Here's why I'm leaving my teaching job amid the strike - opinion

After five years, a raise in salary, even double my salary, will not keep me here. Unless things change dramatically, I don’t see myself going back.

UNLESS THESE facts of the job change, no pay hike can make me stay, says the writer. (photo credit: LOLA EDRY)
UNLESS THESE facts of the job change, no pay hike can make me stay, says the writer.
(photo credit: LOLA EDRY)

We’ve been hearing much about teachers quitting, striking and protesting, lately.

It's not just the money, stupid

The main subject of negotiation is teachers’ salaries, in particular the more veteran teachers. I just finished my fifth year teaching, and I asked for unpaid leave next year. But unless things change dramatically, I don’t see myself going back.

I’d consider going back to school if offered a job at a highschool – I’ve heard it’s quite different. I’d consider going back if the board of education realized that teaching in capsules shouldn't be an anomaly but the norm. Yet, a raise in salary, even double my salary, will not keep me here.

I don’t think that’s the real reason teachers are not satisfied. It’s just the easiest thing to fix, because it’s technical. So it’s become the focus of argument. I have been part-time for the last two years. If I wanted a higher salary I’d work more days. But I chose it for the challenge. I started as an art teacher, with the focus for me being more on the art than on the teaching.

I didn’t see myself as a teacher by nature. But bringing art into the lives of kids who live more and more in a digital world seemed like a meaningful, ethical and stimulating job to devote time to.

When even two days a week is too much

Two years ago, I couldn’t find an appropriate job teaching art and took up a position teaching English in elementary school. I found that the real heart of the job is the same: at the elementary stage it’s much more about the human material than the learning material. And even if given a book to teach by, I found I was able to bring humor and creativity into it, and make it my own.

A GROUP of junior high school students are demanding the government fulfill its educational duty to them.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)A GROUP of junior high school students are demanding the government fulfill its educational duty to them. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Plus, I spent most of the year teaching in capsules, which I won’t call easy, but sane. I’ve insisted on my part-time position, so that I can give it my all and not get burned out. But lately, I’ve been feeling even two days a week is too much.

The problem with the teaching profession is not the salary or the benefits, it’s the the work itself, what happens in those 45 minutes between when I enter and leave the classroom. I feel more like a babysitter/policeman/firefighter than a teacher.

Most of my talents, my creativity and my sense of humor are wasted in this environment. I battle constantly for quiet. It’s me vs. 30 kids, many of whose own parents can’t even handle them, one on one. I’m flailing in a sea of behavioral disorders and lack of self-control.

And I have almost no leverage in this battle. I frequently spend my breaks with kids whose recess I’ve shortened due to their disruptions in class. The ones I manage to track down, that is. Some just run off and I end up calling their parents to report on their lack of responsibility.

I can send them to the vice principal’s office during recess, but I fear exhausting this privilege, and her small office can’t always fit all the kids who really deserve to sit out recess.

I’M IN constant contact with certain parents, updating them regularly on their kids’ behavior, good as well as bad. This sometimes helps, but mostly with the kids whose parents have authority over them. For the most part, these are not the ones who chronically pose challenges in class.

I’m not a therapist, I’m a teacher

There are at least a few students in each class who, in a sane and reasonable world, wouldn’t have the right to be there. In a sane world, the parents of a student who regularly sabotages lessons would have no choice but to care for him at home.

I know, it’s so important to empathize, to consider the students’ cognitive, emotional and familial disadvantages. But I’m not a therapist, I’m a teacher who’s somehow supposed to do this with 30 students, while also imparting knowledge and skill in my subject. In certain classes, this amounts to mission impossible. So I end up babysitting, mostly, and giving the students enough homework so that they’ll hopefully finish the notebook by the end of the year.

I am a good teacher. I’m confident that most students, even the ones who call me stupid when they think I don’t hear, would agree. I’m creative, I’m silly and the thing I enjoy most is making kids laugh. I’ve been known to sing, opera-style, so outrageously out of tune that kids beg me to stop and others beg me to continue.

I have a hand puppet I named Tony the Tiger (after the sugary American breakfast cereal) whom I use to help the kids practice simple conversations in English. Tony regularly hits on the student, asking them for their phone number, which they have to read off the board in English.

When they finish, Tony saves it on his phone, gives the student a big furry kiss on the cheek, and implores them not to ghost him when he calls. My students love this. When we learn a new letter, the digital book plays a repetitive song about it and I allow the kids to get up and dance. I do it too, of course, and certain kids copy my moves and ask me to do my signature butt shake.

