Posted in Teaching

My Heart is With You, Teachers

Today is the first day of school in Austin, but I am not there, and it’s not just because I moved. In May, after nineteen years teaching seventh grade English, I resigned from my career as a middle school teacher. I was not alone. Thousands of teachers across the country walked away from education this year. For me, it wasn’t the first time I quit. In 2012, after thirteen years of teaching, I felt burned out and left the classroom to write. In 2016, I came back, and I’m so glad I did because I made so many great friends at my new school. Some are still there, while several others, like me, have set off for something new.

The first time I quit, a lot of people asked me why I was leaving. This time, no one has asked. Instead, they just nod as if they already know. Sometimes they make assumptions. “I get it,” they say, and then they state the reason why they think I’m leaving. The most common fill-in-the-blank answers are covid, parents, low pay, and lack of respect. They’re not wrong, but they’re not right either, not completely.

It wasn’t just one thing; it was many things. Maybe it was everything.

Yes, teacher pay sucks. When I started my career in 1999 in Leander ISD as a first-year teacher with zero years of experience, my salary was $29,500. Last year, in Austin ISD, as a teacher with eighteen years of experience, it was $54,856. Before you start trying to do math in your head to figure out if that’s reasonable, consider two things:

  1. It is WAY more expensive to live in Austin now than it was in 1999.
  2. Last year, first year teachers with zero experience in AISD made $51,150.

Yep, my eighteen years of experience, professional development, and leadership roles were worth $3,706. (Click here to see the Austin ISD 2022-2023 Compensation Manual.)

But it’s not the pay that made me leave my job. For the first several years, I loved the work more than I craved money. Later, I had the privilege of being married to a spouse who earned much more than a teacher’s salary, and we chose not to have children, which are very expensive creatures. I was not trying to raise a family on a teacher budget, though many people are.

Covid certainly didn’t help. Hybrid teaching was terrible and caused me so much physical, mental, and emotional stress, but I can’t say it was the pandemic that drove me out either.

98% of the parents I interact with are great, and I refuse to let the 2% of terrible ones be the reason for leaving a job I love. I had already resigned this spring when a parent berated me for half an hour because his daughter plagiarized her essay and received the standard consequence according the school handbook—parent contact and a zero on the assignment with the opportunity to redo it for a 70—so he was definitely not the reason I left. (During the zoom meeting with me, he never once denied that his daughter plagiarized. Instead, he attacked my character, talked over my assistant principal, and asked that all my grading be audited. My favorite part was when he said, “What’s worse than giving a student a zero on an assignment?” and I responded, “Giving them a zero and not allowing them to redo it for a passing grade.” He never came back to that line of questioning because my answer was too logical.)

Kelly Treleaven (a.k.a. Love, Teach), a teacher, blogger, and author I’ve admired for years, calls these people “jackhammer parents.” Kelly also left the classroom this spring.

So, if it wasn’t the low pay or covid or even the “jackhammer parents” that caused me to leave, what was it? I think it was everything. Some days it was the over-testing and data-collecting. Some days (but not many) it was the disrespect from students. Some days it was the lack of enforceable consequences. Some days it was the poor communication from the district and the misguided decisions made by TEA without consulting those who the decisions would affect the most. Some days it was just the myriad of things I was asked to do without being given ample time to do them. Some days it was the fact that the AC in our school was out again, and I had to work in an 85° classroom of thirty students and thirty laptops while I sweated through my clothes and my mask.

Mostly, it just wasn’t fun anymore. I didn’t love the job like I used to, and I had the opportunity to leave, so I did. This time, I know it’s right because I’m not feeling wistful as my friends return to the classroom. I’m not having back-to-school dreams.

Still, I haven’t taken the word “teacher” off my profile because teaching is a part of my identity. Just because I’m not employed as a teacher right now doesn’t mean I don’t still feel like one, deep down. I hope to teach again in other forms, such as writing workshops and author events. (Keep an eye on my website for upcoming info about school visits.) But I don’t think I’ll ever have a permanent position in a school again.

Even though I’m not actively teaching anymore, my heart is with the teachers still in the classroom, the ones who still love it despite everything. I want to support them however I can, and one way I can do that is by showing the world what it’s really like being a teacher—the highs, the lows, the good, the bad, the ugly, the weird, the hilarious, the day-to-day life of working in a school. People who have never taught don’t truly know what teaching is like. I want them to learn. Over the course of this school year, I will be posting interviews on my blog with teachers of all subjects, grades, and experience levels. I’ll ask each of them the same set of questions and let their answers speak for themselves. (Picture James Lipton’s Inside the Actor’s Studio questionnaire except longer because I could not boil down what it means to be a teacher into only 10 questions.)

