Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Quality of Life?

I ended this past weekend at a party in Santa Monica, and as the sun cast its late afternoon glow on the fluttering blue table cloths, an autumnal chill hinted at the fast approaching end of summer. I was with friends and former colleagues from a liberal arts-oriented, forward-thinking Santa Monica private school (one of my past teaching incarnations) and could not help but be reminded that school was to start again soon.

I perched myself near a dear friend who has worked at that school for probably more than 25 years, and when he told me he was already back at school, even though there are two weeks remaining in August, I playfully teased him. Then when he asked me when I go back to school, I nearly burst into tears. He saw my sudden distress, took my hand as if to call a truce, and simply said, “It’s a quality of life thing, as you know.” Right, quality of life. I got it immediately.

I had left that sunny private school because I was offered more money at another private school, and since I had left my original post at a public school and taken a large pay cut for the opportunity to teach at the Santa Monica school in the first place, I could not see refusing what amounted to $8000 more per year and a shorter commute. I was again at the crossroads between quality of life and quality of pay, the two fundamental aspects of working life that rarely coincide in the teaching profession, if they do anywhere. After several years teaching in private school, I had returned to public school because I believed union protections and a stable salary, benefit, and retirement package were important, but now that school is about to start again, I think it is time to think about my friend’s searing reminder, “It’s a quality of life thing,” once again.

When I go back to school in a couple of weeks, I will face five classes, that is presuming the powers that be have fulfilled their threat and taken away my auxiliary class, which is an extra class I have taught every year, partially because I need the money, but most of all so I would not have to cover another teacher’s class and manage their behavior problems (I’d have been a sub if I thought I could gracefully handle what other teachers tolerate in their rooms). I will face an average of 34 students in each class, and these will be English students who learn and practice and gain expertise by writing extensively. Most weekends I will face, as I have in the past even with smaller classes, a one or two- foot high stack of paper to read and correct. I also teach two classes in a local private religious school a couple of afternoons a week, and I tutor a couple of kids privately because I have turned my life into the Gordian knot faced by many worker bees: my lifestyle ameliorates the effects of hard work, but I need the hard work to afford the lifestyle. Let me just say that I am working all the time from September to June and the summer thrill of having a real life, of reconnecting with my friends and family for nights at the Hollywood Bowl, for morning dance classes and coffees at The Farmer’s Market, for afternoon strolls along Venice beach, and for scenic drives to Santa Barbara--I could go on--simply and sadly evaporates with the opening bell.

This is not to say that I did not work hard at that sunny private school. In fact I might have worked harder there than I do now, but there is that persnickety “quality of life” question again. Motivation and hard work were not an issue with either the kids or my colleagues; I taught five classes with 18 kids in each class, if that; and I was given time in the day to grade work, answer and make phone calls, and prepare for class. There was even time to talk meaningfully to other teachers with whom I shared an office between classes.

If I had to write college recommendations, I got a day off. When grades were due, we all got a day off to write and proofread narrative reports. We enjoyed trips and school holidays and school-wide forums and other thoughtful and inspiring breaks from what in many schools is deadening routine. I would often spend evenings and weekends at school, but the work was always a pleasure because despite the physical limitations of the school plant--the school did not enjoy the embarrassment of riches the public school district tends to squander--the atmosphere was open and inviting, the technology current. I had to meet more frequently with parents, other teachers, administrators, but most were articulate and intelligent, and the unabashed idealism of some of my colleagues was supported by the school as a matter of course. Conversations were usually engaging, even when frustrating, and my growth as a teacher was as important as the students’ growth. I guess this is the heart of the “quality of life” issue, working in a place that values what you value.

At the public school, at the end of a semester we are to give finals and then are expected to grade them and calculate all the students’ grades over night--hence why many teachers opt to show movies instead of give finals. We write hundreds of college recommendations, but on our own time, and usually over the Thanksgiving break. We have to turn in grades every four and a half weeks, even though students don't get these grades until a few weeks after they are submitted to the office. We are asked to meet with parents who are sometimes hostile towards teachers, and we are expected to deal with students who have no use for school and whose parents don’t seem to care a whit about what happens at school either.

