Why you should care

Because teachers should get paid more. A LOT more.

Teaching is not at all like it is in the movies.

Jesse Houser’s mom came to see me before his trial for first-degree murder. He’d written poems about his crime for my English class. Poems so disturbing I’d passed them on to the security guard. No administrative action was taken, no counseling suggested.

My heart hurt for this woman, despite some of the details I’d garnered from the case, including her ongoing sexual relationship with her son’s co-defendant while her husband was on the road. She wanted me to write a letter to the court or to appear as a character witness for her 15- or 16-year-old son.

In a back corner of the school’s main office, I speak to Mrs. Houser one afternoon after my classes are finished for the day.

“I can’t go to court for Jesse, ma’am, I’m so sorry. He wrote about it, what they did? I read his words. He did it.” These last three words I say more quietly, not wanting to let them out, but feeling like I have to let her know where I stood.

“He just copied lyrics from songs. I can show them to you!”

Her desperation is frantic, and contagious. We log on to a nearby computer and Google “Insane Clown Posse lyrics.”

Mrs. Houser clicks around for a bit, sure she can find the words that match those her teenage son had turned in, words about tying up a girl, raping her, cutting her into pieces.

She swears she has a printout at home and will be back. I never see her again, not even when I go to a procedural hearing at the ancient, stuffy courthouse. Jesse stood in the front, in cuffs. I think the jumpsuit was orange, but I’ve looked at his prison photo each time he’s been moved, so I may be misremembering. He looked tiny, though his girlfriend said he was gaining weight without access to drugs.

I felt nervous for some reason. Jesse had been arrested nearly a year when I saw him at the courthouse, and I still thought about him more than seemed normal. What if I’d realized what he wrote was true? If the case could have been solved earlier? The victim had been missing for a long time; her family had lived with the uncertainty for more than a year.

But, you know, I love teaching; I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. I just didn’t know it wasn’t an easy job. Or, put another way, I had no idea how hard it was.

There are more than 49 million students in public schools, each with worries and strengths and a backstory. These students are not homogeneous, even within racial or social class categories. Just as every family is different, each young person needs different things from a teacher.

That’s also true of the 5 million or so students in private schools. There’s no magic in that group’s makeup either; even with more money, these pupils have their own piles of issues.

“Ass clown. He says you called him an ass clown.”

I stammer, trying not to laugh in the face of the mother who has stormed into my portable classroom.

“I can guarantee I have never said those words together in my entire life,” I reply. Truth. Until this very moment, I’ve never even heard the phrase “ass clown.”

eliana2001

The author on a good day and in class.

Courtesy of Brooks Neumann

This is not my first confrontation with Chris’ mother, and the visits start to blend together. She comes to see me several times during the first month of school. She’s the one who makes me start requesting backup for all parent conferences, which comes in handy later in the semester when a father wants to meet.

He heard from another parent that I said a third-party child — one belonging to neither of the gossipers — was illegitimate. I am bewildered because:

(a) I don’t know the child mentioned; and

(b) I do not know the parental marital status of a single child on campus.

I keep raising my eyebrows as this man talks and talks, periodically looking at the principal to see if I am missing some part of the joke. No, a very serious complaint from a ring of parents — a cabal if you will — acting like their teenage children.

This is my fourth year as a teacher — one who has received awards and commendations since her first year in the classroom. Three days into the school year, I am ready to quit.

The students who need the most get the least-prepared teachers.

The previous English teacher passed every single student, including the 20 percent or so who couldn’t read past sounding letters out one at a time. No wonder I am deemed an outsider demon to residents of the insular small town, even to farmers with no connection to the school. I’d signed a contract, so I feel obligated to finish out the year. I am not too proud to use every vacation and sick day legally mine and sign up for all possible trainings to get out of the classroom.

There are more than 3 million teachers in the United States. I’ve known great ones and terrible ones, as we all have. Trite commentary about valuing the teaching profession does little to boost morale, paychecks or recruitment.

The truth is, in most of the U.S., it’s really easy to become a teacher. Schools are desperate to have an adult body in the classroom; in my community, they can’t hire enough staff and use unqualified, untrained, noncontract, long-term substitutes for a full school year.

As a parent, I would go ballistic if my child were in such a class. As a teacher, I am irate that any random person is given responsibility for educating young people. If they do a bad job? Oh well, better luck next year, kids. For poor kids and children of color, the proportion of these faux teachers is much higher than it is in middle-class or upper-class schools.

The students who need the most get the least-prepared teachers.

If I sound angry, that’s because I am.

I worked hard at being a teacher, even once I had a job. I hate bad teachers. I hate them as peers and I hate them as people who turn kids off learning. Even worse is when they malign students, ignore them, abuse them.

When I got my bachelor’s degree in English teaching, I took classes with names like Technology in Education, Creativity in Education, Teaching Literature, Teaching Grammar, Classroom Management, Young Adult Literature, Multicultural Education, Student Teaching.

No classes were offered about socioeconomic issues, teenage or child development, behavioral red flags or troubled students.

I go on teaching, though, and the variety of encounters continues — students with extreme needs, parents wanting more than any one person can provide — because if not me, who?

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