Before I started teaching in my own classroom in the fall of 1987, I would sneak into the quiet, empty school daily, starting in early August just to get a feel for the place: to set up my bulletin boards and arrange desks; to familiarize myself with some of the resources and to develop unit plans and a year overview. Actually, the planning had begun in June, but by August, I was revising and fine tuning.
I was terrified. Making it work was going to be very difficult, as I had learned through many a late night during my practicum.
Ah yes, the practicum – the rite of initiation that made or broke you as a starting teacher. It was in the practicum that we learned the harsh reality that no matter how much work we did as a teachers, we could always do more – that no matter how long we worked, the work would never ever be finished.
Haunting every new teacher is an awareness that we can never achieve the ideal of teaching. We can never be on top of every child’s every individual learning need in every subject all the time. The world of the classroom teacher is not such a world. That world is reserved for the extremely wealthy: princes and the like, who have private tutors in each subject area. Education in the real world would never be ideal.
And as we got to know our students, we were haunted by other facts: that some of our students suffered abuse; that some suffered from mental illness or neglect; that some came to school simply unready to learn for myriad reasons, poverty being the one unifying factor for most cases.
So we learned to work as much as we could, keeping in mind that we had to stop, to eat and to sleep, and that once in a while our lovers or friends might want to have us around, or we’d have to attend a staff meeting. The teaching practicum was about imbalance. It became the centre of our lives. We spent pretty much every waking hour doing education.
After a few months and years on the job, we became more efficient. We learned to fight the easily winnable battles first, and balance out our lives a bit. Very few teachers live in situations in which they can devote their whole lives to teaching. And more power to those that can.
And the wages? Well, when I started, I understood the salary grid. I understood that the career would never make me rich, but that if I kept at it, I’d buy myself a decent pension to retire on, and if I combined my income with my wife’s I would be able to live in my own house. It felt like an agreement. Teachers would always earn just so much. No more, no less – a comfortable wage. That was the deal.
What I didn’t foresee, though, is that over time, this deal would be reneged on. My income would erode; teachers would make less and less real dollars throughout the course of my career.
I also didn’t foresee the negative attitude toward teachers that seems to have grown. Sure we complained about teachers when we were kids, but we also secretly loved them. We trusted them, and we were impressed by their vast knowledge of the world. As a new teacher, I knew that this would be part of my pay – the great dignity ascribed to teaching – being part of a centuries old tradition – I thought of Socrates. To be a teacher was to live in a positive world of people, and to be able to do work for the betterment of individuals and society.
But now, the things have changed. Some of it is still the same; the kids are still the same, bless their hearts. But the outside world has changed. In BC teachers are making 15% less in real (inflation adjusted) dollars than they did 10 years ago. And the public narrative, led by our own government is that we’re irrelevant – that we’re somehow in need of special supervision lest we are lazy and incompetent.
Our efficacy is being taken away through cuts to the system. Class sizes are bigger and more needy kids are getting less specialist attention. Librarians are being cut; counselors are being cut. We’re asking parents to pay more and more in user fees – fees that some kids just can’t afford – those kids who mysteriously take sick on field trip days, so their parents won’t have to admit they don’t have the money to put their child on the bus. Our college was disbanded through government legislation. People are clamoring for more accountability. Citizens now call themselves “taxpayers”, and begrudge every nickel that goes into the system.
Our government won’t listen to what we say about what the system needs. Instead they ignore our expertise and simply legislate what they think is best. They have violated the Charter and international law in their dealings with us, and have engaged in nasty campaigns of ridicule and goading against us. All of this has been well documented in Supreme Court rulings. And the topper? Our own premier called us “greedy”. Then we express our outrage and we’re called whiners. Lawyers, doctors, nurses, truckers, lab scientists: I’ve never heard any of them called whiners, but I hear it all the time about teachers.
The only people I can talk to these days are my colleagues. We’re all like dogs that have been beaten too much. We’re skittish and reactive around the public. We don’t trust the motives of the parents of the students we teach, lest they believe the narrative that our own government has created about us. We are afraid to put a bad mark on a paper, or discipline a child lest we be called to the carpet. We have been violated, and demoralized. And we seem to be alone.
I never saw this coming.