Teachers Are Lazy, Hard-Working, Stupid, Brilliant, Indifferent, Caring, Rich, Poor, Should Probably Be Fired and Also Given a Raise… (Where Did All the Teachers Go?)

Imagine that you’re standing at the center of a room so large that you can’t see the walls and that 180 school desks radiate out from you in concentric circles.  At each desk sits a teenager.  You’re a high school teacher, and the teenagers arrayed around you are your students.  Behind each student there stand two parents.  Behind each parent stand grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends of the family.  Behind them, as far as the eye can see, swells an army of journalists, bloggers, educational policy experts, politicians, school administrators, superintendents, business owners, university professors, police officers, prison wardens and prison guards.

You turn in a circle and gaze in wonder at the masses of people gathered around you, watching you, judging your every move.  About twenty of your students lean forward in their desks and look up at you with bright smiles.  These students will delight in anything you might say to them.  They love every one of your lessons and you can always count on them to raise their hands to answer and ask questions.  Others, say about fifty or so, stare at you with blank expressions.  They’re bored with your lesson, but they’re calm and polite.  Still other students, perhaps ninety of them, are doing whatever they can think of to distract themselves from the learning task at hand.  These students tap their pencils, pass notes, sneak peeks at their cell phones, whisper and chuckle at the boy who is launching spit wads at you when you aren’t looking.  They may be apathetic and distracted, but for the most part these students remain under control.  A group of perhaps twenty students bicker with each other, verbally spar, curse, wail about how much they hate school, hate your lesson, hate you.  Some of them become physically violent with each other.  A few may even threaten you with bodily harm.

Your students make up a representative sampling of America’s school children.  A few of them are rich and live in mansions.  About 130 of them fall somewhere in what society terms “the middle class,” though this designation encompasses such a broad range of economic and social circumstances that it is almost useless.  Students in this category may come from families who are one lost job, financial catastrophe or medical emergency away from descending into poverty.  Others are pushing up against the boundary that separates “upper-middle class” from “rich.”  About forty of your students come from abject poverty.  Many of them enter the doors of your school not having eaten breakfast.  For some, the only food they will eat on a given day is the meal they receive in the cafeteria lunch line.  Many of these students come from parts of the city that are infested with crime.  They fall asleep at night to the sound of gunshots.  They live in apartments and houses that are falling apart.  When they’re sick they may not see a doctor because their family can’t afford it, and a working parent forgoes a day’s pay to stay home and care for them.

Whatever their socioeconomic status, many of your students come from broken homes and tense, even dangerous, family situations.  They live in fear and they bring this baggage with them to your classroom.  Some of your students are depressed, lonely and insecure. In this group of 180 students some can read at an advanced college level, others are getting by at grade level and still others can’t read at all.  Each student has a particular set of learning needs, and your district, your principal and the entire education apparatus have told you that you must tailor every lesson to each student and that you must prepare the entire group for college.  These are worthy goals.

While you try to teach your students a lesson about, say, the quadratic formula, you notice that the volume level in the room is steadily rising.  The students are making noise, of course, but it is the adults thronging behind them who are the loudest.  Some of the parents and family members are applauding you and giving you a “thumbs up.” Others are shouting obscenities.  You can read the hatred on their faces.  Every few seconds a random comment drifts over to you: “Incompetent,” shouts someone.  “Stupid,” says another.  “Lazy,” “Failing our kids,” “Doesn’t care,” you hear over the din.  Mixed in with the invective are words of encouragement: “God bless you,” “Bravo,” “Inspiring.”  Behind the parents the reporters, experts, university professors, politicians and other members of the community shout their own views.  “Pay them more,” say some.  “Pay them less,” say others.  “Education is broken,” screams one expert.  “I know exactly how to fix it,” cries another.  “Fire them all,” says a politician.  “Protect them,” insists another.  Words and catch phrases rain down on you: vouchers, charter schools, accountability, standardized testing, performance pay, school choice, home schooling, private schooling, virtual classrooms, differentiation, learning styles, class size—the deluge never ends.  The quieter parents look around in confusion and distress over the chaos they see growing around them.  Meanwhile one police officer turns to another and says, “If this teacher can’t save these kids, we’re in trouble.”

On a normal day you teach your students for about six hours, thirty students per hour.  You spend three to four hours at school planning and preparing lessons, creating PowerPoint presentations, cutting out manipulatives, making copies, writing rubrics, rearranging desks, organizing papers and records, attending meetings with administrators and other teachers, responding to e-mails, contacting parents, supervising the halls before and after school. . . After nine to ten hours at work, you return home, grab something to eat, kiss your spouse and play with your kids.  Then, after about an hour of family time, you sit down and you grade papers for a couple of hours.  Since students benefit most from specific, constructive feedback, you write helpful notes in the margins of their papers.  You write a short paragraph at the end of each paper in which you explain the grade you’ve given and offer suggestions for improvement on the next assignment.  By the time you’ve finished grading papers for the night, you have concluded an eleven or twelve hour work day.

At school you look around at your colleagues and notice that every year a few don’t return and a fresh new crop of college grads shows up to eagerly take their place in the classroom.  You know that five years from now about half of the school’s faculty will have abandoned the teaching profession entirely, and you wonder what would happen if every five years half of all doctors hung up their white coats, or if half of all civil engineers decided to stop designing bridges.  What would American technology and industry look like if every five years half of the country’s engineers, software designers and scientists left their professions and never returned?  If any of these disasters were to occur, would we question the competence of the people leaving their respective professions, or would we wonder if something about the professions themselves drove them away?

