Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Recently I was nominated by a former student for a distinguished teaching award offered by a prestigious American university. This is the second award for which I was nominated by a student in as many years, and for both awards, I have placed in the top 10. For last year’s award, though this was not stated outright, I did not make the final cut because, while my former students still loved me and said they learned more than they had learned in any other class in their high-school careers (an exaggeration all good teachers hear, I know), the students did not really represent the disenfranchised urban population, and I did not seem to be performing the kind of miracles one can perform with such a population. The committee did award us runners-up a decent sum of money for the first time in their history because they felt we were such strong teachers nonetheless. And that was lovely. 
This year I have not yet heard whether or not I have placed as one of the the top four winners, but I did, once again, get to speak my mind about this profession, this time to a large panel of people who presumably care about education. Because several on this panel were graduating seniors, I would be speaking my mind to future policy makers, and I felt that voicing the issues was more important to me than being politic and aiming for the win.
As I have said, just the nomination was an immense honor and placing as a finalist is still very moving to me, but what had to be said had to be said. One of the questions posed was a question that lies at the heart of why teachers are often mistreated and always underpaid.
The last interviewer, a wide-eyed senior, asked me this question: “We all know you are a good teacher, but what do you do for your school community?” Yes, she meant besides teach.
As anyone in this profession knows, the implication of such a question is dangerous. First, let's not forget what this profession really entails: prepping, which means closely reading literature and criticism and attending classes and conferences; teaching, which means harnessing the attention of students who often lack impulse control and have no idea what it really means to LEARN until you have unlocked the gates of understanding for them; grading, which means closely reading and writing detailed responses on reams and reams of paper; attending faculty, committee, and professional development meetings. This student's question implies that these essential duties of teaching are somehow not enough, that teachers who want to be seen as serious professionals need to be doing more than "just" their "jobs." 
Ironically, the implication of the question is that only by extending oneself beyond the profession can one be considered a true professional. Yet, would someone ask a true professional like a doctor or lawyer what they do for no pay, as if volunteering time outside their professional duties was a significant part of their professional responsibilities?  
This notion of "professional volunteerism" is lethal because it is the core reason teachers earn salaries that are in no way commensurate with other "professional" salaries.  Stipends for extra work, if offered, are rarely worth the effort and never serve as a true motivation. I have never received a stipend for advising the interdisciplinary journal (which I advised for 15 years at three different schools and for which we won prestigious awards each year), nor do I receive one for the newspaper that I am currently advising, and the tiny stipend I received as a department chair at my former school did not even remotely cover the amount of time and effort I put into the work. It's just expected that teachers will want to do more than what we are actually paid to do, so that's what we do. 
We all know that teachers do all the extra work because we are “passionate” about what we do, but more important we know what needs to be done beyond what our schools and districts are willing to support. 
Unfortunately, the interviewer's question plays into the wide-spread cultural expectation that teachers be martyrs for the cause instead of respectable and well-paid professionals doing what all the lip-service says is “the MOST important and NOBLE work there is!”
The real question here is why teachers face this unspoken expectation. I remember several years ago when I taught the incorrigible son of a formerly famous actor, I phoned him with my concern about his son's lack of progress in my class. The actor responded, in no uncertain terms and in a very husky and profound voice, “He needs to fall in love with you. If he falls in love with you, only then will he learn from you.”
The truth of this answer never left me: Of course, on one level, the actor notes that there is a fine line between pederasty and pedagogy (hence why so many of my colleagues have, over the years, ended up in “rubber rooms” or "on ice" or "paid vacation" until the level of the inappropriate behavior was somehow officially determined). But what he said is true on a deeper level because, let's face it, teachers are idealized parents. 
Everyone remembers the teachers they loved when they were in school, and current students always say, “I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Ms. ______!” or “Mr. _________ROCKS. He’s the BEST!” or “The only class I get out of bed for is Ms.______’s!” It’s clear that beloved teachers, like ideal parents, awaken their students’ better selves. Or as the actor maintained, teachers awaken, just as lovers awaken in all of us, our better selves. 
Either way it’s all about the love, and that’s why it’s NOT all about the money. That’s why it’s all about the unspoken (and sometimes unabashedly spoken) expectation that we serious teachers WANT to give of ourselves all the time because of all the unspoken rewards we receive. . . like all this love. 
That’s the rock and the hard place where we passionate teachers find ourselves. Shouldn't we merit more pay for this ability to inspire, for this ability to get students to write smart, coherent papers and read with analytical depth and emotional sensitivity? Isn't teaching well enough? Does our creating environments that promote intellectual growth and our motivating students so deeply that they are happy to pour out to us their artless love, invalidate our need to be paid well? 
You know. . . I really, really love my doctor. . . maybe I should ask him if I could just pop in for a no-fee check-up?