Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Addressing Some Perennial Misconceptions About Teaching

I was perusing the Twitters recently when I came across a link to an article about Matt Damon getting irritated at a "Save Our Schools" rally, during which he editorialized rather vociferously that teachers make a "shitty" salary. The article seeks to discredit Mr. Damon's assessment of teachers' pay, noting that the national average salary of a public school teacher is a respectable $53,000. More interestingly, however, is that the aforementioned article links to yet another, which purports to have data on things like working hours and health/retirement benefits for teachers. I do not intend to refute or comment on both of these articles point-by-point; they are both rather lengthy, and frankly there is neither sufficient energy in me to do that nor patience and interest in you to read it. Instead, I will consider these two articles the impetus for writing a general treatise on the misconceptions about my occupation which seem to surface all too often.

Before I get to the meat of the thing, I offer a word of caution about generalizing. "Public high school teacher" is what we all are, but the particulars of our situation will vary rather wildly depending on location. Schools are governed by their principals, districts, school boards, state governments, and the federal government... all at the same time. What a teacher can be paid, what hours he must work, how much time off he can take... all of these things will be different for everyone. Some will work more hours for less money, and vice-versa. It's a large field with a lot of different philosophies and particulars. Lumping us all together in statements like "teachers are all overpaid/underpaid/awesome/worsethanHitler..." are fairly myopic and irresponsible. I digress.

Misconception the First: Salary

I suppose I can't argue with statistics; if some article says the average is $53,000, then that must be what it is. The article does go on, however, to note that the average national salary for a male with a Bachelor's degree is $89,000. That's a pretty sobering figure, especially after I inform you that I also have a Master's degree, and my salary is still well short of that $53,000 figure. In fact, according to the current negotiated salary rates at my school, that "national average" teacher has a Master's degree and 8 years' experience. 
Look, nobody goes into teaching for the money. No sane person, anyway. I do know several teachers who genuinely don't care about the money; they'd be teaching no matter what, because it's the sort of job that can be fulfilling in a way that most other jobs can't. I live well enough that I don't have a lot to complain about. I don't have to support anyone but myself though; I would not be able to live comfortably on my salary if I had a mooching wife and kids. The money isn't terrible, really. It's adequate, reasonable, sufficient, whatever. I do believe that I'm not being fairly compensated for my level of education; I'm basically overqualified for my job.
Another point that people outside of teaching tend not to think about is earning potential. Basically, there isn't any. If I stay at my school for the rest of my working life and retire, I will earn a modest "step increase" every year. There are no big promotions, no bonuses. It's not like many careers where you put in your time as an intern or do shit work to get some experience, and then you can go and make the big bucks. There are no big bucks. An employee at my school with a Ph.D. and 25 years' experience will earn around $90,000 - barely more than the "average" male with no advanced degree at all. I don't think that I can quite agree with Matt Damon's grim view of my earnings, but I do thank him for his support. I do think I deserve to be paid better than I am, but I'm not about to go on camera and shout about it. 

Misconception the Second: Hours

This is an irritating one. The idea is that teachers work shorter-than-usual hours for the same compensation as a comparable non-teacher. The second of the two articles tries to quantify this in order to determine how many hours the average teacher "works" every week. The problem with this is that it's very difficult to get an accurate grasp of the reality of the matter, when the only observable figure is how long teachers are in the building. My contract says that I have to be in the building by 7:30 am, and I can't leave until 2:30 pm. I get 25 minutes for lunch, leaving a 6.5 hour work day and a 32.5 hour work week. On those figures alone, yes, we do seem to have it easy. I should probably add that, at my school at least, the percentage of teachers who actually keep those hours every day is something like 0%. If I show up at 7:30, I'm guaranteed to have a rough time finding a parking spot, and leaving at 2:30 is basically impossible unless I've been working feverishly towards that as a personal goal for that day.
We do have to be at school for several annoying occasions which are not voluntary and for which we are not compensated. There are faculty and department meetings every month. There are parent-teacher conferences several times a year. At my school, each teacher must chaperon four after-school activities, which could even include following the baseball team to an away game somewhere else in the county on a Saturday.
The number of hours a teacher works is another one of these things that will vary wildly. A social studies teacher who has taught the same American Government course 10 times already probably doesn't need to do that much prep work outside of those 32.5 hours, whereas someone teaching a new subject might be putting in several hours each day just to prepare the lessons. Some work with other teachers who teach the same course and can share resources, others are on their own. Sometimes curriculum gets rewritten and suddenly everything you worked on before is now obsolete or irrelevant. All I can say is what I've seen in my few short years of experience as a teacher: teachers are some of the hardest working, most dedicated people I've ever met. They're generally quite proud of their work, and they care if they're doing a good job or not. The district says the work week is 32.5 hours; the teachers decide for themselves what the actual figure is going to be every week. Don't misunderstand - there certainly are lazy, useless, apathetic teachers out there. They are the exception, not the rule.

