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Note: I really hope you’ve read Mark Hiskes’ important essay Afraid to Teach which was posted on the website this week. (If not, stop reading this; read that instead.)
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Teachers are my heroes.
Yesterday was the first day back at school for my kiddos. When I dropped off my angsty carpool crew at the doors of their middle school, I felt a pang of guilt. I was experiencing the delicious silence of an empty minivan after a summer of Weird Al blasting on repeat while I frantically muted my Zoom calls. But the teachers! I could picture those poor souls as I made my way out of the parking lot. I felt a wave of gratitude, and then I waved goodbye.
Never has it been harder to teach than it is now. My seventh grader came home after the first day annoyed that the first 20 minutes of each of his seven classes had been devoted to the school’s cell phone policy. It does seem like overkill to review a policy seven times, but then again I can’t imagine trying to teach pre-algebra in the age of the iPhone.
But it’s not just the challenge of technology and the very weird ways that it’s shaping the social lives of this generation. It’s also the lingering pandemic. It’s the threat of gun violence. It’s the oppressive expectations of test-readiness. It’s the rampant, unmitigated trauma that kids come to school carrying every day, and that we expect teachers to magically solve.
And it’s the crappy pay. Have you ever wondered how underpaid teachers are in the state where you live? Well, you can find the answer here – a policy think-tank that’s been tracking the teacher shortage and its causes. One of them is the reality that you can get the same degree and make a lot more money doing something else.
Teachers are my heroes because they show up anyway. Because the work they do is technical and specialized and we talk about it like it’s easy. Because we don’t reimburse them for their boxes of Kleenex, their classroom libraries, their Target runs to discreetly offer a backpack or a winter coat to the kid in need. Because without them, our society would crumble so fast our heads would spin.
But I’ve recently decided I need to stop using those words. To call someone a hero perpetuates an unfair expectation. Teachers are not magical beings, or a million Mother Theresas; they’re people. People with a Comcast bill, a car payment, a minivan full of their own kids with places to go and braces to pay for. People who need to start looking for other work when the ends don’t meet.
Calling someone a hero while also taking advantage of them feels manipulative. So while I firmly believe that teachers are the ones who are saving society, I also believe what the teacher shortage is telling us: even heroes don’t stick around if they aren’t valued.
Thank a teacher today. Tell them they’re your hero. But don’t stop there: use your voice, and come November use your vote, to make a change.