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Respect Your Teachers

(Note: This article is written mainly from my personal experience of public school teaching in the United States, but from what I’ve heard from friends who have lived in or visited other countries, the experience of teaching and being taught seems to be very similar across the board these days.)

When you’re in school, your teachers are the people you love to hate. They seem to thrive on assigning tons of homework, giving terrible lectures that you find hard to listen to, and punishing the kids who even barely step out of line. Maybe there’s one in a thousand teachers who do things differently, but those are a precious few. Most of the teachers use stock worksheets, old assignments that aren’t even relevant to our daily lives, and they themselves seem stuck in a time warp.

Did I get the picture right? This is pretty much what I remember from being a public school student. Of course, there were teachers who stuck out in my memory as being awesome, vibrant educators, but most of them stuck to the books and didn’t like students deviating at all from their plans. As an “out-of-the-box” thinker, I found myself out of place in their classrooms.

Only when I endeavored to become a teacher myself did I see what really went on in public school classrooms, and how much each of those “boring” teachers must have suffered. Here’s what I found out while trying (and ultimately failing) to become a middle-school teacher:

Teachers are pressed for time, all the time.

There are simply not enough hours in the day to do what a typical teacher must do. Most teachers must rise before the sun, eat alone (usually on the way to work), and get there just in time to have a precious few minutes to think before the chaotic rumbling mass of students washes into the classroom like high tide. Then, you don’t have a spare moment to yourself until whenever the school day ends, because you have to be either teaching actively and keeping the kids busy, or you must be consistently vigilant for kids screwing off not doing their work, copying each other’s papers, or vandalizing school property. Even your “planning” time is not your own–this is when endless meetings are scheduled, or when parents waft in on the tide as well, asking about their kids. You also might get a principal or assistant principal dropping by to ask you if you can take “5 minutes” (usually more like 30) to do something for them.

And the work day does not end when you hobble out the door on sore feet! Once you get home, there are likely crates and boxes full of papers to grade and return to the students. Say, for instance, that one double-sided worksheet you assigned to all four classes takes about 10 minutes to grade per sheet. Multiply that by about 80 or 90 (the number of students most middle- and high-school teachers teach) and you get how much time it takes to grade all of that single worksheet. (It equates to about 15 hours. Don’t get me started on long papers and research projects. Just…don’t.)

Now, you might think that all a teacher has to do to reduce this load is to assign less homework. Students would like that, right? Certainly the teachers would! But that leads me to reason number two to respect your teachers:

Teachers are held to extremely high state and national standards.

There are these magical little documents called “Standard Courses of Study” that basically tell you what you’re supposed to cover in your class. (Here’s North Carolina’s Standard Courses of Study as an example.) There’s one for each grade level and each subject. My grade level and subject area was 7th grade Language Arts, so I had to teach what the 7th grade Language Arts SCS told me to teach.

These documents are generally written in a dialect called “Vague Legalese” that you are supposed to decipher as part of your never-ending day. If you don’t follow these guidelines, it is intimated that the dire consequences of less than 70% of your student body passing its End of Grade or End of Course test is the unhappy result. When your students don’t pass the EOG or EOC, it automatically means you’re a bad teacher, even if your students didn’t do their work and/or didn’t try.

Plus, your superiors will check up on you regularly to make sure you’re teaching along the guidelines. You have to be able to justify every lesson plan, every assignment, every breath as being part of the SCS. And you have to assign a certain amount of work, otherwise evaluators will get after you for not allowing your students to practice what they’re being taught.

And what if your student decides not to do any of his or her work? That’s your fault, too. See reason #3 to respect your teachers, below:

Teachers get punished if a student fails their class because the student refused to do his/her work.

Teachers can suffer a salary drop or even lose his or her job because a student decided to screw off in class (which usually leads to the student failing the End-of-Grade or End-of-Course test). All that the numeric grades and test results show is that a student performed poorly, and that he or she was taught by a specific teacher, not WHY the student performed poorly. This system is (SLOWLY) changing, with hopefully more humanized input in place in a few years, but it is far from perfect. Meanwhile, teachers saddled with kids who will not work and parents who will not motivate their children have to try to be miracle workers before that dreaded day in May.