Misconception the Third: Summers Off

Yes, teachers get their summers off. Totally awesome! ORLY? Of course it's nice to have a two month break where you don't have to go to work. This is only half of the story, however. Different schools have different ways of dealing with this; for me, as a 10-month employee, it basically means that I'm unemployed for two months. I don't get a paycheck the entire month of July or August. Some schools offer the option to have one's 10-month salary paid equally over the full year; this option does not exist for me. Rather, I have to do the budgeting myself, making sure to save some money from each paycheck so that I can pay my bills over the summer.  The prospect of having to go two months every year without having any income is an uncomfortable thing.
Having a long summer break also basically means that teachers get no significant paid vacation days during the school year. I only get three days a year which I can request off and not be hassled or asked for documentation about why I wasn't at work. If I want two of those days to be consecutive, I need special permission, and if I want any of those days to come directly after a holiday, the superintendent gets involved. (Not an exaggeration.) I do have available sick days of course, but only a couple of these can be used before the school wants to see a doctor's note, or you'll lose your pay for those days. Sick time rolls over from year to year, but the three personal days do not - three days is the most no-questions-asked time off I can ever have in a year. This means that if I want to go on some sort of vacation, it has to be when the school is already closed for a holiday. There's really no chance of taking several days off while the school is open, unless I'd like a smaller paycheck that week.
Another annoyance about being a teacher is that calling in sick is such a hassle that it's almost not even worth it, unless you're really so sick that going to work would be physically impossible. It's obviously not like college where the prof just puts a note on the door and everyone goes home; if I'm gone, a substitute has to be called in, and it's my responsibility to have already made plans for the substitute to keep the kids busy all day. This usually means finding or making some sort of self-contained activity which I have to photocopy and put into folders for each class. Calling in sick means a set of these plans gets used, so I have to take the time to create a new set in case I'm absent again. The substitutes also have to be paid, so towards the end of the year when the annual budget for subs starts to dry up, you really get the evil eye for calling off. There have honestly been times when I've woken up not feeling too great, but calling off seemed such a hassle that I just said "fuck it, I'll just go to work and be miserable."
We do also have the luxury of a fairly long break at Christmas (basically whatever time is between that and the new year) and a week for Spring Break. Remember how great it was as a kid to get all that time off? Let me assure you in the most serious way possible that teachers need the break way more than the students do.

Misconception the Fourth: Teaching is an Easy Job

Sometimes I really wonder what people think teachers do all day. Perhaps you really did have teachers who did absolutely nothing but hand you a worksheet while they drank coffee and read the newspaper. I guess those were the good ol' days. I'm expected to have an engaging lesson planned each and every day for each and every class. That means a small amount of lecture and a large amount of student-centered activities. Showing a movie is an absolute no-no, not even at Christmas or at the end of the year when there's nothing to do. Who do you think decided what to do every day, every week, every month, so that all the material was covered by the end of the year? Who made all those worksheets, tests, quizzes, and homework assignments? Who graded them? Wrote comments on your papers? Taught you how to do basically everything you know how to do, including read and write?
This is a stressful occupation. I don't mean to imply that other vocations are not - surely every job can be stressful in its own way. It's physically and mentally exhausting to be directly responsible for the education of over a hundred children every day. Besides the kids, there are also their parents, who can frequently be worse than the kids themselves, and the administration. There's also the day itself - I doubt very seriously that any other job outside of the armed forces is as rigidly regimented. Everything happens by the almighty bell, the only thing the kids do actually listen to consistently. Everything happens at exactly the same time, every day. If I'm having a crappy morning and I'd like to go to Panera, or Starbucks, or just go outside and kick a pigeon in frustration, I can't. I can't even go to the bathroom during class unless I call someone else to cover for me, because we're not permitted to leave our rooms unattended for any reason. Lunch is the same time every day, whether you're hungry or not, and unless you have lunch during your planning period, there's no time to leave the building. If I do leave the building, someone needs to know when I left and when I'll be back, and if I'm gone longer than an hour, it needs to come out of my sick time. This sort of complete inflexibility would drive some people insane.


