Tough Enough to Teach: Voices from the Field

by Carey Clayton
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XIII, Number 2, October 2001, Teachers - They matter most
Photo of article author Carey Clayton.

Teachers walk away from their chosen profession every year because of a growing sense of isolation and futility. Sharing strategies, stories, and goals with other caring professionals was once the cornerstone of a teacher's support system. Now, there's a scramble every fall to keep up with the new names and faces among our faculty. The time when I knew everyone in my department is long past. Faculty meetings revolve around TAAS "pep-rallies" and emergency procedures for Columbine-type contingencies. Department meetings center on pressing issues unrelated to teaching: Why are the restrooms always locked, and who has a key? Where is the safest place to park your car? Does anyone have any extra desks?

I've been teaching for sixteen years, and have considered quitting for the last six. How has the dream of teaching eager, admiring students and making a difference in the world transformed itself into a nightmare of standardized tests, litigious parents, and gun-toting kids? Many teachers remember the time before tests for minimum skills became our "ruler" for measuring academic achievement. Our professional associations didn't offer malpractice insurance for teachers, and staff development didn't include orientation to the legal intricacies of avoiding a lawsuit, making a drug arrest, or filing an assault complaint. Imagine staying in a profession where the best, brightest, and most experienced leave every year, never to return. I stay because in 16 years I've never been bored. I stay to witness the thrill of happy kids with opening minds and awakening dreams who want to be shown the way.

I stay because in 16 years I've never been bored. I stay to witness the thrill of happy kids with opening minds and awakening dreams who want to be shown the way.

While many hail standardized testing as a useful tool for documenting learning, who anticipated that Texas's standardized test, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), would consume students, teachers, counselors, administrators, and parents alike? Dealing with "test anxiety" has become the main component of my classroom instruction. Constant practice tests mandated by worried administrators lead jaded students to rebel. It is hard to strike a balance between emphasizing the importance of successful test performance and affirming a student's worth and intelligence in the face of repeated failures. Conversely, there are students who ace the TAAS test and want to stop learning as soon as the scores come in. My job is to convince them that learning is not an event but a process that doesn't stop when they pass a test. In the high school English classroom - and probably in others as well - TAAS preparation often occurs at the expense of creative learning activities such as writing stories, designing book jackets, or turning short stories into one-act plays. It is paradoxical that educators are faced with simultaneous pressure to raise test scores and use more creative and diverse teaching strategies.

Americans' perception of teachers as second-class citizens pervades schools more than ever. Every year, at least one of my high school students confides to me condescendingly, "I make more money as an assistant manager at Pizza Hut than you do with a college education!" One child said earnestly, "Miss, I bet you could do something besides teach if you really wanted!" Poor me. He thought teachers must be losers who can't make it in the "real" world. Why else would they put up with so much from so many for so little? A crippling blow lands on public educators when schools shoulder the blame for truancy, discipline problems, failing grades, low test scores, drug use, teenage pregnancy, and student violence.

As administrators scramble to avoid problems with unreasonable parents, support for teachers steadily diminishes. Earlier in my career, after a series of parent conferences turned verbally abusive, I sought clarification of my role from my supervisor: "Am I the designated punching bag?" He explained a parent who "vents" on the teacher without interference is less likely to pursue legal action. He advised me to "develop a tougher skin."

No one begins in the teaching profession thinking they will amass a fortune, but we all want to make a difference.

To many teachers, low salaries represent a lack of respect for their important role in the community and their years of training. In a touching TV commercial, a small boy tells his dad he wants to be a teacher when he grows up. The dad says, "Don't you want to be a doctor instead, so you can be admired and respected and make lots of money?" The boy replies, "Then, where will the doctors come from?" Where can I find this child?

Teachers treasure admiration and respect more than they seek financial reward. No one begins in the teaching profession thinking they will amass a fortune, but we all want to make a difference. New teachers, who enter the profession despite low salaries, are overwhelmed with the wide range of challenges they face in and out of the classroom. Teacher education programs often don't prepare them to deal with personal safety issues, discipline management problems, and school politics. Developing supportive relationships with other teachers is imperative and, at the same time, almost impossible because of exhaustive schedules. Feeling alone and desperate, most rookies move on without knowing how often all teachers feel overwhelmed and inadequate. I was fortunate to have had several veteran teachers as friends and family members who took time to share war stories. Their insight and humor led me to understand that being a teacher means constantly adapting to new situations while holding fast to the goal of touching young lives in a positive way.

Carey Clayton is a teacher and freelance writer who lives and works in Wimberley, Texas. She aspires to teach until her retirement, then write full time.

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