Teachers also have to be law enforcement officers, prison wardens, marketing representatives, and PR representatives.

Not only are teachers supposed to be masters of their subject matter, but they also must:

  • teach their subject matter efficiently and quickly, no matter what kind of distractions and interruptions they encounter;
  • police their classrooms (and the hallways outside) for bad behavior, cheating, vandalism, and other such delinquency, all while trying to teach;
  • lead their classes silently to recess, lunch, and the library so as not to interfere with other inmates–I mean students;
  • argue successfully for school and classroom grants to get the materials and technology they cannot do without but are not given because of budget cuts;
  • deal with the public, in the form of parents and guardians who might or might not be prepared to listen and help with what the teacher needs done at home.

As a budding middle-school teacher, I felt constantly pulled in about 100 different directions while trying to teach. There were literally earmarks on every second of my time as a teacher, no time to think or plan. When I got home from teaching every day, I was jumpy and frazzled, as if I expected to be rousted out of my seat (or my bed) to take care of yet another catastrophe in the making.

Teachers have to deal with angry students, other disgruntled teachers, and more often frustrated parents.

This is the part of the job that literally scared the crap out of me–sitting face-to-face with a parent who, for instance, refuses to hear anything about how his/her child threatened another student with scissors held at the throat, threw a desk across the room and broke it, and tried to climb out one of the windows. (This happened to me, every part of it…and I wish I was exaggerating.)

You can feel utterly without support sometimes, because if even the parent isn’t willing to ally with you, who will? Certainly the misbehaving student would like nothing better than to see you tossed out on your behind. Plus, the legal systems usually side with the complaining parent, which leaves the school system with their hands tied–they cannot help you either. And your fellow teachers can only vouch for you so far; sometimes you have no witnesses except yourself and a classful of rioting kids.

Lastly, and possibly most frustrating of all:

Teachers must do lots of outside work that they don’t get paid for, at all.

Taking (and paying out of pocket for) continuing education classes, in the form of more books to read and more videos to watch in your nonexistent “spare time,” instructing you on how you’re teaching all “wrong” and these programs can help you teach “right?” Yep.

Tutoring kids before and after school, whenever THEY find it convenient to show up, for no extra pay? Yep.

Attending endless hours-long unpaid meetings in the summers about meetings we’re going to have later, all while you’re trying to set up your classroom, order new books, throw away books that kids have written curse words and drawn lewd pictures in, manage your old assignments, find updated assignments, print off new material, learn new school software, implement new technology/repair old technology, etc.? YEP.

Paying for books and classroom supplies out of your own pocket because your school’s budget is so drastically cut that they can’t afford to even buy one extra book, extra printer paper, or paper clips? YEP.

Staying at school from 7:30am until 7 or 8pm each day grading papers (or taking it home)? YEP. (Sometimes I ended up staying up till well past 3am grading!)

I was expected to do all this AS WELL AS teach during the day, and for all this work, I was projected to receive about $30,000 for what would have been my first year of teaching (the 2009-2010 school year). This would have been my gross salary as a middle-school educator in North Carolina with a Masters’ degree. According to this graph about what public school educators make, I would have been on the extreme left of the bell curve; NC teachers really don’t get paid worth doodly, especially when compared to other states (and other countries). But when you take into consideration the standard of living in various places, many teachers end up living right around the POVERTY LINE. I WISH I WAS KIDDING.

This is the Job Teachers Do!

Teaching is one of the highest career callings, and once upon a time I aspired to it, only to find that I was definitely not strong enough. The best teachers do all this with grace, but for most of us, this sounds pretty overwhelming. I know it was for me. Respect the people who do this job and don’t go absolutely batpoo crazy…they’re truly born for it!

