To Be or Not To Be
A few weeks ago my students were reading the “To be or not to be…” speech in Hamlet. Virtually everyone knows a part of it, whether they are aware of it or not. It’s one of those things that is so ingrained in our culture that we aren’t even aware of it. Snippets and phrases from this soliloquy have made their way into virtually every facet of our lives. A student pointed out a Chik-Fil-a box that said: “To dip or not to dip.” Another that “The Undiscovered Country” was a Star Trek reference. It pained me to point out that the title of the movie was a Shakespeare reference, not the other way around. All said and done, while it’s nice to know that one of the more poignant speeches in English history has lived on in many different forms, it’s also a little sad to know that it’s been relegated to the likes of selling mediocre fast food and adorning the titles of mediocre Sci-Fi films.
But as we discussed the speech, my students started to catch on that it was more than just a discussion about the fear of death. That the very cornerstone of Hamlet wasn’t just the semi-suicidal musings of an Elizabethan era Emo, it was also a commentary about the fear of the unknown. Yes, we avoid death because we don’t know what happens after we die, but that we also sometimes avoid life because of fear of the unknown as well. That conscience makes cowards of us all.
I am a coward. I tell my students that they need to follow their dreams, to find the things they love and what they do well to carve out a slice of satisfaction and happiness, but here I am, a hypocrite of Shakespearean proportions. A Polonius for want of an arras to hide behind. I am not doing what I love anymore. I am not doing my job well anymore. Yet I am still here. I, along with tens of thousands of other teachers across this country of ours, are in this perpetual twilight sleep, existing between the harsh realities of life and the dream of what might be. If we choose to stay and wake up, we bear the whips and scorns of our career. If we end it, if we pursue another dream, we venture out to that great unknown. That undiscovered country of life after teaching too few of us have returned from. Worse than a meaningless death is a life without purpose, and what job can give us a purpose greater than teaching?
What Dreams May Come
I remember all too clearly the warnings given to us soon-to-be teachers from those who had gone before us. ‘Half of you will quit before year two,’ ‘Burnout can happen at any time, and will happen repeatedly,’ ‘Forget about any sort of normal life,’ and my favorite, which was always saved for last after a litany of horrifying predictions, ‘It will be the best thing you ever do, and when you leave, you won’t ever find anything close to it.’ Imagine going into a profession where they tell you going in that it will be the hardest job you ever do, that most people can’t hack it, and it will leave your life in shambles, but you’ll never find anything like it ever again, so if you leave, you’ll never be as fulfilled. Not much going for it going in, and once you’re in it, it gets worse.
According to The Learning Policy Institute report about the state of education and educators in the US, there was an estimated shortage of 100,000 teachers this year, and of the teachers we do have, nearly as many were unqualified for the position they were in. The attrition rate of teachers was nearly double the national average of similar types of jobs, and the average salary for an educator was tens of thousands less for a professional with a similar level of education.
You can find all this information here, and I’m sure countless other places, but here’s the real bitch of it: It’s our calling, and with that comes everything it entails. Not a single person goes into teaching for the money, fame, or recognition. We do it to make a difference, but that means that when we ask for a fair wage, or fair work hours, or pretty much anything, we sound like ungrateful, money-grubbing opportunists. “But I thought you were in it for the outcome, not the income!” So we bite our tongues, get a second job to pay for our meager little apartments or homes and the student debt we incurred to teach in the first place and likely to never pay off, and go about our lives trying to not have the power turned off again so we won’t have to grade papers in the dark. But somehow we’re living like pauper kings in the Summer because apparently we only work nine months a year.
Yet we dream. We dream of a time where education is again seen as our greatest investment in America. We dream of a time when educators are seen as integral parts of our society and are treated as such, not vilified by crappy movies and the few who went beyond the pale. We dream of a society who again values education, intellect, and innovation and not easy answers, witty one-liners, and cheap commercialism. Mostly, we dream about what else we could be doing besides teaching because we know none of those things will happen. At least not in our lifetime.
The Heartache and the Thousand Natural Shocks
The worst thing about teaching is that somehow, amazingly, people forget that we are people too. Students, parents, politicians, even our own administrators and school boards see us as something other than people. Some offshoot of the human race, Pedagous Sapiens: An industrious creature that can consider the individual needs of thirty plus students in a ninety minute time frame while delivering meaningful instruction in an entertaining way while adhering to strict guidelines of acceptable behavior while operating on five hours of sleep, two cups of coffee and a hastily consumed breakfast. All before most people have made it to work. Then, do that for two more classes, have a meeting, grade and plan for one hundred and eighty students for two hours, then take work home and grade some more.
Except we are not these things. We are humans, we are people, yet we have somehow become both more and less. I have seen some of the strongest people I know reduced to tears because we have to witness the injustice of fellow colleagues, like the one who has two masters degrees but can barely make ends meet, and is treated like some troublesome beast of burden because of the color of her skin and tone in her voice. We see children who endure some of the most horrific experiences any of us could imagine, rapes, abuse, alcoholic parents, suicide attempts, traumatic injuries, homelessness, deportation, etc. then have to come to a school where they are treated like cogs, but if I were to embrace them like a human in need, my motives would be immediately called into question. In my few years of teaching no less then four of my students have died and each has taken a part of me with them. We get divorced. There is substance abuse. Heart disease. Obesity. Anxiety. These are a few of the things my fellow teachers and I suffer through in a relatively “normal” school, and in of the best school systems in my state. Yet suggest that we should be treated with compassion and professional courtesy, that we should earn a living wage comparable to our advanced degrees, and we are reminded that we are here for the children, that this is our calling, and that we knew what we signed up for.
A student once asked me if I liked teaching and I told her I loved it. Then she asked if I was to go back and do it again, would I? I said probably not. And that answer kills me because of its absolute truth. And it’s an answer shared by tens of thousands of us.
I guess the only question that remains is to continue to teach, or not? That’s one we all ask ourselves nearly daily, but what will happen if more of us decide we deserve more and not to be teachers?
“This, above all, to thine own self be true.” – Polonius