Just a Teacher: On the Labors of Teaching,
and the Limits of Reluctance
by Daniel Yezbick
“He’s nothing but a school teacher…a Nobody. Forget about him.”
– Paul Douglas in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives (1949)
I have been a teacher for almost 19 years. I will probably continue on in the classroom for many more. In that time I have taught middle school students, high school students, senior citizens, family seminars comprised of both parents and children, specialized classes for those undergoing intensive recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, university undergraduates, Honors students, Running Start students, military students (both active duty and retired), developmental/remedial students, graduate assistants, immigrant and refugee students, ESL students, online students, cognitively and physically challenged students, workforce retraining candidates, and even participants in hyper-competitive international corporate seminars. I have taught College Writing, Research Writing, Creative Writing, Screenwriting, Professional writing, Playwriting, Poetry, Performance, Persuasion, Short Stories, Short Novels, Short ribs (kidding), Shakespeare, Classical Civ, Mass Com, Cinema History, Media History, Theater History, Art History, Culinary History (really!), British Lit, World Lit, American Lit, Contemporary Lit, and probably a few other conveniently labeled surveys of how we think, live, and act that I can’t quite recall at the moment. If my body were as adaptive and flexible as my classroom dynamic, I would be the world’s supplest flying arboreal rodent; a rare boneless micro-squirrel with the strange evolutionary tick of turning itself into a fuzzy camouflaging pretzel at the first inkling of danger, caution, or concern. This year, I was completely surprised to discover that my colleagues recognized the diversity of my quasi-neurotic vita with a very much respected Teacher of the Year award, or, to put it another way, they made me their T.O.Y.
To get TOYed with was a true honor, a milestone, an achievement, but more than that, it fostered a genuine awakening to a rather embarrassing and uncomfortable truth. I admit that over the last few semesters, I have begun to get tired of it all and lately the reasons are becoming uneasily clear. It’s not the usual complaint that so many folks are familiar with. In your best Scooby-Doo villain’s voice: “Oh, these troublesome kids! They get worse and worse, every year!” I never bought into that one. It’s an easy lie to agree upon and one that puts all of the failings and shortcomings of a tired and disappointed teacher conveniently on to the students instead of the faltering sage on the stage. To be fair, I get visibly angry whenever anyone parrots that lie, or asks me for confirmation of the popular assumptions that the “failing” youth of America might just be as poorly prepared, badly mannered, or insistently ignorant as the pundits and prognosticators would have us believe.
That’s not true at all. Sure, I’ve had “poor” students and “bad” classes. I’ve had students who are rude, mean, and even violent and I have had no shortage of those who make you question the purpose, professionalism, and validity of what I do. Yes, they are out there, but there is no rhyme or reason to their presence. I have finished courses with a nearly 75% failure rate, despairing and discouraged, only to run into a new group that re-ignites the fires of my enthusiasm with their inquisitiveness, diligence, and burgeoning sense of wonder. At the same time, not every class necessarily has a “worst” student or an over-achiever. Sometimes, it’s just nice to work with the majority of average students who are happy, grateful (or not!), and satisfied to just compete enough to get by. Hooray for them. Some days, they make me laugh more than the earnest, uber-learners ever did.
As odd as it is to admit it, my recent misgivings are also not completely the fault of my administrators, managers, or supervisors, although to credit a few of them with even an iota of encouragement, support, or inspiration would be going something too far. After nearly two decades, I have seen whole colleges brought to the boiling points of crisis and proven programs of study dismantled and scrapped because of managerial cockfights or general ineptitude. To this day, I wonder, do these bad managers go home at night and share all of the things they broke with their families as if they were achieving great strides? Still, I have had some rare and wise deans and chairs who really know how to motivate, underwrite, and sustain the best kinds of student-centered change.
So, as it turns out, my first genuine, insomnia-inducing anxieties over my chosen career path arise from very different zones. I was never blind to the shortfalls, sneers, hardships, and sorrows that come along beside the teaching life. I grew up in a family of teachers. Both of my parents taught at the high school and then the college level their entire adult lives. My wife, also, is a teacher and I admit that her incredible abilities in the classroom were a huge part of what singled her out as that special someone more than fifteen years ago. As it turns out, she is the most recent in a long line of distinguished teachers in her own family dating back past her father, a retired UIS professor of Environmental Science, to her great-great-grand-uncle, Frank Grenville Beardsley, who was a major American theologian, pacifist, and pedagogical pioneer of his time. Still, my misgivings seem to thrive in spite of this fascinating pedagogic “pedigree.”
I knew that my parents never had enough in life and that they begged and begged me to choose another path, one that would guarantee stability for my future and that of my own children. When I made the tough choice to give up my first tenured post, with its miniscule salary, in the Pacific Northwest for a new probationary position with more opportunity to grow, my mother cried for an hour over the phone begging me to stay put for the sake of my infant son and my then unborn daughter. As it turns out, thank goodness, she was wrong. Our decision to move on saved us all from almost certain ruin when my first college went through a financial restructuring in very year we left, which would have left us in very bad straits. Today, we obviously do not starve. Things are never as fixed or flush as I would like, but how many can ever say that they are?
Still, one more lie has always burned me. To the core. I hear it at least twice a year, seasonally, and over time it has gotten harder and harder not to erupt in disgusted indignation. It usually goes something like this. Sometime in late May I will come home exhausted from the plethora of grading marathons and year-ending meetings so often necessitated by end-of-semester clean-up and catch-up. I lug my Santa-sized sack of student byproduct up the steps to my threshold and suddenly somebody else, just arriving home from work, shouts across the street, “Hey man! Hope you are enjoying all of that time off! Wish I had a job that pays me to work just a few months every year with all of those hot young co-eds.” I used to laugh with patronizing, chin-chucking “understanding” at the jackasses who felt so envious of my supposed Academic Life of Riley. In their minds, apparently, I am a parasitic amalgamation of Hugh Hefner and Bill Gates, handing out A’s for the best bust size and languorously grading research essays atop velvet cushions with a quill made from rare gems and platinum-plated peacock feathers.
