In my second year of teaching, my husband and I were at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving dinner. My brother and his family were there, and we were carrying on a typical, banal, holiday conversation.
“So what are you learning in school?” my father asked my nephew.
“Well, we just learned about King Henry the VIII,” he said.
“Oh yeah?” I could tell my father’s interest was piqued because he dragged out the “yeah” a bit. “What did you learn about him?”
“Well…” Ben’s voice trailed off while he tried to conjure some remnant of a worksheet or a lecture. “I learned he had eight wives.”
At the time, I was teaching British Literature, and I knew this fact was erroneous. “No, he had six wives.”
“Eight!” Ben disagreed in a tone that can only be delivered by a I’m-right-you’re-wrong-seven-year old.
Unmiffed, I tried to explain why I thought he was confused. “I think you are getting it confused with the eighth in his title, Ben. He had six wives.”
“How would you know?” my brother asked derisively. “You’re just an English teacher.”
I was furious. Just an English teacher! As if all I do is teach about gerunds and pronouns; as if all I do is teach vocabulary and read books. The fact of the matter is that being an English teacher means that I have a vast array of knowledge on many subjects. How could I teach British Literature without understanding and teaching the historical context of the different periods of literature? How could I express movements and themes in literature without understanding the philosophical tenants of the times in which the works were published?
I think I childishly stormed out of the room, went to a computer, and proved I was right. Let me tell you, I showed them!
To be honest, I didn’t show them anything, except maybe that I have a temper.
However, thirteen years later, I feel like the general public is the seven-year old and his dad at the dinner table, and I am trying to justify what I do. “You’re a teacher. Well, that’s a great job, right? All those days off! For what you probably make, you got it good!”
I would like to say I am dumfounded when people say things like this to me, but I’m not. For whatever reason, teachers are not respected as true professionals in America. We are just the lucky ones who get a bunch of days off. To the general public, we are overpaid babysitters who are whiney about our jobs.
But you know what? I am not whining because if I really think about it, I do have it good!
I have it good because some days, students are so engaged in discussion that fifteen minutes go by before I say anything. They are feeding off of each other and analyzing the text, its meaning, and the inner depths of the human spirit as it is presented through characterization.
I have it good because when I turn back essays, I tell the students that if they do not like their grade, they can rewrite. “There is not a penalty. I would like for you all to get 100%. Read my comments, and if you want to, make an appointment to see me, and I will help you organize your thoughts.” For two weeks, I see students almost everyday, after and before school, because they want to be better writers.
I have it good because I get to grade tests. I teach and teach and teach, and then they are tested on their mastery of the lesson. I cannot wait to see how well my students do. I put stickers on all of the A papers, and I write compliments on many of the others. When I notice a struggling student has done better than the last exam, I write, “Good for you. Your effort is really paying off!” So what if it is only a C-? It is growth, and I want the student to know it does not go unnoticed.
I have it good because I get kids excited about reading Shakespeare and Beowulf and Huckleberry Finn. Books come to life, and sometimes, the students get so into the book or the play, they finish it will before the due date.
I have it good because I get to apply the themes of literature to real life and I get to watch kids make connections and really think about the world in which they live and their part in it.
I have it good because every Fall (and I mean every Fall since I started teaching), I get at least one email or note from a former student. It usually says something like, “Thanks for being so tough and so fun when I had you in class. I am one of the only students getting an A in Freshmen Comp. and my prof used my paper as an example.”
I have it good because when I show up at a play or a sporting event, I get to see how well-rounded my students are, and I get to appreciate them, marvel at their talents, and understand their passions a bit more clearly.
“For what you probably make, you got it good.”
So yes. Yes, I do have it good. You want to know why? Because I make a difference!”