I could go on much more than I have on each of these points. It's really something that lends itself well to a discussion rather than a ranty blog post. I would encourage anyone who isn't a teacher to talk to one sometime, just about what it's like, or ask to hear some of the horror stories. Either way, you'll learn a lot or get some cheap laughs out of it. I would encourage everyone to have some semblance of "the facts" in mind when making blanket statements about teachers, especially regarding any of the things I've mentioned above. It's a very difficult and very necessary job that we do, and the fact of the matter is that you probably couldn't do it. Don't take it personally - I might not be able to do your job either. It just takes a very specific sort of person to be a teacher, even a bad one, and many simply don't make it. Even some who really thought they wanted to teach.

I've tried to add a fair sprinkling of perspective to some of these popular sentiments spouted ignorantly about or against teachers. I'm not the sort of person who gets so worked up about this that I'm going to start picketing and rioting and lamenting about the utterly deplorable state of affairs that is being a public school teacher. If, however, you insist on telling me all about how easy I have it, I may tell you to fuck off. :) Just saying.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

One of the 417 frustrations of being a teacher

Being a teacher is generally a stressful, demanding, thankless job. We're largely unappreciated by our own students, unsupported by administration at critical moments, blamed for every child's shortcomings by their parents, and mocked and criticized by the general public since we apparently just sit at a desk for 10 months of the year and nothing else.

That's just par for the course most days. There are other times when something more irritating creeps up and punches me in the face when I thought I was having a pretty alright morning. One such thing happened last week.

I have a student whom we'll call Sam (chosen because this is not the student's name and it leaves to ambiguity even the student's gender). Sam is a senior and needs to pass my Latin class in order to graduate. Sam has failed two quarters this year and is in very serious danger of failing this quarter as well, which would be an automatic F for the year. At no time has Sam seemed particularly bothered, worried, upset, or panicked about this. At no time has Sam stayed after school for help, or made any real effort to get help during class.  One morning last week, my department chair pulls me out of class to tell me that Sam is graduating regardless, so my options are to give Sam a D (no matter what the actual grade is), or work with Sam after school in order to earn the D. There are 3 weeks left in the school year, and the seniors only need to continue to come to school for the first of those.

I suppose I would be remiss if I omitted the context of this situation, which will serve to explain much of it. Sam is a foster child who has lived a less-than-desirable life and has crappy foster parents. Sam's counselor posits that it is in the student's best interests to graduate as soon as possible and get a diploma, so that Sam will no longer need legal guardians.

Fast forward to lunch later that day, when my department chair informs me that Sam can stay after school on Friday for help. (Latin tutoring is available after school in my room to all students on Thursdays, or by appointment if that doesn't suit. It has been this way all year long.) When I hear this, I laugh in a very sarcastic and dismissive sort of way. The department chair picks up on this and asks what exactly that laugh was for. I basically just re-state for her what I discern to be the facts of the situation: Sam has been an unapologetic, abject failure for 95% of the school year, and now that failure is imminent, all of a sudden I will be graced with Sam's presence not on Thursday, but on Friday, when I'm supposed to be at home forgetting about situations like this which I'm fairly certain are shortening my life.

(Sam didn't even show up on Friday, incidentally. Wasn't even in school long enough that day to take the final exam, which I'm sure I'll now have to find some time to give to Sam when it's convenient.)

