I submit to you a simple question . . . is any other profession in the world as rife with frustration as being an educator of any stripe? Do lawyers and doctors ever want to go home and bash their own foreheads repeatedly with an aluminum baseball bat? Do clerical workers or truck drivers go into paroxsyms of despair at the sight of a certain name on an email or a caller ID screen? Most of all, does any other profession’s accomplishments and standards of excellence depend so much on THINGS COMPLETELY BEYOND THEIR CONTROL!!!!
I spent six hours yesterday with an auditor from the state department of education counting the textbooks in my building. I recommend this experience to everyone! It is slightly less invasive than a routine pelvic exam and about as pleasant as a colonoscopy performed with a six D-cell MagLite and a 25′ garden hose with sprayer nozzle. Come to think of it, when she finished totaling up the deficits in our textbook inventory, I actually felt as if the aforementioned sprayer nozzle might have come unthreaded and been left behind.
It wasn’t so much the audit itself or even its unfortunate outcome that frustrated me the most. What basically burned my biscuits and bacon was the assumption that keeping up with every single textbook was “easy” so long as we “insisted on holding the students accountable for their actions.” This from a person who has neither taught in a classroom . . . ever . . . nor had any children of her own to raise. It was the kind of well-meant but slightly clueless remark that hits me right at the coccyx and runs in a cold electrical frenzy up my spinal column to sink its frozen fingers of condescending smarminess right into the core of my medulla oblongata and in the process awakens all those sleeping dwarves of primitive rage that reside therein. However, my new-mommy-to-be AP had asked me to be very nice, so I blinked the dwarves back into a managable state of impotent inquietude and breathed long and deep before I replied.
In the course of our conversation, she had expressed a desire to be an accountant so after I’d calmed myself considerably I interrogated her opinions along those lines by way of analogy. “Ma’am,” I said, “suppose you were a first class accountant in a nice office. Then suppose one day the head of the firm came in to your corner office and said that you were going to be in charge of a new, very important account. You’d be psyched, correct?” She nodded and I continued, “Now, imagine that your boss then told you that your performance would be judged by how well the three accountants working on the project with you performed. Oh, and you can’t pick your team and the ones the client has picked for you are the three worst accountants in the history of accounting. But YOUR JOB depends on their performance.”
She looked puzzled so I went on, “One of the accountants is a reckless gambler and a night owl. He sleeps when he should be working and is always preoccupied with what he’s got planned tonight. The second member of your team doesn’t show up much so you don’t know about him. Strangely though, he always manages to stumble in on the day of the big presentation just so he can take part in something he knows nothing about. Finally, your third colleague’s wife has cancer and his house is being foreclosed on. Now, do you have a good mental picture?” She smirked and said she did so I finished up my parable with, “You can guide these three. You can choose when and where y’all meet to work on the project and total the figures, but you can’t actually write anything down. They have to do all the work. You can’t fire them, you can’t cut their pay, you can’t reduce the number of breaks they get or increase the hours they work. All you can do is try to help them so you can try to look good to YOUR boss. If they screw up the account, they keep their jobs and move on to work for the next project manager, but you get FIRED. Would you say that type of accountability is EASY?”
She just shrugged so I gave up. It’s not her fault. She’s just doing her job and with the present climate of budget cuts in my state, it’s a job she may not have much longer. But her reaction is telling in so many ways. People outside of education seem to think we have it made and our jobs are soooo easy — especially with those THREE WHOLE MONTHS OFF in the summer! What they don’t realize is those three months are the reason anyone with an iota of sense teaches or librarians or does anything else in education. How many times have you heard a coworker say or maybe you’ve even said it yourself “Come June, I’m done. I’m going to do SOMETHING else because this was the worst year I’ve ever had!!” See, that three (more like two) month vacation gives our brains time to forget the horrors of the previous year just enough so that we don’t all quit before the middle of August rolls around and we think, “Aw, it wasn’t so bad I guess. Besides, what else would I do? I’m a teacher,” and we come on back for another round of “Once more into the breach.”
Nothing about being an educator is EASY, least of all accountability in anything. Take those textbooks. Okay, you know little Johnny is a high risk of losing or damaging beyond recognition that brand newly adopted $65.92 math book. If that textbook gets gone, that nice auditor lady is going to charge your school $65.92. BUT, the law says Johnny has to have a book even though the prospect of him doing any real work in that book is slim to none and slim is leaving town at sundown. So you give him a book and he promptly loses it. What do you do? Charge him of course. If he doesn’t pay? What then? We cannot legally hold his records or prevent him from moving to the next school or grade. Mama says she doesn’t have the money for the book. Take away a privilege? Well, we can try, but Johnny isn’t very involved in much of anything the school has to offer so he’s not likely to care what you take away. Detention? No recess til the money’s paid? The legal waters get murky there as well. In the end we all know what’s going to happen, you eat the cost of the lost book and $65.92 that could have gone in the library collection goes to the state department.
Is it just me or do parents who don’t have the money for books or gas to come to parent conferences always seem to have the money to keep a lawyer on retainer to sue the school district? THAT’S the kind of frustration I’m talking about. We can’t make our student learn, we can’t make them care, we can’t give them lives good enough so they would WANT to care . . . and yet our salary, our careers, our promotions, and, let’s face it whether we want to admit it or not, a great chunk of our self-esteem rides on and depends on those students learning and caring and passing a test that is totally irrelevant to their lives at present. Then, to make matters worse, we get gigged by people telling us how easy our jobs are as long as everyone is accountable. Frustration.
It’s enough to make a body not want to wash his feet forever!