No more teachers' dirty looks?

I'm thinking about quitting my job.

This morning one of my students confided in me. She said, fumbling for words, that she's wrestling with the things most of us wrestle with - family issues, big questions of life, how to balance desire and duty. Her monsters were, to be fair, bigger than most. On her arms are the scars of someone who's cut themselves or been cut in the distant past. She's witnessed things no one should, and she's coming out the other side. Facing the end of her time at a university must feel like - as it did for so many of us - looking down into a big blackness we never before imagined.

Like most of my students - honestly, like most students (myself included) - she isn't particularly brilliant. But she is amazingly talented, and it is her work ethic that sets her apart and that will push her on to brilliant things. And I do believe - and I told her so - that she will go on to those brilliant things. I told her that some selfishness is warranted - sometimes you have to do what's best for you so later you can do what's best for someone else. I told her that I'd juggled the same questions about whether to even get an advanced degree or to simply find some quiet middle management job so I could tend to the calamities of my own family. Maybe it helped.

This isn't why I'm thinking about quitting my job.

I tell you this story because it is moments like this that are the best part of my job: not when a student is struggling, not when I can tell them that they're going to be amazing. It is the moment where a connection is made that makes this job worthwhile. Teaching is a bit like standing at the crossroads and hoping a car will pass your way at just the right speed to see you waving. It isn't about making the car stop, though sometimes it does. It isn't about making the car change directions though that happens sometimes, too. Most days, teaching is just about helping someone to notice the things outside of their own car.

Seen from that perspective, which sounds pretty good I think, it might be hard to see why I'm thinking about quitting my job. So why then?

Here's the story. I'm 35 years old. I'm going into my fourth year of teaching at a small university somewhere in America. I get to discuss big ideas and controversial notions on an almost daily basis. I get to ask questions, and watch people go past that crossroads, stop, look around, check the map, change directions and change themselves on a regular if not daily basis. There are worse lives to lead.

But I'm 35 years old. I'm looking for a roommate because I can't afford my bills let alone the loans it took to get the education to get the job that allows me to do these things. The job pays, as many university teaching jobs do, just a little more than I might make as a middle manager at a call center or a small bank. Each Christmas as my students depart, I spend my first day of vacation balancing my checkbook to decide whether I can spare the few hundred dollars it would cost me to go see my own family. I've spent the last two holidays in my ramshackle bachelor apartment with my dog, re-reading old favorites and assuring my aging parents that I'll be home next year, I promise. Sometimes we open presents over the phone. Sometimes there aren't any because it doesn't seem right if I can't get them much that they should get me something.

Now I haven't said I'm a particularly good teacher. That a student confided in me at the beginning of this entry doesn't tell you much, really. But the thing is, I'm not alone. I know more than a few people in the same job with the same problem. And at least one of us is bound to be good in the classroom even if I'm not. And more than a few of them are having similar thoughts.

It makes me wonder if any one is thinking about whether the idea that you get what you pay for might apply to education.


2 Responses to “No more teachers' dirty looks?”
Post a Comment | Post Comments (Atom)

tricia said...

wonderful to be able to read your stories again, doc.

April 25, 2007 at 1:05 AM
tricia said...

it's wonderful to be able to read your stories again, doc.

April 25, 2007 at 1:06 AM