The department chair very much dislikes my assessment of the situation and initiates a level 3 flip-out, vociferously questioning my abilities to be a teacher and wondering when I'm "going to start caring about the kids." This was a very unpleasant few minutes, but I just sat and took in the spectacle of this person passing angry, profanity-laden judgment on me.

The only part I was really bothered about was the only part of the tirade I quoted directly; when am I going to start caring? Unfortunately my superior has this completely backwards - it is precisely because I do care that I find this all so troubling. I care about the integrity of my classroom, of my evaluations of my students, and the fair assessment of their work. I've been asked countless times by students, "why did you give me a (insert grade that isn't an A)?" I didn't. You earned it. That's what the sum of your efforts is worth this quarter. The sum of Sam's efforts this quarter, this year, is not sufficient to pass. Not even close.

I understand that Sam has been placed in a crappy situation which is beyond Sam's control. Sam is a victim of circumstance and has bigger problems than my class. The two options I have been given in this situation, however, are equally ridiculous.

If I'm just supposed to give Sam a passing grade regardless, then why has Sam even been in my class all year in the first place? Indeed, why even trouble Sam with having to come to school at all? If Sam doesn't have to earn a way out like everyone else does, then what's the use in cooping Sam up in school all day? Just mail out a diploma, goodbye! Moreover, what about the other students I have who are failing? Sam isn't the only one; maybe the others have got crappy lives too. Maybe nobody should fail. Sam is no less deserving of a failing grade than anyone else in that position.

The second option is actually more insulting, because it was presented to me as a "win-win" situation in which Sam graduates and I'm happy because Sam will have earned it. The implication here is that a student can atone for 9 months of sloth and indifference with one week of begrudging after-school work. Is that really all the last three quarters have been worth? An hour or two after school, and only because Sam has to in order to pass? At no point, I should add, has Sam actually come to me about this. All communication regarding these arrangements has come from the counselor.

The situation is dire. Sam currently has a 48%, which is not anywhere near the 60% required to pass for the quarter. If by some miracle Sam does manage to pass for the quarter, county policy still requires a passing grade on the final exam to pass the course. The chances of Sam passing the final are about the same as Helen Keller passing a driving test. Basically, it's a complete impossibility that Sam pass the course on merit. That means that either I roll over and put a D in the box, or I put E and the guidance office just changes it anyway. Ah, the joys of this work!

Moral of the story: please be nice to teachers. Sometimes it really sucks. Discuss.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Protest The Hero

Ok, first of all, I would just like to make it clear that I still think blogs are stupid, and this isn't one. Ignore all that stuff that seems indicative of the fact that this is a blog, because it isn't. Understood? Fantastic. Moving on.

The reason I believe blogs to be stupid is the same reason that I've never started one: nothing worth writing about ever happens to anyone. That was the case for me as well, until last week, when I had a better-than-expected experience with some Canadian folks. I realize that the events I am to recount below will not be nearly as interesting or significant to anyone else as they are to me. I simply need a place to put my thoughts together coherently, lest I forget exactly how great an evening it was.

About two years ago I was reading an interview with Mike Portnoy, recently-ousted drummer for eccentric progressive metal legends Dream Theater. I don't recall the source of the interview or even the occasion for it, but one of the questions put to Mike was about the best new metal albums he had heard recently. One of them happened to be the album Fortress by a band called Protest The Hero, not an act with whom I was even slightly familiar. Through the magic of bit torrents I shortly thereafter had in my digital possession that album, as well as their debut Kezia (pronounced kuh-ZY-uh). I was absolutely floored by what I heard. At the time I had been going through a bit of an awkward musical period, a time when I'd have had no idea what to say if someone had asked me who my favorite band was. Dream Theater held that title for a very long time, but honestly nothing of theirs since Scenes From A Memory, which was released over 10 years ago now, has been all that great, and some of the more recent stuff has been downright unlistenable (see Wither, The Best of Times, I Walk Beside You, et cetera). Rush has always been a staple of my auditory diet, but their "modern" era work (everything since Test For Echo) has been alright, not great. To summarize, I hadn't been excited about a band, an album, a song, in a very, very long time. That all changed in the time it took to listen to Fortress and Kezia.