The vast majority of teachers care about their students.  They take every kind of kid from every slice of society and work their butts off to give them a good education.  Clearly, most of them don’t last for long.  They love teaching, most of them make enough money to live comfortably, yet within five years about half of them leave the thing they love.  They need society’s help, not its scorn.

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Lost Footprints: Returning to the Places of Childhood

When I was a child, about once every two years my extended family would descend on a small island off the Gulf Coast of Florida called Sanibel.  We came from Michigan, Texas and Oregon.  We created on Sanibel a reality separate from the ordinary world, where we combed the beach for shells, swam out to sea, played volleyball and tennis, read and exchanged books, and stayed up late playing raucous games of canasta.  All of us gathered together–aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents, children and cousins who saw each other only once or twice a year.  Together we fashioned a space in time and place that existed only when we were together and unraveled when we parted.

What can I say? Sea gulls are always awesome.

In early November I drove my grandmother from Michigan to Florida, where she will spend the winter.  One day I crossed the new causeway to Sanibel in search of the reality I had known as a boy.  But though Sanibel remains beautiful, though the ocean laps at the shore and murmurs in the same language as when I was a kid, though pelicans still glide across its roiling surface like World War II bombers and conchs, clams and sand dollars still pile up on its beaches in infinite number, this is not the Sanibel I knew growing up.

No, that’s not right.  Sanibel remains the same; I have changed.  I’m not that little boy anymore who strolled alongside the ocean and believed it held all the answers in the world; not that boy who dreamed of quasars and nebulae, of unpacking the universe and deciphering its mechanism; not that boy who fretted over girls, wrote little poems about cresting waves and grains of sand, and wandered the beach for hours in search of the perfect sea shell.  No, I’m someone else.

Today I stroll down the beach.  The ocean laps at my feet.  I leave footprints in the wet sand and the waves sneak in behind me and wash them away, so that if I turned around I would see only an incomplete trail of footprints the waves had not yet erased.  A stranger may happen upon my trail just after I’ve left the beach, and though he could say briefly that a man had walked there, he could not tell you where that man had come from.

I feel like this image encapsulates the human experience.  We move through life leaving footprints in the sand.  Before we’ve walked ten steps the world wipes away the evidence of our presence.  Maybe we walk faster, sprint and get ahead of the deleting waves, but they always catch up with us.  We can pound the sand and so leave deeper impressions.  Our footprints may last longer, but still the lapping sea fills them in, erases them.

I returned to Sanibel in search of footprints I left there as a boy, but the ocean had long since washed them away.  It’s a mistake to believe that the places of childhood should somehow be faithful to me.  How many little boys felt about Sanibel as I did?  It was, is, will be their island, too, even as it really belongs to no person.  And that’s OK.

Osprey eating a fish.

Grandma knitting at the beach.

Sanibel Island, Florida.

Quiet Heroes: Scooping Ice Cream and Saving the World

There are in this world quiet heroes who do their good deeds in places so ubiquitous that we take them for granted.  They stock shelves.  They deliver packages.  They serve ice cream.  At home they feed and clothe their kids, care for aging parents, and pay their monthly bills.  They complain about nothing and they perform even the most banal tasks with dedication and diligence. 

Pedro was one of these people.  He was in his late thirties when I worked with him serving ice cream at Baskin Robbins.  I was sixteen, working my first real job.  Pedro had two ailing parents whom he supported with the money he earned at the ice cream shop.  I remember overhearing phone calls he would make to his parents in which he would speak in Spanish about health care costs, miscellaneous household maintenance that needed taking care of, and groceries he would pick up on the way home from work.  Pedro was a good guy.  He loved Elvis and Frank Sinatra, worked nonstop ten to twelve hours a day, and loved to say, “That’s not funny,” after every joke he told.

Pedro suffered from chronic back pain.  When he thought no one was looking he would sometimes wince, sigh and stare at the floor as if searching for something precious he had lost.  If you missed these subtle signs you would never know the pain he was in when he bent over more than a thousand times a day to scoop rocky road and mint chocolate chip into chocolate covered waffle cones, or when he hauled six hundred pounds of ice cream from the storage freezer to the display freezers in under half an hour–because he never complained. 

Though Pedro was not book smart, he had an answer for every problem or complaint a customer might raise.  Not only did he have an answer; he knew how to calm someone when they were flustered, furious or vulnerable.  I think this sort of skill derives from a kind of intelligence that isn’t highly valued in monetary terms but that keeps our society functioning from the bottom up and prevents us from ripping each other apart. 

Teenagers, college students and seasonal employees passed in and out of Pedro’s life by the dozens each year.  Many of them would start work at the shop one week and then, for a variety of reasons, leave two weeks later.  For them (for me), the ice cream shop was one brief stop on the road toward bigger or at least different things in the future.  For Pedro, it was life. 

In the summer of my sophomore year in college I left Baskin Robbins to fly out to Yosemite National Park and work as a front desk clerk at a lodge there.  While I embarked on what at the time was the grandest of adventures, Pedro remained at the ice cream shop and persisted in the sort of work he had done for most of his life.  I didn’t see him again until several years later, in a grocery store parking lot.    He smiled at me.  His mustache curved up just like it did when I worked with him.  We hugged each other and Pedro asked if I remembered giving him a mix CD once for Christmas.  “I still listen to that every day Nick,” he said.  “Frank Sinatra, Paul Anka, Elvis. . . It’s scratched up, but I still listen to it.”  I had no idea that CD meant so much to him. 

I miss Pedro.  He influenced me more than almost any adult aside from my parents, though I’m not sure he knew that.  He was the kind of man nobody talks about but everyone notices at some point in their life.  Pedro performed a thousand little heroic acts every day and asked for no thanks in return.  People like him keep the gears of civilization turning.  As Voltaire might say, they cultivate their gardens.