I happened upon a discussion of the holiday calendar for this school year on the Facebook wall of a teacher friend. She had originally been opposed to working through the Friday just before Christmas, but had changed her mind once she began enjoying the full two weeks of leisure time that this year’s schedule afforded. She and other teacher friends were quite happy with the fact that they have been able to take trips, totally relax and just enjoy a much needed break from the stresses of educating youngsters. Then the parents came out of the woodwork revealing a truth that has long troubled those of us whose profession is to teach. Namely there was a flood of complaints about having to find babysitters during such a long stretch of time away from school. In other words, schools in the minds of many adults are not just institutions of learning, but also convenient agencies for caring for children so that the parents will be able to work.
The babysitting aspect that schools have somehow inherited over time demeans the professionalism of teachers, and often flies in the face of research regarding when and how long children should be left at the doorstep of our nation’s centers of education. I have worried for some time about youngsters dragging into schools so early in the morning that they are half asleep or in tears. So too is my concern with many of the programs that keep them until late in the afternoon. This of course allows parents to conveniently complete their own work days without having to worry themselves with making additional arrangements for the care of their children, but it also requires teachers to work sometimes ungodly hours that include not only preparation for teaching but also development of ideas to keep the children occupied for long stretches of time. It is little wonder that my teacher friends are rejoicing over having a brief respite from their duties. Even worse, however, is the all too prevalent feeling that today’s educators are viewed with so little regard that many parents think of them as being little more than nannies whose function is not just to educate but also to accommodate work schedules.
I have nothing against working parents. I was a mother who worked as well. Ironically I often had to rely on my mother-in-law to care for my own children when they were sick or after they arrived home from school because I was required to stay beyond the regular hours for various programs designed to provide a safe and secure place for our students to be until their parents had finished their work days. I know how demanding it can be to be a mother and a reliable employee at one and the same time, but I have to admit to resenting that my hours at work were often dictated more by the needs of parents than either those of my students or me and my fellow teachers. It was assumed that we would be the caretakers even while our own children sometimes had to learn how to survive with a latchkey and stern warnings about how to behave while we were gone.
On most school days teachers leave home earlier than their children and return around the dinner hour. If they had the luxury of relaxing for the rest of the evening it would be all well and good but the reality is that most educators spend several hours each evening planning and grading and sometimes even conferencing with parents by phone or email. Days during the school year are long and too often filled with stress. Weekends are not much better from August to the end of May, so whenever I hear parents complaining about the free time that teachers enjoy I have to hold my anger in check.
The truth is that there are few professions that are as demanding as teaching, and those who survive for the long haul do so with earnest dedication and love for the work. The pay doesn’t even begin to equal the amount of effort required to do the job well, and the tangible benefits are minimal. There are rarely parades or honors or even discounts for teachers as there often are for soldiers or first responders. Educators toil quietly away year after year because they are genuinely altruistic and devoted to a purpose driven life. They are concerned about the outcome, not the income and yet they invoke a generalized ire for their profession and are rarely consulted as the experts that they are. Still they return year after year because in spite of all of the negativity swirling around them they are answering a calling the compels them to attempt to make a difference in the lives of their students. They are not average souls who would be unable to do anything else, but rather remarkable individuals who have chosen a vocation that requires sacrifice and a thick skin. Their ultimate reward is a self knowledge that what they do is perhaps the most important contribution to society, and at the annual holiday pause of their labors they desperately need a period of rest to revitalize themselves for the big push of the coming semester. I can’t imagine why anyone would complain about the inconvenience of not having teachers around to care for their children, and yet it happens all of the time, and I suspect that if it were possible many parents would require teachers to be on call year round with only a handful of holidays.
The best system that I ever encountered was at St. Anne’s Catholic School. All teachers had regular hours as part of their work contract. Any additional time spent at the school was optional and provided extra income. The before and after school programs were separate from the school itself and paid hourly stipends to those who chose to participate. Many teachers enjoyed being able to extend their pay by volunteering for such work, but they also appreciated that they were not conjoined with professional expectations. Perhaps because parents paid tuition and fees for every aspect of the education they treated the teachers with great respect and esteem. I have never before or since felt as appreciated as I did when I worked there. Nobody took me for granted and everyone appeared to understand how much effort I was putting into my work. I felt as though I was a member of a team in my communications with parents. I believe that the success of our students was built on a mutual regard for one another that is sometimes missing in public schools. There is all too often a generalized feeling that our nation’s teacher are a rather ignorant bunch that are the source of most of the world’s problems. It doesn’t seem to occur to everyone that teachers are often asked to be all things to all people with very little support and not much compensation.
I suspect that parents who complain about long holidays and summer vacations just haven’t thought about how their cries of woe actually sound. They are juggling their own problems and it is easy to view the teachers as the enemy when they appear to be lounging far too long during the holidays. Those who have to return to work the day after Christmas may not be able to understand why teachers really do need that extra time to recharge. It is convenient to view our educators as the source of childcare problems, but I would urge parents to think again before voicing such complaints. As a society we give so little credit to our teachers that it is a wonder that anyone ever wants to enter the profession. The very least we can do is smile with them when they get excited about having time to enjoy themselves. Take it from an old pro, they have earned every single minute of their free time and they will be all the better with our kids because of it. We should be happy when we hear that they are feeling good. It means that they will do a better job when the school bell rings again.