If you haven't heard of Protest The Hero, you can certainly be forgiven. They're a quintet of twenty-something Canadian fellows who haven't been on the scene that long. Like many bands these days, they defy classification. I suppose the most generic label for their music would be "metal," but they certainly don't look like a metal band, and depending on what you think "metal" sounds like, they don't always sound like a metal band either. Their music combines very obvious elements of punk, hardcore, progressive rock, and several different flavors of metal, and usually all of these things are evident in every song. Their music is only progressive insomuch as they are very talented, very skilled musicians, and the riffs tend to be very technical. Other aspects of progressive music are not embodied so much, like epically-long compositions (most of their tunes are a radio-friendly 3-5 minutes), over-the-top solos, and lyrics about esoteric and overly-intellectual subjects. Perhaps most telling is their fan-base; the crowds they draw are mixed gender (in stark contrast to the usual sausage-fests that are Rush and Dream Theater shows), and most patrons are shoving each other around and screaming along to every word, not standing intently and playing air guitar. Obviously the best way to judge is to listen for yourself. Here are the two best tracks from Fortress, Sequoia Throne and Bloodmeat.

The first time I saw Protest was last year in Pittsburgh at Mr. Small's Theater. It was a great show at a pretty cool venue, and I stayed around after the show in the hopes of meeting the band. Eventually they did show up out back, and I had the pleasure of talking at least a little bit with most of them. They were very affable chaps who were happily willing to talk to anyone about anything, which was a pleasant surprise. They all seemed genuinely appreciative of their fans and everyone who came out and stuck around to hang out afterwards. It was refreshing, really.

Protest The Hero's latest album, Scurrilous.
Protest's third album, Scurrilous, came out in late March and prompted their most recent tour. I picked the April 30th date at the Ottobar in Baltimore, since it was a Saturday night and geographically convenient. I had never been to the venue before, but it turned out to be a great place to see a show. I got there only about a half hour after the first band (of 3 opening acts, one of the annoyances at these sorts of shows) went on, and the place was already packed. The show was actually sold out, and there was scarcely any breathing room on the floor in front of the stage. Luckily there was a balcony, so I didn't need to fear for my corporal well-being in the writhing unwashed mass collected in front of me. I had brought the 5D mk II with me in the hopes of getting some photographic evidence of the show, and lady luck really did smile on me this day. The bouncer didn't even ask me to open my camera bag, let alone evaluate if any of my equipment was permissible inside. All I had with me was my 17-40mm and 100mm f/2.0 prime, since I had no idea what the place looked like on the inside. I finally found a little nook on the balcony, which runs the length of the left side (house left, anyway) of the venue. I shuffled my way into a small pocket basically over top of the stage. I was contending with an ill-placed I-beam all night, but I was almost unbelievably close to the band the entire evening. The photos you see henceforth are all from the Ottobar show.

The show really seriously kicked ass. The place was full of fired-up, energetic Protest fans, and the set-list was great. I really don't think there was a song that I would have added. It was loud, hot, and by the end I was sweaty and exhausted, even though I had been mostly sitting or crouching up in the balcony the entire time. Some guy down in the pit got a tooth knocked out, and by the end of the show he was bleeding fairly alarmingly from a head wound. Clearly a good time was had by all.

The place cleared out pretty quickly after Protest's set, so I stopped by the bar on the way out in an ill-conceived attempt to hydrate myself with a $3 Natty-Boh (National Bohemian, to the uninitiated) draft. From there I was going to shack up outside and wait for the band, but then I spotted Luke, the lead guitarist (in pictures 2 and 3 above). He was, of all things, manning the merchandise table. That's a microcosm of how completely unpretentious these guys are; they're not above hawking their own t-shirts and CDs after they've just played a show. I wasn't really in the market for any new gear or music, but I did have Luke sign my Scurrilous CD, and I asked him what their plans were for the evening. He said they were stuck there until the bus leaves at 3 am, but they didn't have a ride to anywhere, so they'd just be hanging around. I thanked him for his time and walked outside, since apparently some of the other guys were already out hobnobbing.