Pain Can Change Us

When we hear of torture that makes people reveal secrets they would never have revealed otherwise, some people might say “Well, they’re just weaklings. Why couldn’t they last through the pain and just keep their mouths shut?” But the prevalence of pain relievers in pharmacies across the country and around the world seems to say that we humans actually don’t have a lot of pain resistance.

This LiveScience article, The Pain Truth, calls pain a “silent epidemic,” and it certainly is–it’s an epidemic that is downplayed and even trivialized by those who do not suffer pain as often. Pain is not merely a physical symptom of illness; it also has an emotional component of suffering, which in long-term cases leads to personality changes and life changes. I have experienced these firsthand.

My Personal Experience with Chronic Pain

Pain has been a constant companion of mine for several years, with old lower-body injuries galore, headaches and migraines, and random shooting pains that seem to have nothing to do with any injury at all. I didn’t realize how much my personality had shifted to deal with these various pains, however, until we discovered and began to treat some of the pain sources.

Getting rid of my constant burning headaches with chiropractic therapy opened my eyes first. For the first time in MONTHS, if not YEARS, I was able to go about my day without having to spend at least part of it lying in bed trying to tame a headache. How liberating! And how surprising! I could finally live without having to constantly endure the “ice pick” in my temple. Some of my friends and family commented on this change, saying that they were glad to see me smiling again–I had been suffering such pain for so long that I didn’t even realize I wasn’t smiling much anymore.

Other effects of pain on my personality were subtler, but only just. I was much more irritable and more easily frustrated–after all, my life was being controlled by a force I couldn’t stop, so anything else that slipped out of my control was that much more infuriating. Plus, with the lower-body pain, I had had to shape my life’s day-to-day rhythms carefully so that my ankles and knees would not get aggravated with too much activity/standing per day. (Usually, standing in line for 10 minutes = ankles are DONE for the day.)

Pain had, in essence, transformed me into a cranky, isolated, less active version of myself. I hated this change, but I literally could not do anything about it until at least some of the sources of pain were treated. And that, I think, is universal for all pain sufferers.

Why Pain and Its Personality Effects are Not Well-Understood

Unfortunately, pain is a feeling and not an observable condition; even scans of your body cannot see the sensation of pain, only can see potential causes of it. And others cannot feel your pain as you do–thus, they cannot truly have empathy unless they have suffered the exact same condition.

Some folks, however, don’t even make any attempt at empathy, telling chronic pain sufferers to “suck it up, take an Advil and quit complaining,” etc., not understanding or caring how insensitive and insulting they’re being. (These kinds of people are just about as infuriating as my chronic pain itself.) This dismissive attitude only adds to the mystery and confusion around pain, since some people just don’t experience it as much and therefore cannot understand why it affects us so strongly.

That’s why I’ve written this article and added my own personal experiences; pain can have a huge effect on your personality and indeed your whole life, especially if it goes a long time without being treated (as mine did). Pain is not something that only weak people feel or talk about–it’s a human condition which causes suffering (both emotional and physical), and so it must be treated seriously.

Exercise: Not My Idea of Fun

I’m currently 5’8″ and nearly 300 pounds. Yep, I said it. And traditional exercise, which has been touted as THE way for me to achieve fitness, is not fun for me, for a variety of reasons:

My Beefs with Traditional Exercise

  • Boring – nothing to think about but how much pain I’m in, how much this stinks, how much I’d rather be doing ANYTHING else (such as getting a root canal)
  • Isolating – none of my friends do any kind of exercise that I can get into, and none of them do what I’m interested in
  • Painful – everything hurts/gets sore very easily, and I hate the breathless, about-to-die feeling I get

A Little History: I USED to be a Thin, Active Little Girl

To understand how and why I’ve ended up this way, you have to know some of my background. I’ve been a fat girl longer than I was a skinny girl, but I do remember the days of being bone-thin. I was tall and fairly lean through most of elementary school–I played basketball during the school year, swam a good bit during the summers, and played both outside and inside. I also didn’t sit down to dinner long enough to really eat much, though I never went hungry, either. (As an extremely selective eater from early childhood, I chose foods based on texture almost more than taste, and ended up eating from a very limited palate which has persisted to this day.)

