I read yesterday that fewer Americans truly believe that hard work = success than they did five years ago. Still, I think that the general willingness of the citizens of this country to be happy for those more fortunate and wealthy than themselves, believing that it’s a goal that is equally attainable for all is quite astonishing. I’ve never understood the logic of people living in poverty blindly worshiping the rich to the point where they’re willing to vote for tax breaks for billionaires over minimum wage increases for themselves. Even those of us who are fairly comfortable yet squeezed by rising costs and stagnating wages will frequently defend the rights of the superrich to use immoral, if not illegal means to keep their spoils firmly to themselves because of the off-chance that we could join them at the trough one day. This perhaps naive lack of envy, or questioning fairness has always baffled me slightly, though I do admire the generosity of spirit that underpins it. I just don’t subscribe to the hard work equals success equation. I’m sure it’s quite difficult to be financially successful if you just sit around doing nothing unless you inherit a shedload of money (as many wealthy people do) but to quote George Monbiot,
“If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire. ”
And so would teachers. Because, God knows I don’t have the mettle to be one, though I’m not afraid of work and I love kids, and I challenge every Goldman Sachs employee to spend a year working in an elementary school classroom and see if he or she is up to the task. I’m betting no.
Mondays are always a bit of an awkward day for me. I spend Sunday night planning out my week (in my head, at least) and it’s always full of goals and good intentions regarding writing, exercise, and various other achievements I wish to make but by 9.30 on Monday morning I’m so exhausted that I often do nothing else of much note for the rest of the day until I slope off to dance class at 6pm.
The reason for this is that I (somewhat foolishly) volunteered to teach maths in Six’s class for an hour every Monday morning and, quite frankly, it nearly kills me. I don’t know how the real teachers stay there all day and still retain their sanity. Honestly, they are a special breed. I do like being with the children, most of the time, but they also drive me a bit bananas and I have to say I now have quite a bit of sympathy for my own teachers. I was that annoying child who was more than capable of understanding the lesson but preferred to stare out the window and daydream, thus missing the crucial point, although that didn’t stop me from making multiple trips to the teacher’s desk in order to have long division explained to me individually. I wanted to know what we were learning, but on my own timetable. Most of my classes contained around thirty five children and one teacher with a short temper who would not hesitate to slap us over the knuckles with a ruler or send us to the headmaster if we misbehaved. I didn’t get smacked much – I was polite and well-behaved, if inattentive – but I know I taxed their patience and was the recipient of many an exasperated sigh or sharp comment. I always thought my teachers were (in Six’s words) Big Fat Meanies but now that I spend time in the classroom on the other side of the desk, as it were, I find myself spouting their words almost verbatim when my group begin to lose the plot.
“Sit on your bottom!”
“Stop rocking back on your chair, you’re going to have an accident.”
“Pay attention. Eyes on me. Now!”
“I’m sure you had a very interesting weekend but right now we’re talking about place value so why not save that for recess?”
and, worst of all,
“You two keep talking so I’m going to have to separate you.”
