Opinion
Recruitment & Retention Opinion

The Afterlife

By Wendy Robinson — August 12, 2005 6 min read
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I can go to the bathroom whenever I want. Subsidized Starbucks is only an elevator ride away. My workplace is quiet, spotless, and dotted with professional art. I sit in an $800 chair and call the help desk when my phone cord needs untangling. I am no longer a teacher.

BRIC ARCHIVE

After 11 years in the classroom and six at home with my own small children, I have become an editor for a large and profitable educational publisher. The work is interesting, challenging, and relevant. My coworkers speak foreign languages, watch independent films, and are funny and welcoming. They’re well-traveled and well-read. No one wears sweaters with apples on them. Occasionally someone curses out loud but does not get in trouble. That’s when I think of my former students. But more on that later.

Life as an editor has many perks. I no longer need to justify or temper my red pen; it has a mind of its own—and no heart. My colleagues’ confidence in my professionalism is so strong, I’m able to come and go without signing in or out. Compare this with my last teaching post, where the principal warned the faculty that leaving “even one minute early” (well after students were gone) would result in “serious repercussions.” I can call my doctor—or she can call me—anytime during the day. And if I want to meet with a colleague, we can do so spontaneously. “Let’s meet in the conference room in 15 minutes.” I was giddy the first time someone sent me an e-mail like that.

Local arts organizations offer us discounted tickets. The mammogram-mobile stops by. There are golf outings—on company time. If I’m running late in the morning, Orlando, our corporate chef, whips up pancakes painted with melted butter, which I eat leisurely at my desk. Without being charged, I help myself to pens, highlighters, folders, scissors, paper, envelopes, and sticky notes of every size and shade. Last year, when I started at a new school, I asked the secretary where I might find chalk. She dug around in her desk and produced half a box, most of the sticks broken into pieces. She politely asked me to return what I didn’t use.

Clearly I enjoy the extras that come with my publishing job, but it also offers substance. It’s exciting to be starting a new career in my 40s. I’m encouraged—and have the time—to read education journals and breaking news in the field. I’ve become knowledgeable about state standards, government initiatives, and current research in education. I use my classroom expertise to create products that will help teachers and their students learn to be better readers, writers, and thinkers.

But, as I mentioned earlier, there’s something wrong with this picture: I miss the kids. I miss their crazy adolescent humor and the light bulbs that go off over their heads (thanks to my brilliant teaching). I miss the organic flow of an upward-spiraling class discussion. I miss the end-of-the-year realizations that they’ve actually learned a lot. I miss teaching, and I miss learning. I miss shaping the person.

I am not crushed, however. Perhaps it’s because, with two raucous little boys waiting at home, I revel in my spotless and silent work environment. Or perhaps it’s because my most recent teaching position was at a school mired in financial problems and paralyzed by poor leadership—a school on “academic watch,” where vocabulary packets were the administration’s idea of reform.

Then again, maybe I’m just making the best of my situation: I’m an editor now because I could not get a job as a teacher.

‘I miss the kids. I miss their crazy adolescent humor and the light bulbs that go off over their heads.’

I originally became a high school English teacher with the intention of working with at-risk urban students. As the daughter of a teacher, I knew the tribulations and rewards of the profession. I entered the classroom with an evangelist’s zeal, and once inside, I knew I’d made the right choice: I loved it and was good at it. I earned outstanding appraisals from administrators and lead teachers. By being both a drill sergeant and a stand-up comedian, I engaged my students. I led Socratic seminars on Rousseau, Emerson, and Gandhi despite the fact that many of them could barely read or were chronically absent because of a lack of child care (for their own babies). I coached them, prodded them, encouraged them, and laughed with them. I called them at home. I stayed late.

After getting married and relocating, I was hired by an affluent suburban district. It took little effort to secure the job; my references and credentials were excellent, and I was experienced but not yet too expensive. Compared with the often thankless job of toiling in a district with a high dropout rate, suburban teaching was easy. All of my students already knew how to read. Ninety-five percent of them matriculated, many to highly rated colleges and universities. It seemed like every other week there was a teacher-appreciation breakfast, luncheon, or gift on behalf of the massive and well-organized parent-teacher organization. The parents expected their children to succeed, and when they did, we teachers got the credit. It was a great—and very well-paid—gig while it lasted.

Then, apparently, I made a big mistake: I had children of my own. After spending six years at home and relocating once again, getting a job was nearly impossible. Though I did end up with one—offered on the spot in July, just a week before the hiring principal left for another district—it was a horrendous experience. I loved the kids and was completely reenergized by being back in the classroom, but the district’s administrators and the department chair lacked vision. We taught seven bells a day and were required to submit a written log of how we spent the 30 minutes immediately after the school day ended. (“Making copies” was not deemed “student-centered” enough.)

As the new hiring season approached, I blanketed the region with résumés and portfolios. Though many districts posted an English opening, I secured only a handful of interviews. Despite meeting national standards as a “highly qualified teacher” and having a master’s degree in education, 11 years’ experience, awards, great references, and a love of teaching, I couldn’t get a job. I even pestered the city district—also on academic watch; even they wouldn’t hire me.

I soothed myself with the thought that in a tough economy, I was simply too expensive. Indeed, every new position went to a less experienced, less expensive teacher.

During my interviews, several districts administered the Teacher Perceiver test. One question was this: “Imagine a teaching colleague comes to you complaining that though he enjoys it, teaching does not pay enough to support his family. He is considering leaving the profession. What advice would you give?” Imagine a corporate boss asking a similar question. My answer then and now is: Leave if you don’t love it.

Teaching offers intangible rewards unavailable in other professions. In most states, it also offers job security. The average teacher salary is almost $46,000. That’s well above the average national income, yet many still perceive teaching as a low-paying profession. Teachers work 180 days each year compared with—if you factor in two weeks’ vacation and a week’s worth of holidays—roughly 240 days a year in corporate America. It’s true that teaching can be exhausting and thankless, but try being an ER nurse.

I have come to consider teaching a privilege. After much reflection, I realize that I—and probably most teachers—have always thought of the job as a vocation, a choice much like the ministry or the military that, once made, would provide for me as long as I gave quality service. But just because I am willing and able to teach doesn’t mean I will be given the opportunity.

While I enjoy the challenges and perks of my new career as an editor, I mourn the loss of my life as a teacher. If you’re lucky enough to have a job, don’t take it for granted. If you’re dissatisfied, quit. And if you do, would you please give the principal my résumé?

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