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Underappreciation running teachers out of classrooms

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I heard that tired, familiar slur against teachers again the other day. Those who can't do, teach. Or, those who can't make it in the real world become teachers. However it's phrased, it's a rotten lie. Nothing used to raise my hackles as much as that cowardly, ignorant insult when I made my living as a high school English and drama teacher in the 1970s.

It's been 20 years since I turned in my keys and turned my back on 10 years of the most demanding work imaginable. I still remember vividly those years filled with idealistic dreams, happy camaraderie with some of the brightest, most compassionate people I've ever known, and the thrill of making a difference in young lives.

But there was a dark side. Even back then, there were violent students, uneasy tensions that hung over us all, ready to explode. Racial conflicts, drugs, poverty, hostile parents, students who couldn't speak English, crowded classrooms, government-mandated programs with no money to implement them, not enough books and equipment, not enough hours in the day. The Columbines of today were being incubated in our classrooms then.

Days began at 7:30 in the morning and often ended at midnight with a two-hour break for dinner. The endless routine of grading papers every night and on weekends, phone calls to parents, meetings and conferences, play rehearsals for drama class, preparing lesson plans, administrative duties, evaluations, department meetings, coping with staff tensions, school board meetings, night classes at the college to earn more credits to increase my low pay, and the nagging belief that I wasn't good enough, no matter how hard I worked, was draining.

I agonized over failing students, hostile students and troubled students, even as I rejoiced over the successful ones. Being "on stage" for six hours every day while cramming the lesson plan into those 55 minutes between bells and maintaining control of 35 or 40 teenagers each period, was both exhilarating and exhausting.

Summer vacations consisted of one month tying up the loose ends at school and recovering my strength and sanity; one month of living like a normal human being; and one month reading new novels, plays and textbooks, writing course curriculums and creating lesson plans. Some years I taught summer school or took a college course.

Then I began having a recurring nightmare: I would be writing on the board, turn around, and discover the students had all bolted from the room. I started waking up every morning with a headache and a knot in my stomach, and that's when I knew I couldn't hack it anymore.

I felt like a wimp. People warned me that ex-teachers were unemployable. And I heard that slur over and over: Those who can't do, teach. How could there be a worse loser than a teacher who couldn't teach? In spite of that, I made a relatively easy transition straight into the newspaper business, and while that world had its share of hard knocks, it was a walk in the park compared to teaching.

A few months ago, I decided to offer my services as a substitute at the local high school. I still couldn't hack it, and gave up after several tries. But I had time to make some observations about the teachers I subbed for. Nothing has changed. Teachers are still incredibly hardworking, incredibly talented, incredibly idealistic, incredibly compassionate people and incredibly underpaid and underappreciated for what they do.

Teacher burnout is accelerating. Teachers are moving into high-paying jobs in technology, science, art, music, communication, politics you name it.

And the rest of us are the losers for letting that happen.

Vivian Taylor may be contacted at 474-1386 or online at viv@cybertrails.com.

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