Teaching Profession Opinion

The Invisible Work of Teachers

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 06, 2018 5 min read
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Teachers have made the new focus of the broader education story about them. Across the US, they have walked out and brought daylight into their professional lives. They fight for fair contracts, fair wages, and necessary supplies and resources to teach their students. Meanwhile, there have been years of fewer students entering teacher preparation programs making it difficult for districts to recruit new teachers.

Part of the problem, we think, is that the public lacks a full understanding of the job of educators. All can point to districts with high graduation rates, successful sports teams and arts programs where student work is notable and academic awards are plentiful. Some think it is the neighborhood, the involved parents, the readiness of the students when they arrive to learn. Certainly, those elements help. However, the invisible efforts of the teachers and their leaders that result in these successes is often not broadcasted. The public can remain in the dark about how a district really attains a positive reputation. And for the districts where there isn’t a high level of student success, there is frequently also a struggle for the basics. The lack of resources, safe facilities, and reasonable teacher salaries further challenge those educators. Certainly, there are districts where things could be done better but most educators do their best for all students.

With that in mind, some districts are looking for ways to attract new teachers with the offer of affordable housing. A recent article in US News & World Report tells of an experiment in Indianapolis where they are hoping to attract and keep teachers with affordable housing for teachers. The fight for fair contracts is not only taking place in Arizona, West Virginia, Kentucky, Colorado, and Oklahoma. It is happening in school districts across the country without news coverage or attention.

We recently witnessed a seasoned and respected faculty member with over 35 years in the profession address her Board of Education. With respect for their dedication to the district and the hard work of the teachers who work with children each day, this teacher addressed the Board highlighting what teachers face.

I am speaking tonight because of something that occurred at the last board meeting that highlighted the dilemma that teachers face. We are all here, teachers, support staff, administrators, board members, to educate and cultivate citizens who will maximize their potential, develop a love of learning and who will contribute to society in a meaningful way. On a daily basis, the teachers are the front lines of this effort, which requires a deep understanding of teaching methods and curriculum. We look out at our student population though, and see these young learners who bring their whole self to school every day and this is where the art of teaching comes in. Our school district is careful to hire teachers who are skilled at observing, understanding and supporting our students, no matter what they bring to the lesson of the day. The community witnesses the end product: the graduation rate, the annual musical, strong athletic teams, etc. What is invisible are the efforts of our teachers to truly see who these students are, what they need in order to continue to be engaged, and the extra time: the prep periods, lunch periods, time after school and weekends that makes the graduation rate what it is, that makes the musical worthy of comment at a Board meeting, that makes ours a notable high school. This is the dilemma: you see the product, not necessarily the efforts and process that allows these successes.

So I would like to acknowledge Carol Brooks*, who was the teacher who worked with a cast and crew to create, once again, a remarkable theatrical experience for our students, parents and the community.

Finally, with this statement in mind, I would like to mention that our Teachers Association is two months away from completing a year of school without a contract. I respectfully encourage the Board to find a way to negotiate a successful contract that values our teachers AND considers the general trends in our region as contracts are settled.

The negotiation of contracts can be contentious and often is. The value the public places on the educators, the teachers and leaders who serve their student population, is reflected in the ways supplies, resources and salaries are settled. Although the economy is a factor, educators and those who decide how they will be paid, must bring their best, most informed, respectful selves to the table. The invisible work must be communicated and celebrated. The limits of the possibilities of how the available funds are used must be communicated and understood. It is all about providing a quality educator for our students and that includes what is seen and understood and all those invisible efforts that result in the successes celebrated.

There Are Invisible Rewards

We also acknowledge there are invisible rewards for educators. It has kept many in the profession for years. The reward isn’t going to come with money or even with higher scores necessarily. It comes decades after students leave us. It comes when they think back with respect and gratitude and fondness about the teachers who made a difference in their lives, the ones who believed in them and lifted them up to see beyond the moment into a future of possibility. A most poignant moment illustrates that. Ann’s dear friend, Mimi, was a retired teacher and principal. Too soon into her retirement she was diagnosed with cancer. It was particularly virulent and unresponsive to medical interventions. A month before she passed, she was contacted by a former student. He and his friends had learned of her illness and wanted to take her to lunch. She was still well enough to do that and agreed instantly. Five of her former students, all men in their forties now, gathered from around the country to share a meal with her and to thank her for all she had done for them when they were teenagers. Everyone who has ever taught knows how precious that moment was. The invisible work of a dedicated and energized teacher than brings invisible rewards. The stories those men told were about field trips and discipline and hard lessons but they were filled with love and respect. Lunch was filled with laughter. She had taught them how valuable they were and provided the path of their adolescence a vigilant guide. Mimi was a lesbian woman and her own professional path was not without difficulty but, even as boys, these men saw through controversy to the big and good heart and the smile that welcomed them each day. It brought them home to say goodbye to her. Wherever they are now, we don’t know, but we do know they gave her a precious gift that day. A simple thank you is a gift that settles deeply within. Essential acts of kindness make an impression for a lifetime. We wish they could be acknowledged with visible rewards as well.

*a pseudonym

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by geralt courtesy of Pixabay

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