My eldest son is into his second week of Kindergarten. It has been a transition that I was not expecting. No struggles in the morning to get up and out of bed. No questions about how many days until the weekend. No begging for me to stay home so he too can stay home and play with the kitties. He’s been tired at night, and yes, a bit grumpy, but he is enjoying Kindergarten to the fullest. The transition has been smooth and pleasant!
Now Kindergarten is different that when I went to school in the early 1970s (yes, I am an aged mother!). Back then, we went for only a few hours and those hours included a snack with a carton of milk that we ever so carefully opened into a triangular spout, an often very dry cookie with a square of hardened jelly-something on the top, and an ever-so small white, paper napkin. Our final exam was probably something like putting a blue circle around the dog and a triangle around the cat – a paper that my son came home with on the first day, though that paper also including counting and matching and other feats. Kindergarten today is more what I remember 1st Grade was – or at least the second half of first grade.
And my son has weekly exposure to the computer lab, the music room, the media center (which we called the library), the art room, and the gym (in addition to recess twice a day). Yes, school has changed.
And demands on public school teachers have changed also. My son’s classroom has 22 active 5ish-year-olds. When they arrive each morning about 8:00 a.m., the kids arrive to a project already set up on their tables. They bring in their snacks for the day and their homework folder – that’s their entry pass into the room. The teacher is looking for written communications from home or completed homework or other school notifications. And all that must be organized for the day, and then reorganized to go home.
My son has come home with a bevy of completed assignments and art projects in his folder, many of which had to have taken hours to prepare 22 of. The teacher informed us that generally, she is there at 7:00 a.m. for class preparation and leaves about 5:00 p.m. And I know she’s truthful having received a phone call around 5:00 p.m. and an email the next morning just after 7:00 a.m. – all reporting on my son’s progress (thankfully all great news!). And she likely did this 21 more times with 21 more families.
It made me stop and think about my profession and the profession of my husband. Indeed, we work some long hours and many with intensity. But the difference is, that for many of those hours, we get to retreat behind a computer or in our offices where we can take some breaks from being on stage and from the constant demand and questions of colleagues.
School teachers don’t get that luxury on the job. I get exhausted answering the questions and demands of my children in the evenings and on weekends. It’s tough work being a parent, and I don’t have work projects set up for them at the table when they arrive. Can you imagine almost seven hours a day teaching and comforting and leading 22 children? And then spending several hours more preparing for the next day? And then there’s the working with the parents of 22 children.
In addition, the organizational skills for teachers required these days are incredible. In my day, kids either were bussed home or walked home. Today, they might bus one day, walk the next, they might go to aftercare on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to scouts on Wednesdays, and be picked up by Grandma or Grandpa or Aunt Sally on the other days. Multiply this times 20+ children.
And then are food allergies to manage, and varying share-days, and homework, and extra projects, and progress reports, and records, and extra-curricular activities. And don’t forget, most teachers have families of their own to manage.
For years I have heard people say that they’d wished they’d become a teacher because they get summers off. I’ve also heard many say that school teachers are overpaid for the amount of work they do. And I’ve also seen parents berate and demean the teacher’s of their children. It seems that so many of we parent’s think this job is easy and so many think they know more about teaching than teachers. I’m not one of them. In fact, I think these “teaching is easy” parents should be put into the classroom for a week – and not just to “babysit” or “assist,” but actually, to be put on stage and then assessed on how much the entire classroom has learned in the week. I’m guessing that most would be running for the door by the second day, and that they would be more appreciative of teachers.
My mother was an elementary school teacher. In her later years as a teacher, she focused on remedial reading. When children had reading challenges, her goal was to immerse them and get them back with their reading group. Sometimes they were in her room for a few days working on a letter or too, sometimes the kids were there much longer as they required much more intense and personal attention to get them going.
As she came closer to retirement, she would lament out of concern that a good portion of her job was now dedicated to being more of a mother than a teacher. So many of her students would arrive hungry having had no real dinner or breakfast (so the schools now have started serving breakfast), tired because they had no real bedroom to sleep in or parents were fighting or partying all night, and often cold since they were not dressed for the cold Michigan weathers. These children wanted hugs and attention because for whatever reason, they were not getting it at home. And my mother would give all that she could in a motherly way, but I recall one day her frustration and concern where she stated something like, “Johnny arrives cold, hungry, tired, and lonely. All he really wants to do is sit on my lap and be held and feel warm and secure, but I am to teach him to read.” And though I can recall only a few poor parental incidents involving my mother, these same parents who demonstrated little concern for the basic needs of their children were often the ones presenting themselves at school to loudly and publicly berate the school board, the principal, the bus driver, the teacher, and even the custodian. After all, they would say, it was their right to do so.
My mother retired about as early as she could. And though I’m not sure she articulated it as such, I believe part of that was that teaching had become very emotionally exhausting. In the business world, as we get tenure, as a survival technique, we learn to “compartmentalize,” particularly if we have families. For the most part, we learn to leave the latest declining sales forecast, profitability decline, or personnel issue, at the office. It’s not always easy or achieved, but we try to separate our young families from our office. Children demanding our focused attention when we arrive home are quite helpful in that manner! But imagine, as a teacher, attempting to leave the thought of Johnny and his less than adequate family and home-life issues at school, particularly on Friday when it would be two days before he might have a good meal again. It’s difficult, if not impossible, particularly as a teacher and a mother, to leave that at work.
So I as a parent of a child in public school (and let me say that yes, I am a proponent of public schools since they are a slice of the real world), want to express my admiration and gratitude for public school teachers.
I believe that in fact, school teachers are gasp, “underpaid.” While I admire Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods, and Johnny Depp, and Will Smith (our highest paid athletes and actors), for their talents, they do nothing for the education and rearing of my sons or the future of our youth. Indeed some of them have philanthropic foundations that serve youth, but overall, the impact of these efforts compared to teachers, is minuscule. And these entertainers make millions, and think about their work schedules!
I have to believe it is the case that most teachers, the good ones (and there are many good ones), aren’t there for the paycheck or the work lifestyle. They are there because they are inspired by the kids they teach. They are inspired by seeing the light bulbs go off when after struggling, a child finally “gets it.” They are inspired by smiles, enjoyment of learning, increasing vocabulary and mastery of numbers. They are inspired by students who grow into leaders in their classrooms and their community. They are inspired by the successes of students who come with natural talents, but perhaps even more so by the successes of those who come with challenges.
And the energy and inspiration these teachers show inspires me as a parent. I am reading more to my boys. I’m asking them more questions. I’m pointing out more facts. I’m taking more time to listen and to explain. I’m encouraging more self-discovery and more experiences. Only a few days into my son’s public school education, and already his teacher has taught me, the parent, many things!