Saturday, October 24, 2015

Teaching is More Stressful Than Serving in a War Zone?


I am currently in my tenth year teaching Latin at a public high school.
Prior to that, for four years after 9/11, I served as an Arabic linguist at the Top Secret National Security Agency. 
In 2004, I went on a deployment to Iraq, for which service I received the Global War on Terrorism Civilian Service Medal. During that time, on two occasions, I raced in terror for my life to reach cover as mortars exploded around our targeted base.
Yes, that's a Glock 9mm at my side.

And so, when I have nightmares, what do you imagine I might be dreaming about? You might reasonably assume I dream from time to time about being on that base in Iraq and experiencing a life threatening danger.  

But I don't. Strangely even to me, I never dreamt about being in Iraq while I was there, but I dreamt about it the first night I was safely out of that country. And I've never dreamt about it since.

No, when I have a nightmare, I'm in a classroom full of unresponsive or uncooperative students, and suddenly I see an administrator walk through the door (all you teachers reading this understand). And I also have dreams in which I simply teach whole periods of my subject. Yet I never dreamt about translating Arabic while I was at the NSA!

I'm sharing all this after reading an article which described teaching as among the top three most stressful occupations, along with "healthcare and the uniformed services, such as police, ambulance and the fire services."

Now, I'm certain teaching has always been inherently more stressful than other occupations. What is alarming to me is just how much more stressful it is now than when I first started.

I want to be clear that I am not at all complaining about the school district where I work. The trends that have resulted in plummeting morale in the teaching profession and deepening stress are nation-wide. Nor am I writing on this topic from the claim that I am America's greatest teacher. There are things I know I do very well. I believe that my enthusiasm and passion for my subject inspires my students toward a love of learning languages. There are other areas in which I strive to perform ever more effectively. 

I'm just one public school teacher like thousands of others, continually trying to do the best job I can in the interests of the students I teach.

Now, you may wonder, why would someone leave Top Secret Government work to become a public school teacher?  I married my wife, a public school teacher herself, shortly after I got back from Iraq. And for two more years I stayed at the NSA, working in the Counter-Terrorism Mission.

But I came to a point where I felt I had fulfilled my duty to my country following 9/11. And I was ready for another important mission--educating young people with my love of the Latin language. It did involve a pay cut, by the way.

When I first began teaching back in the fall of 2006, I was surprised at the esteem expressed when I told people I taught in a public school. Common would have been words to the effect of "God bless you for doing such a difficult job! I could never do what you teachers do!"

Nowadays, there are settings in which I avoid admitting to being a teacher, because I'm exhausted from then hearing words to the effect of "You teachers do nothing, you're overpaid, and you work just nine months out of the year!"

Alongside other public workers, the vilification of teachers gained traction within the economic collapse of the Great Recession, starting in December of 2007. We were convenient scapegoats and our hard-earned tenure and job benefits went under attack.

Again, I do not fault the administration of my district. They are just doing the job they are mandated to do by those above them. But that job went from primarily focusing on the discipline of the students within the building to an increased focus on observing the teachers

Tenured teachers in New Jersey used to receive one formal observation a year. That changed to three formal observations and multiple "walk-throughs," in which the administrator enters with a tablet computer to grade a number of points. And it was immediately apparent to the students that the administrator was not there to monitor their behavior; the administrator was there to monitor the teacher.

At the NSA, I did my job the best I could. I assume my boss was monitoring my output. But there was never a time when I worried that today might be the day when my boss would come and sit next to me for an hour and take notes on what I was doing. And yet that's what every public school teacher is daily dealing with.

Tenure "reform" has now made it mean much less than it was before. Because of effective pay freezes and now paying significantly more for our health care, my wife and I made three thousand dollars less last year than the previous year.

When I was a Top Secret Agent, my accomplishments got me promoted to Grade 13. But even those who don't earn a promotion always make more money the next year than they did the year before.

And so, that's why this former Intelligence Officer turned public school teacher can honestly say that our daily stresses and concerns in the teaching profession are beyond anything I ever experienced in the world of espionage. And isn't that simply sad?

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