So much mind clutter, and literal clutter, taking up space right now. But it’s my own mudpie, and I’ll have to eat it. And I will. In the forefront of the clutter and mess is this overarching thought: “Why did I become a teacher?” I had a very dear friend tell me the other day she actually saw me working for a tech company instead of teaching. This actually disheartened me. I know she meant well, but it was unsettling. This came in the context of our conversation about career options for teachers, and how many good and grand dreams of mine slipped right passed me. Others are on career trajectories that seem mapped out and GPS pixel-perfect, and looking back, I realize when I ‘took my ball and went home*’ for a few years I must have fallen asleep behind the wheel. Now it feels as if I’m at a dead-end.
Or am I?
So here are the burning questions, my fellow teachers: how do you feel about money, your ability to earn money, and your future earning potential? Consider, no one thinks it’s polite to discuss the trilogy of taboo: sex, politics, or religion. I would add a fourth to this: money and salaries are also taboo subjects. But the fact is we educators work a lot of hours for no monetary reward. This is not news. And many of us begin our careers with somewhat a Franciscan devout archetype in our secret teacher hearts, and that we are ‘above all the sordid issues of coin.’ But we’re not. It used to terrify me to think that if something happened to my husband, my salary would not be enough to support two sons and a mortgage. We would go from moderate middle-class to close to the poverty line, though I had a Masters +90 level salary status. (Close is a relative term: if my salary is double the poverty line of $18,000, we wouldn’t need government assistance, but would have had to sell the house, belongings, and move. I know many, many families have it far worse off. I am not complaining: just observing.) But we persevered. One pragmatic reason I became a teacher in the first place, among many more noble ones, is that I wanted one of us to have a steady income and health insurance to offset my husband’s more tumultuous technology career. (Just ask the thousands of Microsoft employees who felt they worked for the last bastion of solid employers.) Nothing is safe, sacred, or guaranteed. But at least I could be home during a few weeks with my small sons, right?
One significant contrast between when I started as a teacher and nine years later is that I have lost all patience with doing more than I have to ‘for free.’ When I first began, anything I could do, every committee, every roundtable discussion, after-school homework help, coming in at dawn and leaving twelve hours later was the norm. And I loved it. Veteran teachers grumbled about working without pay, too many volunteer hours, too many ‘out of kindness of hearts’ demands that many principals and district personnel seem to excel at. The dividing line between the salaried and the contracts is as old as labor relations, when Bob the Neanderthal worked for Sam’s Rock Wheel Enterprises and demanded safer, saber-tooth tiger free working conditions. The average U.S. salary for teachers, if this website is to be believed, is the mid-$40,000 range. When I left my ‘business’ career in the early 1990s I was making $42,000 a year. That was over twenty years ago. So when my friend imagines me in a career in tech, I am haunted by what I left a ‘high power’ job for, and my husband’s experience in the technology industry. And I feel grateful, and shut up about teaching salaries.
The thing is — though the avenues for growth and job satisfaction are limited in education –I still return to my own values. I am happiest when I am creating, sharing, and have a sense of autonomy. I am at the sweet-spot now in teaching: I love to learn new things, refine best practices, not just recycle “old” lessons but polish, enhance, and adjust. Sometimes that old jacket isn’t “old,” but “classic” or “vintage.” And there are many new and exciting ways to think and grow. The pay-off isn’t in material gain, however, or at least there are perhaps invisible financial gains we don’t consider. The fact that I can come home now before 6PM and feel confident I have the week planned, contingencies met, and instructional goals and fall-backs considered and accounted for, allows me more time to play dilettante with other hobbies, interests, and creative pursuits. (The fact is the only thing I’m really good at professionally is being a teacher –all else is just dress-up.) I am so honored to know other educators who never stop creating: consider John Spencer and crew who created Write About. This summer (for free, but sure was fun) I created Up From the Gutter writing prompt blog. And I don’t know who the team is who’s responsible for this masterpiece, Actively Learn, but it is amazing, and it’s free. (I’m concerned it’ll be one more thing I’ll get addicted to, and then asked to pay a moderate yearly fee. No worries: it would be worth every penny.)
I told my husband I was going to bring the leftover Halloween candy to my classroom. He has these minor waves of frugality from time to time, and wished out loud that I wouldn’t spend so much money on my students. I have to admit, I have curtailed that quite a bit. We are fortunate to have our older son at the University of Washington, and every penny goes to a cash-and-carry tuition/room & board payment. The investment I made in my early years of teaching (thousands of dollars of books, school supplies, etc.) is something I do not do now, except for the occasional addition to my class library. There are thousands of things to read on-line, thousands of ways to write, interact, create, play, and think. Now my focus is to find those hearty and robust resources and keep them flowing. (Now if only net neutrality issues would just STOP. Seems like I get one demon down for a nap and another one rears its ugly minion head.)
With all things, there is tug and pull. I am trying to balance between the expenditures that make my hours in the classroom more fulfilling, and my hours outside better, too. One more book or one more pack of pencils is neither going to break my bank, but nor are they going to be the magic wand. I’m not sure where I’m going career-wise from here, and I’m not sure that it matters at this point. Focus on what’s in front of me, and clean out some more clutter. Maybe the path will become clearer.
PS The candy did make its way to the classroom. He said it was okay.
Puget Sound Writing Project
Up From The Gutter
*I did not take my ball and went home. I had a mild meltdown. I had a son who was a junior/senior and preparing for high school. I have a husband with health issues. We lost a student to suicide at my school. We went through several administration changes. I was facing my own life milestones and health junk. On and on and on. No one would blame me for my time spent under a rock. But I’m out now, and the air feels wonderful.