Two weeks ago, I started working for a middle school in Minneapolis, taking the reins of the school’s Media Center; what we of my generation used to call “libraries” when all they had were books while those scratchy, worbly voiced 16mm films were still considered high technology and housed in a separate “A/V Center” along with those tape-and-still-film projectors with the annoying beeps to forward each frame.
I love the work and the endless variety of responsibilities. I am part librarian, part technogeek and troubleshooter, part stage manager, and part teacher of a class on media technology. It’s not my dream high school social studies position that I still longingly pine for, but I am definitely trending in the right direction.
Jumping into a new position in the middle of a school year is never easy — neither on the students nor the teachers who take such positions. My entry — and that of a couple of others who also recently joined the school — just happened to coincide with the start of a new quarter, which does smooth out many potential rough spots. I had the added fortune of meeting the person who I was replacing. She provided enough information to help me get started, and her assistant, who has been there longer than the last three or four people in my position as a Media Specialist, have made it possible for me to hit the ground running on the very first day.
When I stopped by to see the principal on my way out after my first day, she asked how everything went. I smiled and said, “Great. People were happy to see me. Students, for the most part, listened to what I had to say, and I have my very own desk to call my own.” Seriously, substituting’s lack of such mundane aspects of a person’s job satisfaction (save maybe for the first) or steadiness (as I have said before, imagine starting your first day of work, every day, in front of a less-than-appreciative audience that balks as the idea of having anything less than a “free day” while you try to get things done) can really wear even the most indefatigable spirit down.
All this doesn’t mean that I haven’t had some serious challenges along the way.
Part the first: Illness. Nothing says “welcome to our school” faster and with more fanfare than catching the latest bug sweeping though the student and faculty body. By the end of the first week, that tickle in my throat I felt blew up into a full-fledged nasty bug. By the middle of the second week, I felt I was among the Walking Dead. Let’s see; there was fever, coughing, soar throat, periodic total loss of voice (not good), fuzzy brain, aching muscles, and plenty of activity in the mucous membrane. Michelle would put me to bed at about six or seven only for me to get up and haul my diseased carcass back into the fray early the next morning. Only by yesterday, Friday, did I start to feel as if I had passed the nadir of the bug’s bite. The rest I needed to avoid missing work cost me in the time I wanted to map out the next few weeks for my class.
To my knowledge, teachers rarely, if ever, take days off for such illnesses, because it is far easier to work in such a state than it is to go through the tight channels to get a sub, figure up a lesson for that person, and do the inevitable damage control the next day that comes with an absence. I feel the same way. When a student said to me, “No offense, Mr. Moses, but you look like crap. Why don’t you stay home sick?” I told him that I hadn’t given the class my “don’t mess with the sub” talk yet and wasn’t about to in the middle of this bug.
All told, this last week was far from a loss. I got a lot of things done in spite of feeling like death warmed over. Still, I didn’t get to map out my strategy for the next few weeks as I had wanted to last weekend, which means having to do it this weekend.
Part the second: The big build up. Part of successful teaching is having certain abilities. Among the more important ones, teachers need to be able to let roughly ninety percent of the crap that flies their way pass by, otherwise the stress levels generated by trying to deal with every single issue that arises will increase the likelihood of an early, flaming burnout. As unfortunate as this may seem to the uninitiated, it is a necessary job survival skill because of the challenges we inevitably encounter that must be reckoned with. If teaching only meant showing up in a classroom for six hours a day to drone on endlessly about the subject you were hired to teach and give tests or assigning papers, everyone would want to be a teacher. Most teachers I know are nine-to-fivers of the calendar variety rather than the clock variety: They start early in September and work straight through to the end of May (or later), twenty-four-seven, with “breaks” that are more opportunities to grab a quick breath of fresh air and survey the situation than a short respite from one’s labors.
With my Week Number Three just around the corner, I can see the growing wave of things I’ll need to plan for and coordinate that are on top of the usual duties. Take the next round of standardized test dates, which will chew up a couple of weeks of time students could have spent learning in a classroom and an additional week or three to the teachers and administrators who have to figure out schedules, locations, and the usual unholy host of necessary contingency plans.
Those tests ain’t just gonna give themselves to the youngsters. Nope. No-sir-ee. The clock’s tickin’.
Part the third: Working on less than a shoe-string budget. Technically, I am working what is called a “point eight” position; it’s not quite full-time, but it’s close enough to make things both worthwhile and a pain in the patootie. Call it a “twilight full-time” position, if you will, because even though I get paid for thirty-two hours of work each week, I am already noticing that I haven’t worked less than forty each week so far and that trend will probably continue until the end of the year. These positions are just one the unintended consequences created by the continuous cycles of budget cuts Minneapolis and many other school districts have had to endure in the past five to six years.
I knew this discrepancy in the work-to-pay ratio would be the likely case before I signed on and I don’t particularly mind it myself. The upshot, however, is that my donation-in-time above and beyond my paid time is near the end of the rope of budget cuts that have zeroed out any line-items for new textbooks or school library books, updates to computer labs hardware and software, much-needed repairs to school facilities, sufficient support staff and administrators, and sufficient full-time classroom teachers to meet the manifest educational needs of a neighborhood’s children.
As I have started this new job, I have noticed that the one thing that hasn’t come up has been the purchasing of new or updated supplies and equipment. I, myself, am used to working on a budget that is effectively less than zero, but the needs of a school to teach children to be much more than merely successful standardized, “basic-skills” test-takers so that certain political leaders and critics of public education can get their self-righteous rocks off should not go unmet as they have in recent years.
So to Tracy at Anti-Strib, Swiftee, and all those other critics of the work I and many others commit to doing: If teaching is so easy and undemanding, why aren’t you money-grubbing materialists lining up to feed at the trough?
This weekend I have the time and a reasonably good state of health to plan out another few weeks down the road. That includes what to do with this blog I have raised from a wee, wrinkly kitten of zeroes and ones. I will continue to write and publish Yowling from the Fencepost, but I may ask some friends to add their two-cents from time-to-time to help me keep this blog’s content current. Stay tuned, and, in the immortal words of an old Bartles & James commercial, thank you for your support.