Outside I found that Arif, the bassist, was chatting with fans and posing for pictures, so I got in a rather short line and waited my turn. I expressed my satisfaction with the show, he very kindly signed my Scurrilous liner notes, and posed for the obligatory goofy picture. I resisted the temptation to chat him up much more, since there were a few others waiting for his attention and I didn't want to seem annoying. I leaned against a wall and started to go through my shots from the show.

After a while Luke closed up shop and came outside too. I didn't get a goofy picture with him, but I did spend a fairly considerable amount of time listening to him talk to an extremely eager and wide-eyed teenage fan who had brought his guitar along for the band to sign. This was definitely one of the more surreal moments of the night; this kid had a million questions for Luke about his guitar parts in so many songs. Not only was Luke kind enough to be completely indulging and polite to this kid, but I'm pretty sure he was genuinely interested in having this conversation. When words weren't sufficient to explain, he just took the kid's guitar and showed him how to play the riffs in question, explaining technique and practice tips (see below). This went on for probably 15 or 20 minutes until the kid left with his father, and I don't think Luke was even tired of him at that point.

After the kid left, Luke retreated to the tour bus, but the drummer Moe and lead singer Rody had both come out to where I was, so I took the opportunity to get autographs and goofy photos with each of them too.

Then, when I could have happily called it a night and driven home content with the evening, I noticed that Arif was still hanging around outside the bus and wasn't particularly engaged with anyone, so I decided to chat him up about being a bassist (as I at one point fancied myself, ah memories). It was almost like talking to an old friend, effortless and without pause for what seemed like forever. He was genuinely interested in my musical interests and why I wasn't actively playing anywhere anymore, suggesting ways I could get back into it. We talked about how we both hate Billy Sheehan and Stu Hamm, but guitarists think they're amazing and wonderful bassists for some ridiculous reason. We talked about the new album and how it's different from Fortress, how Arif has more slap parts on the new record and almost none of the two-handed tapping riffs that are all over Fortress. After a while he says "hey, do you want a beer or something?" Yes, yes I do. Now I'm having a Red Stripe with Arif outside the tour bus, talking about being a bassist. Then somebody from the bar staff comes outside and says put the beer away or get on the bus, open containers blah blah blah and all that. Very well. Door opens, in we go. Now I'm on Protest The Hero's tour bus, drinking with Arif. Eventually Rody comes aboard too and we're all sitting there, chatting about everything and nothing. It felt strangely comfortable, and nobody asked "hey who's this guy?"

After a while the decision was made to go out somewhere, but it had to be within walking distance, so another friend of the band, a Baltimore native, suggested a little dive bar around the corner called The Rendezvous Lounge. We make the short journey to the bar, and  one of Arif's friends buys everyone a shot of Jameson's, and now I'm officially out drinking with Arif and Rody after the show. Revelation of the night: everybody in the band listens to country music. I almost didn't believe Arif when he told me, but there was Garth Brooks playing from someone's iPod on the tour bus, and at this little bar Arif and Rody were playing obscure country tracks on the jukebox (to the palpable chagrin of the local patrons). Other notable sight: guy who was so drunk that he couldn't even feed his belt through the loops again after he went to the bathroom.

We were probably at the bar for an hour or so, and then it was time for the rockstars to head back to the bus. On the way back I checked my phone for subsequent show dates, and noticed that they were playing in Philadelphia on Wednesday. I told Arif that I might go to that show, at which point he offered to put me on the guest list. He called my phone so that I had his number (no you can't have it, it only works when he's in the US anyway) and told me to text him my full name, and he'd take care of it. We got back to the bus, I thanked him for his supreme niceness and free beer, and I drove home. One of the better nights I've had.

*A note about the conspicuous lack of photographic evidence of the events described immediately above: I do have a photo of Arif that I took with my phone on the tour bus, but in general I didn't want to be the spaz pointing his paparazzo camera around everywhere, especially since they were nice enough to let me tag along that night. For photos of inside the bus, see subsequent post about the Philly show.