I have a lovely group of eight or nine wiggly six and seven year olds each week. I know them all quite well by now and understand their personalities, their differing academic abilities, their quirks, the different ways to get them to work and pay attention and I have to say it’s quite the juggling act. They’re all good kids with big hearts and I am very fond of all of them although it can be like herding cats to get them to do the most basic of tasks. I always have Six in my group which is lovely although he insists on sitting next to me and it’s quite hard to keep him in his seat, partly because he’s always jumping up to hug me (adorable but disruptive). This is a clever strategy on the part of the school, though, because of course one is committed to helping in the class if one can be with one’s child. That’s part of the incentive, right?Now, three of my group are extremely quick and good at math. They understand concepts almost immediately and they whip through problems very swiftly with almost no mistakes. They’re very bright, vivacious kids and they’re full of ideas about all kinds of things, not necessarily and usually not related to maths, so it’s important to keep them occupied and focussed so they don’t chatter loudly and distract the others. You’d think it would make sense to put them next to each other but I have discovered this doesn’t work as they just wind each other up and we end up with people jumping out of their seats to perform impromptu theatre or displays of ninja style. However, you also can’t reliably place them next to the two or three ‘solid workers’ who are very capable but might need a bit of time to get to where they’re going with their work because my bright sparks expend a disproportionate amount of energy trying to coax the solid workers into mischief once they’ve finished their own problems which they do almost before you hand them out. I could probably handle this easily but, to add to the mix, I have my challenge kids. I have an English-learner who needs extra time and explaining because of the language barrier. There are a surprising number of words in their maths books. I have sympathy for this child. I sometimes see an effort being made, but I can also see a sense of personal defeat present in its eyes (forgive non-gendered pronoun, but this is to protect identity). As if it is already accustomed to not getting things right because this is the way it is, and will always be. I do my best and sometimes I get through, but once the kid in question signs out and decides to faff about, the best I can do is limit the affect this choice has on the others. My other challenge child has a learning disorder that, quite apart from making it hard for it to take things in, renders the little person terrifically grumpy and aggressive which can be hard to deal with first thing Monday morning. I really want to help this kid, I do. I can see that when it applies itself, it completely understands everything and is very bright. I’ve been told to be firm and keep said child on task and remind it of our expectations that big first graders step up and do their work, but inside this poor kid’s head there is clearly a maelstrom of thought and emotion that gets in the way of this. And when it’s not on top form, the coping mechanism is being endlessly demanding, distracting to the other children, making itself as unpleasant as possible, and zoning out. I’ve been told I can dispatch any non-compliant kids to the teacher, but I don’t really want to. What would be the point of having volunteers if they didn’t actually do any of the difficult work? It would be lovely, I’m sure, to have a group of perfectly behaved little geniuses every week, but these kids are who they are, they have the needs that they do, and I see it as my job to do whatever I can within the confines of my hour and my ability. But wow, I can only do it for an hour. Then I’m spent.
I come back and although I honestly mean to pack up my things and go to the library (where I cannot get internet access and therefore have very productive book-writing sessions), I just can’t. I’m too knackered. It’s all I can do to scrape myself to the grocery store (that’s on a good Monday) and sit staring uselessly at my computer before the children come home from school where their teachers have been cooped up with them ALL DAY.
Our school board recently voted for yet another less-than-the-increase-of-cost-of-living pay increase for teachers. Several of the board members actually have children at the school and are quite put out that the greedy thieving educators actually want to be paid not-less (in real terms) than they were a couple of years ago. There will probably be a meeting about this but I am going to do everyone a favour and not attend in case I explode in rage, talk too much, and am branded a FUCKING SOCIALIST (this has happened before). Because, you know, I think that entrusting our kids all day every day with people who love them, even when they’re awful, who teach them things they might not be completely willing to learn, and would quite possibly take a bullet for them if the most awful scenario were to unfold. Well, I think these people might deserve a raise in line with inflation, cost of living, and experience.
Is that really so radical? I don’t think so. It’s just basic decency and common sense. They do a great job, let’s keep them incentivised. I know there is a shortage of funds in education general, but taking it out of the teacher’s already meagre pay might not be the best reallocation of funds. I don’t know, I’m not an accountant but maybe the school board could consider other means to find the money. I could give them tips on running their own ice cream sale, for instance. Or we could vote to take money from other stupid programs like tax breaks for people who don’t need them and give a small raise to those who deserve them.
And you know what? Go ahead and call me a dirty commie or a crazy socialist. I don’t care. I’m not worried about whether I make six figures or drive a BMW. I just want to know that all the people doing the real day to day hard work are not gypped by the system. That my Six and Nine and all your four through eighteens continue to be taught by motivated, fairly-compensated people who stay in the profession for the same reason they joined it – they care about kids and education. It’s a simple math equation*. All the problems, in the end, are simple math equations.
*Once we’ve done that one, I have some very solid suggestions for redistributing the Koch billions to the hard working women of Africa