What Changed: Emotional Associations with Exercise, Onset of Puberty, and Injuries

Starting in fourth grade (age 10), however, my level of activity began to change, albeit slowly. I was cut from my basketball team because I had lost much of my speed to a foot injury and hadn’t really improved my playing skills. But to be honest, I had started losing interest in playing sports–I knew I wasn’t very good at physical activity, and I was beginning to be picked on for it. I just never was fast enough or quick-reacting enough, though I could pull off a surprise basket on occasion. As a result, I started doing more indoor, sedentary activities with my newly freed time.

By fifth grade, I had the basics of my adult hourglass figure in place. But fifth grade was also the year I entered weighing about 90 pounds and left weighing 145 pounds, with little to no change in my diet and regular P.E. exercise just as I had had for the previous 5 years of elementary school. This same body change has happened to all the women in my extended family–rapid weight gain and a radical body shape change around puberty, much more significant than other girls’ body changes. (I have wondered, in the years since, whether some form of endocrine imbalance or some form of hypothyroidism might be to blame, but most doctors seem not to know what we’re talking about, despite having a body of anecdotal evidence covering several lives and at least four decades.)

With womanhood barely a year away from me at age 11, puberty had thus backhanded me with an entirely new body–one I quickly learned to hate, just about as quickly as the other kids learned to tease me about it. My “muffin top” and “rolls” earned me so many jeers and so much physical abuse that I eventually quit trying to do much in P.E. at all. (Wouldn’t you have, if every time you so much a dribbled a ball some idiot would run over to you, grab the ball out of your hands, and smack it against your stomach hollering “FATTY FATTY FATTY! HAHAHA!”) Exercise, as a result, became less associated with fun and freedom, and more associated with pain, humiliation, and anxiety.

I gained about 10 pounds a year after puberty’s horrible 50-pound prank, and by college I battled to stay around 230-240 pounds. Several incidents, however, led to even walking being painful; going to class in the ice and snow led to repeatedly injured ankles and knees, which I could not get treatment for without having to WALK to the campus infirmary. (Explain that one to me!) Having always had weak ankles and flat feet (thanks to heredity), the injuries did not heal properly, which has left me with constant pain while walking. I even have a handicapped sticker, one which I am grateful for but wish fervently that I did not have to use as often as I do.

Would I Like to Exercise? Yes! Does Any Exercise Interest Me? NO!

The thing that annoys me the most about traditional exercise is the heavy emphasis on pointless repetition of mind-numbing activities. I know, I know, we’re supposed to be “training muscles” and whatnot, but it is as maddening to me as doing 30 identical math problems for homework. It’s a huge attack of “same stuff different day”–there’s nothing new, nothing interesting, nothing challenging mentally.

And, if my brain is not kept busy, then its only remaining focus is the condition of my body–you know, the straining muscles, the joints in pain, the sweat in my eyes. If exercise is repetitive (and most of the traditional programs out there are), then I end up tense, anxious, and eventually angry that I’m wasting my time doing this stuff and I’m going to waste even more time trying to recover later. (Keep in mind, I have a lot of injuries, so my body normally takes a longer time to recover from exercise anyway.)

How to Solve This?

An ideal exercise routine for me would be:

  • Fun – keeps my mind as well as my body busy
  • Social – involves friends and family as part of a get-together
  • Less painful – I know exercise is going to hurt, but it doesn’t have to hurt this much!

Let it be known that just walking on a track like a rodent in a wheel doesn’t cut it for me, nor for most like me, I’d imagine. I and other people in my same condition want more out of exercise than just doing 10 reps of this and 10 reps of that for an hour or so. Doesn’t that make sense?

Why do people have to die for social problems to be taken seriously?