Most important, because public school teachers can be neither praised nor punished and administrators often do not have the time or inclination to perform meaningful and stimulating teacher evaluations, teachers are seen essentially as all the same but for our seniority: interchangeable cogs in a machine. Because of logistical constraints, administrators often think nothing of moving teachers and students around from room to room or class to class, sometimes at the last minute just before the start of a semester; and they expect teachers to adjust to what can feel like seismic shifts without complaint. Sometimes the entire balance of a class is destroyed with the transfer of students from other classes and sometimes teachers have no time to properly prepare for the new classes they have been handed the day before school starts. The only assumption one can make is that no one really expects teachers to do the job they were hired to do; instead the only skill teachers need is the ability to graciously handle what’s dealt them by an often callous and always unwieldy system.

Administrators have been known to treat teachers as if we are ill-intentioned (hence the meeting rule that all participants are to "Presume positive intentions"-- clearly this presumption does NOT come naturally!), and sometimes they treat teachers as if they have no right to be around the very children they are left alone with from the minute they set foot on the job. They don’t like teacher entitlement or cults of personality; instead it often seems as if it is more important that teachers put in the time than work hard to improve the quality of the time they put in.

People often refer to public- school teachers as the "fighters on the front lines” in this daily education “battle,” and the metaphors are not funny or coincidental, especially since budget cuts have shown that teaching positions are not considered as sacrosanct as bureaucratic sinecures in other parts of the District. In addition to the hammering we teachers take for test scores and student performance, the subtle and not so subtle messages about how we are valued throw into question why we do what we do, especially when the structure in which we work seems so contradictory to the task.

Yes, the improved quality of their writing shows that the kids learn in my classroom and they all thank me for working hard for them and "fighting the good fight." They also return to school to report the joy of their having been excellently prepared for college and life in general. And, yes, all that is "rewarding," the word we use as the ultimate consolation prize for all we put up with, to say nothing of our not having had a raise in eight years.

But clearly what lies at the heart of "quality of life thing" my friend mentioned is the shared values of everyone involved in the enterprise of educating kids. Unfortunately, as long as a public school system promotes and punishes its workers and its students uniformly; and approaches innovation, if you can call it that, from the negative point of view; or uses NO! more than YES!; or expects the worst or at least demands the mediocre; and in all its endeavors is usually downright obstructionist, public school teachers will continue to inure themselves to the demoralization in order to keep the comfort of job security. They will continue to live on those intangible "rewards" that other professionals who do equally "rewarding" things usually get paid very well for. And maybe most important. they will work towards a comfortable retirement that is often short lived because "quality of life" was just not an important enough consideration.


  1. Well, Pam, I didn't mean to set you off, but I guess I did. I will be more careful in my choice of words (just kidding.) I love this and think it identifies the core dilemma between teaching in the public sector and the private. On the other side of the coin, as you mention, we are working our asses off as well, with no guaranteed retirement benefits. But the day-to-day pleasure of working in a functioning school, with colleagues and most importantly, students, who want to be there, is really wonderful. I am excited to return, now restored by the summer, and looking forward to making a difference in kids' lives again. My advice to you is assign shorter papers, dance more, and make a greater commitment to enjoying life during the school year. "Working's highly over-rated, don't you agree?" The greatest task that faces most teachers, including you and I, is self-care. If we aren't inspired and in touch with joy, we can't do the work. I keep looking for new ways to define the gig so I can keep good boundaries and not get overwhelmed. It is a walk of power, but every year, I get a tad better at it. Thank God for the band, and for swimming, and for my family life. They keep me on point.

    So my advice is follow the governator's example: cut back, knowing that you are still making a profound impact on kids' lives. This is a marathon, and we have to train for it. I want to walk the Appalachian trail when I am sixty-five, so I am planning ahead.

    Good essay, thanks for encouraging me to read it.

  2. Wow Pam! Excellent and powerful post. I found myself, after having taught only two days in my new school, feeling an anxiety-ridden stomach clench, which had to accompany my reading of your post and empathizing with your beginning another year in LAUSD. I taught my classes of 19, 18, and 24 students today and didn't once stop to reprimand or discipline...I'm elated. Especially since I know what I left. You are a rare and indispensable teacher and what you do everyday makes a huge difference. Thank you for fighting the battle, as you so aptly stated.