A few years ago, I might have tried to explain away this misunderstanding. I might have told them that neither of my parents, or my wife, were ever able to take a summer off, except for one that was necessitated by my father’s emergency triple heart bypass. (I am sure he really indulged in lazing about recuperating and wondering how he was going to pay off his medical bills alongside all of the other catch-up costs that teachers try to mitigate over the summer interim sessions. ) Once upon a time, I might even have shown such a jealous maroon the statistics that reveal how very little the average K-12 teacher makes unless they sign on for extra summer duties of all sorts. I remember my high school teaching colleagues getting enthusiastic over the extra $48.12 (after taxes) they would get from assisting in proctoring the mind-numbing PSAT and SAT exams. (More on that ritualistic horror of corporatized American education another time, perhaps.) I might have done all of that once.
Now, I react. I talk, and I make it sting, and I feel great afterwards. I tell them that if I didn’t teach all summer long, including early morning sessions, extra online classes, and evening accelerated or even weekend college, we could not be neighbors. I tell them that if it wasn’t for the meager income from summer classes, my kids would never know what a sports camp is all about, or a vacation, or a credit-card debt free life. I tell them that they are privileged to have a job that does not attempt to belittle their value as an employee or restrict their income for three months out of the year, or apply a special state-wide forced savings plan of more than 15% on all earnings as Missouri teachers must accept, or grin under the weight of another mandate that levies a 40% tax on all overload teaching. I tell them that the paid vacation time they are often guaranteed requires the heaviest workloads for my wife and I, and that the supposed Winter, Spring, and Summer “breaks” are generally filled to the sloshing brim with overdue, under-compensated, and grievously misconstrued work, work, and more work. If their work week ends with a Happy Hour all year long, mine requires a lifetime commitment to learning, growth, and change. It is not a career, but as one of my best colleagues has said, a “terrible, demanding burden, an absurd choice, and an irrefutable calling.”
I admit, honestly, that I always knew I had the “soul” of a teacher, as one student evaluation recently asserted. To be fair, I really wish I didn’t. I could see, even as a child, the avenues into explaining, coaching, and expanding certain concepts, skills, and ideals for others. I marveled at how very few people could do it well, and it scared me a little because of the way I saw my parents struggle financially and socially despite their gifts. Their families were largely commercial consumers, status-driven, and profit-minded. Good people, but not teachers or even all that socially concerned with the state of the mind, the nation, or the world. They never could figure out why my mother would make unusual suggestions to correct their stereotypical views at picnics, breakfasts, and birthday parties. They never fathomed why my father compulsively corrected restaurant menus with a red pen or tried to explain the plots of the student plays he had taken us to see the night before. No one really cared if they were right or wrong. They just didn’t get it and that’s fine. I guess I did, and I’m not sure how fine I am as a result. More than once I have prayed as fervently as an existential skeptic can to somehow transmute my “Soul of a Teacher” into that of an investment banker, IT specialist, or insurance actuary. What would it mean NOT to carry the burden of learning and the disappointments of the classroom for just a while? Not that I don’t realize or respect the immense responsibilities of these other occupations. I surely do. I just wonder if the doctors, lawyers, brokers, and engineers I know aren’t perhaps a touch happier because they do not have to face the scorn of neighbors who envy their nonexistent vacations or associate them with every boring classroom experience they have refused to forget? I do not envy other’s lives. Again, I feel I have done well enough for my family as a laborer of learning, classroom coordinator, or “information technician” or whatever new-fangled term has been used to replace “teacher” lately. My mother used to laugh at anyone who could not call themselves a teacher straight out, whether it was a pre-school or graduate level. “Never trust an educator,” she used to say. “Always go with the teachers.”
Well, I have and I am mostly grateful and glad. I have had transcendent moments in the classroom where lives have changed before my eyes. I have seen in-class discussions end in compassionate hugs shared by a fundamentalist Mormon senior citizen and a black lesbian activist. I have saved “at risk teens” from lives of misery and seen them post their Facebook updates while vacationing in Paris. I have helped disappointed students whose parents lost everything find scholarship funding to return to their dream schools. I have seen my students go on to climb mountains in the Andes, kayak the Amazon, build eco-friendly empires, and, even more brilliantly, succeed in getting the first official academic credential in their lives after more than 40 years of trying. My students have written books and plays, dropped albums and toured nations, made brilliant films and blogged their hearts out. They have become fashion writers, entrepreneurs, doctors, nurses, dentists, puppeteers, club owners, Jell-O wrestling performance artists, and Chefs d’ Cuisine. They have ignited revolutions, saved souls, built communities, healed the Earth, and rescued the dying. I am proud, pleased, and grateful. And yet, I still tire of the stigma and the stereotyping, and the uncertainty and accusations and the ridiculous disdain. I know I could have done other things and, when I start thinking about college tuition for my children or security for my wife if I should collapse in a puddle of instruction some day, I always wish I had. When I look back on the resume that some have called impressive in its interdisciplinary range, I see it more as true evidence of my paranoid drive to make due with whatever opportunities might present themselves, to get as much as possible socked away out of any means to an end that I can find, to make sure that I never have to let my children know how relentlessly uncertain and discouraging life can get for just a TOY like me.