Sometimes, I miss the classroom so badly it hurts. But I couldn’t stay in a thankless job that paid barely enough to cover my rent.
During the early-August stretch when teachers are revising syllabi and decorating classrooms, I indulge a wave of nostalgia on RateMyProfessor.com. Maybe something new has been added since spring to the three glowing reviews and the coveted chili pepper.
Something Wicked This Way Comes: “I didn’t pay money to take a class with a professor who doesn’t want to teach,” a review given during the four-month stretch I was perpetually ill.
Now, back to full health, I look back on all the times I wanted to teach. Way back.
My first grade teacher is a plump, amiable woman who gives hugs soft enough to curl up and go to sleep in. During her planning time, she indulges my early love of literature by letting me read aloud to the class. I flip through the pile of Great Illustrated Classics—Heidi, Oliver Twist, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea—as the other kids inch their carpet squares closer.
Roald Dahl is my favorite author in fourth grade. I like Matilda’s Miss Honey and her sun-kissed hair, her gentle patience. I also decide that I like mineralogy, thanks to our teacher’s efforts to get girls interested in science at a young age. She helps me pick out precious stones and geodes on our field trip to the Smithsonian, a favorite place of mine to this day.
A jovial guy in his mid-20s, our all-county band director is that ideal blend of upbeat motivation and relaxed humor that makes everyone want to do their very best. One night after a rehearsal, a group of us spot a familiar face at Walmart folding shirts by the dressing room.
“Hey!” we holler. “Hey Mr. K, what are you doing here?”
From the front row of English composition class, I move my hair behind my ear and shyly tell my professor that we’re wearing the same earrings. She later becomes my mentor for an independent study in creative writing, then my friend. When she eventually retires and the department hires me on as an adjunct, she bequeaths her binders of prompts and lesson plans into my eager hands.
I’m grateful to be a young humanities graduate with a job in my field. In 2012, how many others can say the same?
I feel more comfortable in the classroom with each passing semester. My observations are positive, my evaluations consistently rank above the departmental averages, and I am taking on new and challenging course material.
But with no office, I practically live out of my car between multiple campuses. I devour granola bars in the bathroom stall because there isn’t enough time to eat and piss separately between classes. My schedule is erratic: Historically a tea drinker, I now demolish pots of coffee so that I can be bright and perky from an 8am start to a 10:45pm end.
At 24, I can roll with these punches. But at 27, the bouts of sleeplessness come, the prolonged fatigue.
“Please don’t do this again,” I beg academic affairs. One of my students has dropped an already low-enrolled class to transfer into another of my sections, bringing the first down to tutorial status. Which means that I get paid per head and lose over a grand of my salary.
“It’s almost two months’ rent.” My voice is starting to break.
“Chelsea, you’re not the first instructor this has happened to. If we paid you in full, we’d have to do it for everybody.”
“Then do it for everybody.”
A series of sinus infections over several months has turned into walking pneumonia. My students pull the projector screen down for me so that I can remain seated, my limbs like blocks of lead. It takes every last drop of energy to focus on renaissance poetry until I can get to the pharmacy for another round of medicine.
“Why don’t you just go home?” someone asks. “Don’t you have sick leave?”
One Saturday I drive to Annapolis for an SEIU meeting and meet adjuncts from all over the state. One professor recently threw in the towel for an entry-level call center job so that his special needs son can have health insurance. Another professor in her 60s is looking for a roommate to save money on rent.
If I don’t want to be fired, my colleagues warn, I’ll keep quiet about attending the union meeting.
When I left three contractual part-time jobs last spring to take the opportunity of a lifetime at a non-profit research organization, I was frequently asked by non-teachers: “But don’t you love teaching?”
Sometimes, even though I still work in education, I miss the classroom so badly it hurts. It was the space where a group of communications students threw an impromptu birthday party, complete with cake, for a man who had just lost his grandmother. Where half a dozen women every semester submitted expository essays on their escape from domestic violence. Where a refugee presented me with a candle and card, saying that I was the first instructor who didn’t make her feel like less for not being a native English speaker. Where I held a talented writer as he cried for his brother killed in prison the day before—the inspiration behind every poem he wrote for class. Teaching is no profession for those with hearts of stone.
But for every breakthrough moment that reminds teachers why we do what we do and every story that reignites our passion, there is an administrator dolling out poverty-level wages and refusing to provide compensation for professional development. An intrusive parent telling us how to do our job, or an absent parent denying that they have one. An angry coach demanding to know why we didn’t pass their star athlete who never showed up to class. A scathing evaluation from a belligerent or apathetic student that may lead to our dismissal. It truly does take a village, but the responsibility of that village lies disproportionately on a single hut. Or as Diane Ravitch put it in 2010, “since we can’t fire poverty, we can’t fire students, and we can’t fire families, all that is left is to fire teachers.”
The trope of self-sacrificial Miss Honey and the fanfare of Teacher Appreciation Week are just more cogs in the wheel of thanklessness unless they are backed up by tangible resources, adequate compensation, and the respect of parents, students, and administrators.
High school English teacher Peter Greene accurately describes teaching as painting a house with not enough paint, patches of rotten wood, and people telling you that you’re lazy for using a ladder. But, as I learned at the union meeting that I can now talk about freely without placing my livelihood in jeopardy, it doesn’t have to be.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.