Already this school year, I’ve heard from a teacher friend who was asked to remove any books “that may be considered controversial” from her shelves. (Considered controversial by whom?) I’ve heard from a teacher friend required to be a bus monitor because so many bus personnel are out with covid. (But how is she supposed to teach her own students when she’s riding a bus for five hours a day with no extra pay?) I’ve heard from a librarian friend at a school with ten open teacher positions. (Will she get to be a real librarian this year or just a babysitter for uncovered classes?) The teacher taking over my former classroom has 183 students on her roster. (I had about 130 last year in the same position.) No one expects this school year to be easy, but they’re showing up anyway.

Teachers, you are heroes. Thank you for still being there, for everything everything everything you do. Tell me your stories, and I will make sure your voices are heard.

* If you are a teacher who would like to be interviewed or if you know a teacher I should interview on my blog, send me an email at cariejuettner@gmail.com. I’m especially interested in connecting with educators outside of Texas.

* If your company has open positions, please consider hiring a former teacher. You won’t be sorry. Read “11 Reasons Why You Should Hire a Former Teacher.

* If you are just starting out on your teaching journey, I highly recommend Kelly Treleaven’s book: Love, Teach: Real Stories and Honest Advice to Keep Teachers From Crying Under Their Desks.

Posted in Teaching

The Future of Education Works for Belly Rubs

Dogs are amazing. This is not debatable. Their eyebrow expressions alone earn them a spot in the Best Things About the World Hall of Fame. But dogs are not just adorable pets with droopy jowls and waggy tails and happy paws that tippy-toe when their humans come home from work. They’re intelligent, loyal animals who have been trained to do some very important jobs. More than once, I’ve met a dog whose responsibilities humbled me. Like the black lab who worked at the same elementary school as I did. My job was to shelve library books. Hers was to detect a little girl’s seizures before they happened and alert an adult.

Dogs guide the visually impaired, rescue people buried in avalanches, sniff out illegal substances, provide therapy for children, and calm veterans suffering from PTSD. They. Are. AMAZING. Therefore, I propose one more career option for canines: substitute teaching.

Hear me out.

Schools are currently facing a teacher shortage and a sub shortage. When a teacher is absent and no substitute can be found, other staff members have to give up their conference times to cover classes, or students must be sent to the library or gym to be monitored in large groups, resulting in a more stressful, less effective learning environment.

The best way to solve this problem is to pay teachers a salary that matches the demands of their job, and treat them with the respect they deserve, so that people want to apply to work in education. The second-best way to solve this problem is to compensate teachers for their unused personal days when they resign or retire, so they’ll be less likely to take a bunch of days off at the end of their career.

But, since no one seems to want to do any of those things, I suggest hiring dogs as subs.

Picture this: Your unruly, end-of-the-day advisory class is getting squirrely. Students are kicking the desk of the person next to them for no reason, leaving their assigned seats to roam around the classroom with evil intent, and shouting at people walking past in the hallway. Now imagine that their sub is a 120-pound German shepherd sitting ramrod straight and perfectly still at the front of the room. Every time a student stands up, turns around in their seat, or speaks above a whisper, the dog lets out a deep guttural growl that makes every hair on every middle schooler in the room stand on end.

That’s effective classroom management if you ask me.

I. SAID. SIT. DOWN.

In elementary schools, subs aren’t just required within the classroom. They’re also needed to escort students between spaces. This is an excellent job for border collies. No child will be lost on the way to lunch or wander off during P.E. with a border collie as a substitute. Disobedient kids might come home with a sore ankle or two, but the pack WILL STAY TOGETHER.

Even mature, well-behaved classes can benefit from dog substitutes. Are your choir students nervous about their upcoming competition? Hire a husky that sings along and makes them laugh. Got a stressed out senior AP class cramming for exams? Send in a corgi to offer a soft belly for them to scratch while they study.

My face when students ask, “Is this for a grade?”

From pugs to poodles and beagles to basset hounds, every dog has a special gift to share. So, teachers, the next time you test positive for covid or need a mental health day and can’t find a sub, see if your neighbor’s labradoodle is busy.

What could go wrong?