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Hello, I am a teacher…and I am a thug

I’m a thug. This revelation came to me two years ago as I was attending a KNEA convention in Topeka. There I was seated between a grandmotherly woman in a denim romper wearing wooden necklace and an auto tech teacher from what I like to called “western Kansas” (which translates to “anywhere west of Wanamaker”).

So there I sat in a Topeka convention hall rolling the word “thug” around in my head. The imagery of mafiosos in Dick Tracy hats and tommy guns just didn’t seem to fit with the teachers sitting around me. Neither did the incendiary descriptions of teachers only out for their own self-interests. My goodness just a couple of rows away sat my former piano teacher and I KNEW any self-interested man would have fled the awful sounds I could produce for another career.

But a thug is what I have become. If I am a thug it is the educational system that has made me into a thug and for this I’m grateful because it means I have become an advocate for my students, myself, my family, my peers, my profession and my community.

I have come to see my career as a series of journeys. The first phase of the journey as a 21-year-old straight out of teachers college looking for a classroom of her own. Any basement classroom would do; even if it meant no centralized heat or air and sharing the space with a few creatures of the four-legged variety.

My journey started with the enthusiasm of establishing a career, staying at school until 10pm to “just wrap things up” and volunteering to be on parent, scholarship and district committees. My husband and I had just married and my time for students was limitless. In the teachers’ lounge I scoffed at the negativity of some of my peers while hero worshipping others who seems to have boundless energy and drive.

The journey changed so subtly that I barely recognized that I had arrived in a different place. Even today I can’t really say when exactly I changed or whether it was the job that changed or whether it was just a change in my awareness. Somewhere between baby number one, the changing of school administrations, earning my masters degree and baby number two my bright optimistic attitude dulled. The grousing in the teacher’s lounge didn’t seem so far away from reality.

Rather than believe some of my peers were just lazy or didn’t care, I started wondering what THEY had been like their first five years of teaching.

  • When had they lost the love of teaching and learning from students? When had they lost their joy for teaching? Was I going to lose MY joy in teaching? Would the constant demand to do more with less wear me down as well? How could I combat a downward spiral of expecting the worst and receiving the expected and more?

At this point in my teaching journey I had known the support of a true instructional leader, an advocate for students and teachers. I was experiencing the loss of that support to an lackluster leader, a rubber stamp and a bully. For almost a decade I had dealt with a school environment that locked teachers out of the building, offered a $50 budget to classroom teachers and chastised them for not doing more with less each year. I could handle a decade of the challenges, but an uncertain future without a leader who valued my contribution was too much. While I loved who I taught and who I taught with, I was seriously contemplating becoming a clock-in, clock-out teacher.

When I expressed my plans to a peer, she chastised me for giving up too easily on myself, my students and teaching. This started the current phase of my journey. I figured out that year my contributions to the classroom were valuable and that value was recognized elsewhere. When I was offered the journalism position at Lawrence Free State H.S., I was ecstatic.

After pulling myself out of (and being pulled out of) the doldrums, I recognized the value of this new direction in my journey. Never again would I allow my professional career to be dictated by circumstances outside my control. If I didn’t think classroom teachers were being supported, I volunteered for a grant committee. If the principal was retiring, by god I would volunteer to be on the interview committee for the next principal. If I felt teachers needed an advocate, I volunteered to be a building representative. If I felt the state was making a mistake by cutting career and tech education funding for journalism, I would join forces with fellow journalism teachers to push back on a done deal.

On this journey I have had friends and family members question why teachers complain so much. After all we get three months off in the summer and only have to be in the classroom seven hours a day. My response is I spend all but two weeks of my summer traveling with students, attending conferences, taking classes, or teaching. As for seven hour days, I know few teachers who can do the work that needs to be done in seven hours. Their families live with a parent whose attention is often split between grading papers, preparing for classes and paying attention to the needs of their own children.

Oh, but I’m “one of the good ones” I have been told. That statement says more about the ignorance of the person uttering it than about the teaching profession. It reminds me of a situation where my brother-in-law was making jokes about lazy Mexicans until he realized he was pounding nails on a hot tin roof with a Mexican-American. He gave the same lame remark... “oh, but you are one of the good ones.” Back peddling at that point does NOT make up for insulting my profession, those who have mentored me, those who have supported me and those who give everything they can give to students everyday.

I have heard even peers question how hard it is to actually be a FILL IN THE BLANK teacher. When I hear this I conjure images of other teaching positions... I shudder at the energy level and multi-tasking abilities it takes to be a kindergarten teacher... I cringe at managing 40+ stinking students in and out of a locker room... I mentally shut down at the idea of dealing with the hormonal experiment that is middle school teaching... and I defend my peers because until I have walked in their shoes I cannot understand their journey.

So in the end when I hear my teachers union called a bunch of thugs, I am proud because when if you take away a teachers voice what you will get is a clock-in, clock-out employee. If we are thugs, we are “the good ones” fighting for our students, our families and our communities.

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