Tuesday, August 13, 2013

My mother told me not to be a teacher...

Jasmine at homecoming

Here we are together, two weeks before she passed away

Dear North Carolina,

My mother told me not to be a teacher. When I was an infant, she realized that her teacher’s salary would not allow her to take me to the beach to see the ocean.  As I grew, she told me to choose a job that would pay me well. She said that all people work hard, but that some people get paid way more than others.  Like they say in our great state, “She was right as rain.”  

I saw everything differently though.  I saw the countless children that my mother loved and the joy it brought to recall their antics and their successes.  I saw her summers off without realizing how many unpaid hours she was putting in to do her job so well. She was and is excellent at her job and her students are lucky to have her.  Still, I tried not to become a teacher. 

In college, I steered clear of education, but the highlight of my week was picking up my little buddy, Jasmine, a girl labeled at-risk for dropout by her teachers. Defiant, rude, loud and as sassy as they come, Jasmine made life difficult for her teachers.  She was kicked out of her high school for delinquent behavior. In their eyes, she was lashing out and out of control. 

I saw a different side of Jasmine though. When she got in my car she always changed the station to rap and cranked up the volume as loud as it could go.  It must have been hilarious to see a waspy girl like me riding around with my sassy Jazzy and 102 JAMZ turned way up loud. When we weren’t talking about her crush on Lil Wayne or Usher, I helped Jasmine earn A’s by teaching her how to study for tests. We turned it into a game, and then she aced everything. For all of her brash exterior, Jasmine was a gentle soul on the inside. She loved babysitting her cousins and she was as tender with them as any mother would be. She wanted to earn her cosmetology license and she talked about going to college like me.  I saw her struggle with her weight and worry about finding something that would fit for her homecoming dance. My heart broke along with hers several times through the years.  I loved her and she became a friend instead of just a mentee. I will never forget the day her mother called me to tell me that she passed away. She was about to turn 16.

I couldn’t save Jasmine.  In fact, I believe she was the one who saved me from a dishonest life with myself—I was meant to be a teacher all along. She showed me that much and more.  Five years later, I am a teacher.  I just earned my master’s degree while working full time in the public schools and I am graced by the presence of students like Jasmine all the time.   

In the few years that I have worked in this profession, I have lived so much. I taught a child who watched one parent murder the other one. I saw that student heal, grow and flourish again in the classrooms at my previous school. I taught children who had such low self esteem that they couldn’t see their worth until teachers broke through layer by layer to show it to them. I have watched, heartbroken as a kind cafeteria worker loaded up a child’s backpack with leftover boxes of raisins at the end of the year so that he would have something to eat over the summer.  I had no idea. I feel the sting of tears well up in my eyes even now as I remember this. They are tears of hurt, knowing that I have glimpsed the abyss of need in our communities but they are also tears of hope because I know that I have found my purpose.  I still have so much to give.  My mother told me not to be a teacher.

Parents, I am on your team. I love your daughters and your sons.  I take great joy in crafting the best lessons-- lessons so good that your children won’t even realize how much they’re learning because of all the fun they have in the process.  Once I teach a student, I always consider him or her one of my children too. Teaching is not a simple act of imparting knowledge. Teaching is a lifelong mentoring relationship—it is a calling—it is love.

It hurts me deeply to know that North Carolina has gutted the public education system in favor of vouchers and charter schools that can pick and choose their student clientele.  It hurts me to know that the legislature and governor have stripped North Carolina of the teaching fellows program to recruit and cultivate new talent for our children. I ache in knowing that they also cut master’s pay for deserving teachers who have given everything they have for a tiny increase in salary. Let us be clear. Master’s pay is a simple $3,000 jump from the base salary of a North Carolina teacher. To teachers who make 30,000 a year, losing this is a punch in the gut.  This is $3,000 less that they will have each year to afford a safe car, healthy food for their families, or the rising costs of college tuition for their own children.  And for what savings does this come? Is it for businesses to have a tax break?  Teachers are educating the future work force. The least we can do is make sure that they don’t have to live on government assistance while they do their difficult jobs.

Legislators will tell you that these changes are for the good of the state, but they are shortsighted.  Without quality teachers our public school children—the poorest ones, the ones who need it the most—will fall even more behind.  They will blame it on the teachers, because we are easy targets.   We tend to keep our heads down and do what we love—teach.  We don’t want to be involved in politics—we don’t want to make waves--we just want to be able to live on a modest but fair salary.  We want to work in schools that don’t have to choose between ordering toilet paper or copy paper.  Is this too much to ask? My mother told me not to be a teacher.

I hear some of my friends and family ask, “What’s wrong with these lazy teachers? Why can’t they get those test scores up?” I can’t begin to explain the hurt and anger that those statements incite. With rising class sizes year after year, little to no budget for supplies and rapidly falling pay, these statements are demoralizing. Students can’t ace tests when they’re hungry for nourishment, itchy from head lice or when they haven’t had any sleep because they are homeless and scared at night. Even when schools do succeed at raising test scores, as my mother’s school has, the teachers have yet to see the meager bonus promised alongside that success. The only reward that teachers receive is the intrinsic satisfaction of doing their jobs well and with great love.

I am one of the lucky ones. I am lucky enough to work in Guilford County now, where teacher pay is slightly higher than most in the state. In addition, my husband is not a teacher and so I am able to continue on this career path of doing what I love because we can afford it.

Dear North Carolina, land that I love, please hear me when I say, it should not be a luxury to choose teaching as a career. 

My mother told me not to be a teacher.  When I finally have a child of my own, please don’t make me tell him or her not to be a teacher too.

Katie Wall Podracky

N.C. Public school teacher, Greensboro