one nickel.

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3 Responses to The First-Year Teaching Blues

  1. Suzie March 5, 2011 at 11:02 am #

    Now I’m crying. These people, (governors, Fox broadcasters, etc.) all went to elementary through high school, maybe public, maybe private, I doubt home schooled. They know what happens to teachers. They had at least one amazing teacher. How did they come to this belief that teachers are taking all the money and it’s on their backs, that the budgets must be balanced. Thanks, Deborah.

  2. Poor Princess March 5, 2011 at 9:06 pm #

    Ha! I was also inspired to write my blog about teaching high school today!
    Sounds like quite an experience you had. But isn’t it funny–you went from teaching to . . . teaching??!

  3. Deborah Quinn March 5, 2011 at 9:43 pm #

    @Suzie: you wonder, really, you wonder, how it is that teachers become the bad guys? Jeezuz. And yet even Bernie Madoff (of ALL people) is sitting in prison saying “um, Goldman sachs? no one went to jail? wtf?” yikes.
    @Karen: the thing is I think that teaching college and teaching anything else is qualitatively different, in part b/c the physical demands are less. That five days a week all day long start at dawn and stand up all day…brutal. Like being on a factory floor or a slaughterhouse but without the chainsaw.

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