By Matt Amaral
“Teaching is not a profession. It is a never-ending entry-level vocation, divorced from foundational understandings of training, accountability, and advancement. If we are to enact meaningful reform, we must rescue teaching from its status as vocation and volunteerism, and recast it as a profession of rigor, creativity, and unlimited impact.”
—a former teacher, writing in “Teaching in the 408”
I had Friday off a couple weeks ago, so I went to a Spanish Meet-Up group to struggle through the language with others just like me. At the meeting, I ran into a woman I recognized.
“Didn’t you teach at [insert school here]?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she smiled. The woman, let’s call her Jo, introduced me to two of her friends.
I learned Jo was no longer teaching. She gave it up the year I met her; I was student teaching at the time. For a while, she worked on curriculum for a textbook company. Now she works as a school psychologist.
Her two friends were nice, knowledgeable, goal-oriented women who talked with confidence and swagger. Like her, all had been teachers at one point. Not anymore.
In conversation, we all agreed that teaching isn’t a profession in the “professional sense.” Rather, it feels like a volunteer day job—high stress, high frustration, high reward (sometimes), ridiculous pay.
Jo said she’s back in the classroom, but this time around, she is observing instead of teaching.
“I look at the teacher and thank my stars I don’t have to be her,” Jo said. “I get to return to my office, use the bathroom, check my email, get coffee, take a one-hour lunch break, and concentrate in silence.” She’s happy and relaxed—and she collects a paycheck the whole year round. Who wouldn’t want that?
I took last year off because I was burnt out from three years of teaching. My wife and I went to Central and South America. We learned Spanish. I did a lot of writing. It was the kind of year I’ll always remember. But while I was in Peru, I began to miss the job, and I realized how important teaching was to me.
I’m back in the classroom, and things are good. I’m loving the kids. They are writing stuff I only dreamed of teaching them a few years ago.
The problem is: The day-to-day tribulations of being a teacher are brutal. I don’t think I can keep this up. Not for three more years. Not for five years. Certainly not for a decade.
Isn’t that horrible? To say with such certainty that, though in many ways I love my work, I will not be teaching a few years from now?
I don’t mean to get too down on my job. We just need more time. Time to prep, so the day is more manageable. Time to grade papers. Time to collaborate with our colleagues. Time to use the bathroom, get coffee, take a break, check our email, talk to our colleagues, and act like professionals. We need time to just sit and breathe.
I’m not teaching my students enough this year. I’m not giving them the feedback they need. I’m not doing the job as it should be done because of oversized classes, lack of preparation, lack professional collaboration and development.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m doing great as a teacher this year—just as good as any effective teacher out there. But I’m willing to admit that one day, when my body can’t take this brutal day-to-day anymore, when my spirit isn’t into the work, when my own children need new clothes, I will have to stop teaching.
And that makes me sad.
Matt Amaral is a writer and high school English teacher in the East Bay. He is also the founder ofwww.teach4real.com, a website dedicated to teachers in our toughest schools.