As all of America knows by now, a political storm has been brewing in Wisconsin over budget alterations and collective bargaining rights for workers in the public sector. To put it mildly, this has influenced the morale in my work environment. For the past month, I’ve felt it creeping, seeping, crashing, flooding, and cascading in from every direction: disillusionment. People are uneasy–conflicting political passions, fears of lost jobs and lost wages, uncertainty about the future of public education in general, and a confusing mixture of supportive/scathing commentary from spectators all contribute to the tumult evident in most public school teachers’ eyes nowadays. And it’s been in my eyes, too. I hate the heavy haze that has overtaken an institution that is normally so full of life, ideas, and energy.
Since I’ve already sent many words to many people expressing my political views, I’ve come here to disclose my personal views… the things that transend red, white, and blue and get to the core of the matter. I’ll be the first to admit that I am a young professional, and do not yet possess the same range of experience that some of my colleagues do. For that reason, I’m not going to pretend to know the history of union/anti-union movements in this or any other country. I’m going to talk about what I do have expertise in–what I know within my heart.
I do know that young teachers deserve jobs, mid-career teachers deserve stability, and veteran teachers deserve the inspiration to teach until they need to walk with a cane… maybe even beyond. Teachers are an integral, foundational part of our society. Still, we find ourselves suddenly in the center of a negative energy maelstrom. It’s next to impossible not to get sucked in.
In this and other emotionally trying times, it can be hard to come to work with the same zest that usually comes naturally while teaching. Still, I have to say that my students have been the ones helping me weather the storm. This past week in particular, I have been focusing on how bright and laughter-filled my teaching days really are. No matter what the bureaucracy is doing, no matter how unattractive my career becomes, I have to say that the essence of teaching–that ancient tradition of learners gathering to meet with a learned mentor–transcends all that. I’m having trouble articulating it accurately, but my guess is that those of you who teach have an idea of what I mean. It should be, and often is, a joyful profession. I think about the way I feel when I walk into school and I see my students give me a respectful, smiling nod. I think about the students who pop their heads in the door to wave a completed assignment at me with a goofy grin. I think about the support of my colleagues who will stop to listen and trade stories after school as I walk in and shake my head. Teaching has made me part of an extended family that includes my college cohort, students both past and present, the sisterhood-like department that I am privileged to work within, and my fellow educators everywhere. You can’t put a price on that.
I can’t pay my bills on smiles and fullfillment–that much is certainly clear. Despite that, though, I’m stubbornly proclaiming that it’s impossible for this or any other governmental initiative to disenchant me out of the job that I was called to do. I’m here to stay, and I hope that my Wisconsin teaching family can hang on with me, brave the storm, and cruise into work proudly every day. I pray that the winds will change and that teaching will become a fairly compensated, healthy career choice for aspiring and current educators. In the meantime, it may help to reflect on the things that we do have–the joy of teaching young people, the opportunity to change lives, and a spirit fueled by love of discovery. We need to cherish and protect that. Let’s hold each other up. We are still a strong, intelligent group of people who have the power to affect positive change. Besides, we live here in Wisconsin… bring on the blizzard. We’re not going anywhere.
I wrote the following for NCTE’s “Then and Now” project. You can read it (and other teacher stories!) by clicking here, or by reading the italics below. It seems a fitting note on which to end this post:
I’ll never forget the wave of certainty that washed over me in an urban classroom, packed wall to wall with eighth graders, on September 16th, 2008. That was it. I knew I was a teacher. From that first day of student teaching, I felt a joy that motivated me—the joy of hearing students read their writing in their own voices, of seeing them debate and uphold new ideas. I witnessed, with captivation, emerging power in my students to impact their communities and become incredible scholars. Since then, I’ve learned thousands of things about effective practices, classroom management, curriculum design, and assessment. I’ve changed to respond to different schools, students, and initiatives. Looking to the future, I know my career will be an evolution. But even after all the changes, the joy stays consistent. That unchanging facet of teaching is the thread holding the shifting world of my career together.