Ever Say This to a Teacher?

First-year Teacher

“So what are you doing with your summer now that school’s out?” she asked. It was a sincere question, said with a smile that indicated her happiness for me.

My acquaintance had forgotten that I no longer teach but now work in Central Services in a twelve-month job. I explained that this is my busiest time of year, as I prepare for teacher workshops and design lesson packages teachers can download in the fall.

I’ve gotten such questions many times over the years—and even still get them from people who’ve forgotten that I’m now an instructional specialist.

But their questions are distinctly different from the ones that make every teacher and former teacher rage. Each summer of my entire career I’ve had to control the urge to spew vitriol in the face of uninformed comments like this one: “It must be nice to have a two-month paid vacation.”

“It is nice,” I once replied, “but I don’t have a two-month paid vacation. I have a ten-month paid vocation.”

I loved teaching. It’s a vocational choice I’ve never regretted. Frederick Buechner, in his book Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, defined a vocation this way:

The kind of work God calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you most need to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.

Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

To me teaching was a calling. Yes, some days I came home feeling exhausted and depressed by all that I had to do and all that I was unable to do. But there were more days when I came home feeling elated that a lesson had gone better than I expected, that a student had offered an insight into a novel that I’d never considered, that a student told me her life was better that day for having had me on her side.

I will always bristle at the ignorance of the uninformed. Teachers do not get paid during the summer. The average coal miner in West Virginia makes more money than the average teacher is paid. Almost every young teacher I know works a summer job—teaching summer school, waiting tables, mowing grass. Unable to afford living alone, many still live with their parents to save money, or they share an apartment with other teachers. Studies show that the number of teachers who leave in the first five years has hovered near 50% for decades. And of the public school teachers who left for another profession during the 2008-2009 school year, the most recent year for which statistics are available, most reported that opportunities for learning and growth were better in their new positions. And those of us who stay in the profession are now forced to defend the pensions and health benefits that keep many teachers from walking away.

A National Education Association study a few years ago found that the average teacher who stays in the profession is “a married, 43-year-old white woman who is religious.” Me. Well…me minus a few years.

At the risk of stating the obvious, that is not a good thing for our children—not a good thing for our country.

In the fall, as the new school year approaches, the media will launch another series of back-to-school pieces. Some will be attack campaigns meant to remind us of every bad teacher we’ve ever had. They will be funded by the wealthy who chose professions that do not fit Buechner’s criterion (b), and they will appeal to less wealthy people who feel that teachers don’t deserve benefits that they have to pay for themselves. Mostly, though, the media will help us launch the new school year in a positive way, reminding us of teachers who have made a difference in the lives of their students.

But now it is summer. Ask a teacher who teaches because it’s a vocation, and he’ll tell you a story of a former student who has done very well. Ask a teacher who teaches because it’s a vocation, and she’ll tell you that, after a much-needed break, she’s looking forward to the start of a new school year. What other job offers a fresh start every year—a new opportunity to make a difference in the world?

One of my friends posted on social media that she recently wrote letters to all seven of her son’s teachers to thank them for his successful year—a year when she felt that every teacher had been good for her child. Several of them wrote back almost immediately, even though they were already on vacation, to say how much they appreciated her note.

But say to us teachers in that envious tone, “I wish I could have a two-month paid vacation”? That will bring out the worst in even the most called 43-year-old, white, religious woman among us.

So the next time you feel inclined to make such comments to teachers in early summer, consider telling us a story instead. When did you find that a teacher’s deep gladness met your deep need?

One thought on “Ever Say This to a Teacher?”

  1. I loved my vocation in teaching! I am a lifelong learner and teacher. I spent my summers in graduate school, teacher workshops, leading teacher training, writing state tests, creating curriculum, and playing with my own kids when they were small. And, yes, I had lots of those unpaid, eight-week summers. (When I began teaching in Virginia, there was no option for 12-month pay.) I remember feeling the urge to bite back when someone asked about my “long summer vacation,” but learned that many of them did not know it was unpaid leave.

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