I am sitting at my kitchen table, sobbing for the third time in 24 hours because, with two degrees and over a decade of experience, I am not and never will be a successful teacher.
But I became a teacher to continue learning, and learning requires discomfort; it’s part of my job. I get up every morning to teach my students to lean into the discomfort, replace it with confidence, and learn to move up to another learning cycle.
My professional hopes are constantly buffeted by the storms that plague education, and I doubt that I am a unique teacher to be challenged by a never-ending internal catalog of my failures and shortcomings.
What are teachers supposed to do when our internal critic is reinforced by external sources who blame teachers instead of asking for our professional insights on reforming the system that demands so much of us to whom it gives so little?
Do we fight the battle with our own inadequacies on two fronts, or do we resign our posts in the war on ignorance and poverty to find more lucrative opportunities where our self-doubts won’t be given so much ammunition by those we try to support?
Teacher and students are told that test scores are more important than their immediate and potential influence on their communities. Instant, easily analyzed data discourages us from valuing persistent efforts toward long-term successes that cannot be measured in a day.
Disadvantaged students are expected to learn more and faster each year so they can catch up to their more-advantaged peers before they graduate from high school. Test scores are categorized by proficiency, academic growth, ethnicity, language barriers and diagnosed learning disabilities, but no consideration is given to family culture, parents’ level of education and income, access to technology and other factors that influence social, emotional and intellectual growth.
Student who seem to fail in school succeed in ways that many adults never could, and they step up for teachers who care more about kids than they do about test scores. Resilience is essential to success, but there’s still not a score for that on state exams. Most kids won’t become millionaires, but they can all become happy adults who find meaningful ways to contribute to their communities.
Education can improve our circumstances, but people do what they are good at and praised for doing. When teachers and students are constantly told that their failures are more measurable and therefore more important than their successes, we start looking for other places and ways to be successful.
Are we really surprised at the severity of teacher shortages? Could school shootings happen because students are constantly told that they are not good enough, and are given tacit permission to blame their schools for their perceived failures?
Good grades and high test scores don’t lead to financial success. My GPA and test score reports showed that I could do anything, but potential employers don’t care about those indicators, and my degree in education limits my salary to a teacher’s wages in spite of the fact that the interpersonal, communication, organization and management skills that I have learned and developed as a teacher are highly useful in many fields.
A 2018 report shows that my salary is about 20% less than other professionals with similar experience and education — but I expected that when I chose to teach. I didn’t expect teachers to be treated like we are the problem with education instead of the solution. But we are easy targets. We tolerate abuse in our schools and classrooms every day, and we don’t have the energy to fight back when the abuse comes from other sources. Or we shrug it off as just another day on the job.
Perhaps I’ll last long enough in my career to see the day when teachers are recognized as the most valuable experts in our field, when schools are run by faculty consensus and administrators are hired to take care of non-instructional administrative details to support teachers while they do what they have always done best: support students.
Carolyn Hoefer is a junior high math teacher in the Salt Lake City area.