The Culture of Teaching:
Why the teaching profession?
By Philip Preston Middlemiss
Many people consider the profession of teaching a bridge to some higher ambition. A bridge to something greater than perpetuating our democratic culture, or teaching humanity how to respect learning, themselves and the planet. Though these skills seem important, the public continues to believe that the job deserves neither the status nor the prestige as that of a lawyer, a movie actor, or even a school principal. When all is said and done, the profession of teaching is envied solely for its summer break.
Teaching’s poor public image may lie in the fact that most adults measure the teaching profession solely on the experience of their final two years in high school. Years made murky by hormonal urges, emancipation anxieties, melodramatic rejections, sexual ambivalence, and status conformity. These are the years when all of us were least rational, had no handle on happy, and as emotional as an acne outbreak. At that age I personally considered my teachers idiots, and during my senior year I rarely hesitated to inform them as such. Hence, my karmic dance card has been full of similar rebels-without-a-clue all my 27 years in the classroom.
Once students become parents and discover how disagreeable their own teenagers have become, their attitudes toward teachers mellow and cloud in sympathy. When these parents sacrifice their children to the grasp of public education, there sometimes follows a false sign of respect for the teaching profession. Sometimes comments are made that idealize and ennoble the career choice of pedagogy; however, it quickly dissipates into disingenuousness, “I don’t know how you do it. You must all be saints…”
The romance of sainthood was lost on me, because I became a teacher a few months after my first child was born. I’m sure I had thoughts about contributing something to my community or to humanity, but mostly I just needed a job. Teaching then meant job security, a career I could wear into old age without apology or injury, and summers with family.
But all the reasons of why I became a teacher changed once I became a teacher. The demands of the job both challenged and changed me.
“It must be a very fulfilling job.”
Again the sainthood reference, to which I usually respond with ambivalence, “Well, the summers off are great.”
I have learned over the years that this response was what people wanted to hear most. For whatever reason, non teachers wanted the validation that teaching was the scam they’d always believed it to be. Many believed if things did not work well in their own lives, they could always fall back on teaching. Everyone knows that anyone and their uncle could teach – plus their summers would be financed.
I have yet discovered the scam to this job. Some get a thrill of being surrounded by the “green fuse” of human potential, but I have always enjoyed my own seclusion to the company of teenagers. I have rarely witnessed the blossoming of epiphany, or the paradigm shift of the mind on my watch. To me teaching is more like someone handing me a jar to loosen, and after straining to twist its lid, I hand it back – to easily become opened for the next set of hands. That’s what the month of June feels like in my classes – the jars all wait to open to the summer of their budding adulthood. And not a moment before. Right when the students balance on the cusp of becoming interesting, they depart. And that happens every damn year. It is referred to as the “Groundhog Day Syndrome.”
I can’t compare teaching as a noble lifesaving profession like nursing or firefighting, but more as an organic outcropping of human need, as deliberate to our evolutionary rise as the opposable thumb. From the dawn of humankind teachers have sparked students with the common thrill of discovering both the brilliance and the disappointment of their own thinking and culture.
The scam, if there is a scam to this job of teaching, is in the variety of rewards that range from student achievement as substantial as smoke, to a sense of purpose often marked by emotional scarring. When all is said and done, teaching is not a job for the squeamish, the hesitant or the arrogant.
Twenty-seven years ago my mentor teacher, an elderly man nearing his retirement, told me in dead seriousness that I shouldn’t let it get around, but that this teaching gig was the easiest job a man could do. He actually lowered the volume of his voice so as passing students could not overhear. With the same seriousness, he later told me that teaching would be the perfect job, if it weren’t for all the kids. In the final month of his career, a department colleague physically separated my mentor from squaring off with a man-child 40 pounds heavier and 40 years younger. A week later this mentor was gurneyed from the classroom having suffered, what could clinically be coined, a “Teacher’s Stroke.” A pedagogical short-circuit (PSC).
PSC happens to those who take the job lightly, fall into depression or the bottle, and fail to manage the complexities of their life as well as the complexities of the job’s demands. It never strikes any two teachers the same way. Like lightning and snowflakes, teachers spark and fall from the classroom in their own unique style that often mimic their worst lessons. Sometimes no one ever notices they are in trouble until they simply fail to show up in the morning.
Contrary to my mentor’s comment, teaching is not the easiest job a person can do. It is a job that resonates throughout the day and rings like a cowbell at night when sleep is preferred.
A fellow teacher friend once commented that the easy job, the ideal job, would be delivering freshly baked bread to the local retailers. He reasoned that the workday for bread delivery men began early and ended early. The product was light and easy to carry, the customers always grateful, and by the end of the work day a man smelled like freshly baked bread. The only resonance to the job was the fresh scent permeating the man’s clothes. A scent, my friend winked, irresistible to woman.
I have witnessed this teaching profession attract the young and idealistic in the same spirit as my dear friend was attracted to delivering freshly baked bread. However, new teachers soon learn that the difference between the idealism and the reality of the job is in the clientele. Most students are ill prepared or unwilling to learn. A teen-ager’s world is thick with need, want, indignation, and their attention is filtered behind ear buds and the dazzle of their fingers texting the cell phones glued to their hands.
The success of the teacher is measured in those few, quiet lives we are able to touch. If my teaching successes were measured in baseball statistics, I’d be dropped to the Double-A leagues. In my twenty-seven seasons my list of errors far outweigh my plays made. My stats might be better, if I played with a team that actually knew how to win.
I’ve always believed Education was a privilege, though many students see it as their right to abuse and waste. Until students come to the classroom retooled to learn, teachers will continue being measured for their student’s failures, and not by their successes. Our society, so critical of the profession that helps to preserve it, may never show teachers the respect we deserve. Teachers need to stop expecting the praise, and quit complaining about the disrespect received from the voters, politicians and a tanking economy. We need to brave the storm and embrace the irony of a job that feeds the mouth that returns to bite us. And though teaching is not always reward enough in itself, it is usually all the profession can guarantee. The sooner this is realized, the more enjoyable the summers become.
Philip P. Middlemiss is an English/Media Teacher at
Eureka High School in Eureka, California. He is active as a liaison between his district’s school board and his teacher’s union. Philip believes that all teachers need to become politically involved with their union at some aspect of their career, and understand that nothing has ever been given to teachers for which has not been fought.