When I check homework I shout “yes” like a drunk man, and do an extremely exaggerated fist-pump/knee kick every time a student shows me he completed the assignment, every time (which I wish was more often, but at very best I get two-thirds of the class having done it). I believe the best way to a kid’s brain is through his or her heart. And I’m willing to be outrageous to leave an impression. Pride is not a factor.

I’m a teacher, not a babysitter 

But there’s a different kind of pride which is being hurt – my professional pride. I came to teach art, to teach English, not to babysit. But when I must tolerate the presence of kids who sabotage my lessons, when I’m in survival mode, focused purely on kids not getting hurt before the bell, it’s babysitting.

And it’s high stakes babysitting, to boot. My biggest fear on the job is that violence will erupt between students and I’ll be blamed for not doing enough to prevent it or mete out justice in the aftermath. A few weeks ago, one student kicked another just as I walked into the classroom. I didn’t see the event, but heard the complaint.

The homeroom teacher who was outside the class took him under her wing and I wrote a violence incidence in the attacker’s record. Since he posed no challenge to my lesson, I carried on as usual.

In the afternoon, the homeroom teacher complained that she had spent hours on the phone with the parents involved, trying to calm the storm, though she hadn’t even seen the event. I told her I hadn’t seen it either and assumed I could carry on my lesson since the upset child was in her care.

But I can never really know if I’ve done enough. I must treat every upset child as a helpless victim, and every violation of someone’s feelings as justification for putting my lesson on hold and investigating who’s to blame.

I DON’T mean to trivialize the personal lives of kids, which are full of intrigue and complexities, but as adults we need to encourage kids to exercise social skills when they encounter social challenges, not to prevent their experiencing challenges.

As adults, do we not also experience treatment that we don’t like on a regular basis? Where is the teacher we can run to and demand to bring our abusers (our kids and spouses, largely) to justice?

Failing at preparing students for the real world 

If our job is to prepare kids for the real world, including people who are not nice, we’re failing. We’re so afraid that a parent will accuse us of negligence that we declare zero tolerance for violence in our classes and hope that will come about.

The problem is the definition of violence in every school rulebook includes insults, and that’s very subjective. Some kids explode even when a kid makes fun of their favorite soccer team. And some kids feelings are not even hurt by direct insults, simply because they have a healthy attitude toward words and their self-worth is not predicated on being treated as if they’re perfect.

When we as teachers legitimize tattling and treat the blamed party like they did something terrible, we exacerbate the problem. As my father, Izzy Kalman, a psychologist and bullying expert always taught me, whenever the authority intervenes, the fight intensifies.

If two of my students fight over a pen that one supposedly gave to the other and then demanded back, and I march in to play judge, suddenly the fight is no longer about the pen but about who I deem innocent.

The indicted party will hate me and the accusing student more, and the vindicated party will have the seriousness of the offense confirmed. I’ve set the stage for the next fight and the next disruption of my class.

And it needn’t be this way. These scuffles in class are opportunities for learning invaluable social skills. I grew up with a dad who taught kids the rules of the social games we play. Once you know the rules, it’s not hard to win. So it’s been such a frustrating five years in teaching, because I’m expected to treat children’s conflicts in a way that is contrary to basic psychology. The measures I’m supposed to take decrease resilience and increase sensitivity in my students. Even the parents whose over-reactions we as teachers so fear don’t actually want this for their kids.

There’s so much about teaching in school that I like: The regular hours give rhythm and predictability to my week; the camaraderie with the other teachers makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside; acting silly, making the kids laugh and defying their expectations, which widens their horizons and teaches them not to take themselves too seriously; getting them excited about material that looks boring on the page; building a student’s confidence in a subject by noticing small improvements; building their confidence as people by speaking to them like capable young adults; and making a parents’ day by texting them about one of their kids’ little successes that day.

Even grading tests is not soul-crushing, because I know how much it means to the kids. I don’t even mind that I’m given material to teach. I find that at these ages I can still utilize my creativity to get the material across in a fun way.

My problem is the expectation to wrap my students in cotton while I walk on eggshells. My problem is tolerating even those who wish to sabotage the lesson I’ve poured my heart into. My problem is being forced to be a policewoman, when I’m here to be a teacher. My problem is school protocols, which do the opposite of education. Unless these facts of the job change, no pay hike can make me stay.

The writer is an artist, teacher and mother of four, residing in Rishon Lezion. Her father’s anti-bullying website is izzykalman.com