I’ve noticed this pattern happening quite a lot in our society. Bullying in schools was not considered a problem until the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999. Terrorism was not an American problem until September 11th, 2001. And with the January 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona came a wave of reaching across the aisle politically that would have never happened had people not been killed. It seems that whatever the social problem we suffer, it takes a death for us to be shocked into doing something about it, whether it be bullying, terrorism, or overly partisan politics.

Have we become that desensitized to other people’s suffering? Are we that indifferent to another’s pain, that only death makes us sit up and take notice of the problem that caused it?

Example: The Columbine High School Shootings and Bullying Awareness

I have personal experience with the bullying issue–from 1990 to at least 1998, I was heavily bullied in school. I got physical and verbal abuse, I was ostracized by the other students, and I had absolutely no friends, no people who would stand with me until 8th grade. The teachers and administrators all told me that I was “too sensitive,” that I needed to “suck it up” because “kids were going to be kids.” Personally, I don’t think being held against the wall by a big guy while his little girlfriend jiggles and pinches your thighs till they bruise was something I needed to “suck up” and “live with.” But I was routinely sent to the office for complaining too loudly about the abuse I was getting in school.

I endured this until 8th grade, when apparently everybody else’s “maturity gene” kicked in and I finally got a few fairly good friends. Then the Columbine High School shootings happened.

I didn’t expect something that had happened over a thousand miles away to affect my life, but it did. Suddenly, I got a call to go to the counselor’s office–the same counselor’s office I had run to in sixth and seventh grades when I was being physically and verbally abused by other students, and in which I had been told that I needed to become “more grownup” and “less sensitive.” Suddenly, there were five adults waiting on me in there–one of the vice principals, all three of the school counselors, and the on-site police officer. They wanted to know, “Is there anybody who’s been, um, bothering you lately, you know, that we can help get you away from? Or is there anybody who’s been mean to you and you’d like us to stop that for you?” All of them spoke as if I was a ticking bomb.

I quite calmly explained that I wasn’t really having any problems at the moment, all the while thinking “Where were you two years ago, when I came to you for help and you told me I was just being too sensitive?” After they asked me if they could help for about the sixteenth time, I finally just said, “I really think it’s sad that kids had to die before you paid attention to the problem of bullying in schools.” The looks of chastised shock I got in response let me know I had hit home with my words at last.

The Aftermath: Anti-Bullying Programs EVERYWHERE…

Nowadays, of course, there’s all these anti-bullying campaigns present all over the nation, and perhaps all over the world. Teachers get trained in how to stop bullies, in ways that I never saw any teacher step up for me when I was getting hurt. Bullying awareness programs and victim support groups have popped up in classrooms, communities, and even churches; the very same people who told me I should just “suck it up and grow up” are now counseling bullying victims properly, acknowledging that they have been victims of social violence rather than just “kids being kids.”

But most of this started after 1999, after 30 students were shot by two guys who had been bullied in much the same ways as I had been. Better late than never, I guess, but it doesn’t make up for the young people who were killed because no one paid attention to the burgeoning problem of bullying. (Note: I do not excuse the two boys for their actions; I am only saying that bullying likely pushed them much closer to making the terrible choice they made, and if preventative action had been taken earlier, they may not have resorted to such deadly, horrific violence.)

Moving Forward: Let’s Pay Attention to the Warning Signs!

My point is that we should start paying attention to critical social problems when they are first raised to our attention, and not just when someone dies from them.

For instance, the 2011 shooting in Tucson shows how negatively charged our current political situation is, that someone would think that opening fire on a public official and the surrounding crowd was a good idea. But there’s been lots of evidence before now, evidence that has been pushed to the side by both parties. Inflammatory comments, highly biased reports, unfair sound bites–and yet all of that has been shoved aside by people who don’t want to even listen to what the other side has to say.

Now, of course, there’s a big push to try to reunite this broken nation in the veils of mourning. My question is: why do we have to witness and mourn death before we drop the “US VS. THEM” banners? Why do we have to wait for a tragedy to remember we’re all humans?