Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Teacher's Tale

A Teacher’s Tale
I’m a teacher, I’m a teacher – a teacher, that is me!
I’ve been teaching close to forty years, and still am teaching, see!
But I’m a burnt-out teacher now, and students might complain
That he, who tries to teach them, doesn’t seem to have a brain.

And how can I explain to them, oh how can I explain,
That teaching close to forty years can burn away a brain?
It seems as if a current strong was driven through my head.
Whatever little wits I had – that current burned them dead.

So I’m a burned-out teacher, oh, a brainless, addled fool!
But why then am I teaching still – in this old city school?        \1
There’s nothing else that I can do, except to teach my classes.
And so it is with teachers – as it also is with asses.

For when an ass – or mule or horse – has worked until it’s old,
There’s nothing that it’s useful for – it even can’t be sold.
For in the past, it still had use, for turning into glue,
But now that’s out, so nothing’s left, so what can “owners” do?

And some, whose hearts are kinder, they may put it out to pasture,
And wait for it to buckle and to add, to earth, its moisture.
But others, they dispose of it – in a manner rough or gentle.
And so it is for workers – be they physical or mental.

And some may say – “Retirement! That’s the way for you to go.”
What little, of a life that’s spent in teaching, do they know?
For when I’m pushed out of my job, to live on a pension meager, \2
To go where worn-out asses go, I surely will be eager.

2014  May 24th, Sat. 11:55 pm
(written after six continuous hours spent checking and entering one 

week’s worth of homework and labs – admittedly, more labs than 
usual, as my students did two extra labs this week)
Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York

1.   The high school in Bensonhurst in which I teach is close to a hundred years old.

2.   I started teaching, as a graduate student, in 1975 – and I taught, at universities, for many years after that.  I joined as a teacher in the New York City school system in 1987.   The pay then was low and continued to be so until soon after I took unpaid family leave for my parents at the start of the 2002 academic year.  I did day-to-day sub work often during those years on leave, in order to pay the rent.  But I was only able to rejoin full time in 2009, and have been working ever since.
My pension, if I retired now, would be about 30K$ (U.S.) a year, before taxes, according to the calculator at the retirement system website. And so perhaps retirement might finally be viable for me, which it wasn’t just five years ago, when that figure was about 13 K$.  It’s too bad that my earlier teaching work was not pensionable. Even if it were, it wouldn’t have helped that much, as most pensions are far from being linear functions of time – an important fact that math teachers should take the time to explain to their students – and perhaps also to their colleagues.

Apart from vital monetary considerations, it is difficult to retire if one has spent most of one’s waking hours for so many years on the teaching work.  A teacher has five classes to teach, each day during the work-week, with all of the stress that one gets from that.  If one is fortunate, one may also get some satisfaction from this, as from the other work one does after hours.
What is that work?  One is often busy, after hours and on weekends and holidays, preparing class handouts, homework, quizzes, exams, etc.  A science teacher may also have to prepare lab sheets, apart from having materials ready for labs, unless someone else has that last job.  As the student population, with its strengths and deficiencies, the curricula and even the subjects taught keep changing, what worked before no longer does.  So one has to keep changing things or doing them again from scratch, finding oneself, not only in in the teaching profession, but also in the authoring and printing business.
New subjects involve new learning, so one has to keep ahead of the students in subjects taught for the first time., which may be far removed from one's expertise.  High school classes, which nowadays usually end in state exams, are often fast-paced, so this is not easy.  All of this has to be done on the fly, after the physical, mental and emotional stress that the day-job involves.

One must also try to deal with the almost impossible correcting load.  At the high school level, this involves the daily and weekly work of often close to 170 students – and much more if one teaches labs and has to grade the lab reports. 

In many cases, various factors reduce some of these diverse workloads, but others may add to them.  I have mentioned only the things I myself have spent most time and effort on in my own work-life.  Other teachers may have other preoccupations.  And others yet might find all of this nonsensical and far removed from their own experiences.
But all of what I have outlined, if taken seriously,  can become all-consuming, leaving little or no time for even vital personal and family matters.  This is especially so when one has students with a great range of constantly varying deficiencies that have to be taken into account and compensated for, plus state exams that involve  curricula which cannot possibly be taught and learned properly in the time available, given the deficiencies that the students exhibit. *
So some of us might enter, at retirement (as experienced during periods away from the job), from all of this continuous activity and social contact, with students and colleagues, at the faux village that a school provides – some of us might enter from all of this into a vacuum, where one is faced with the four walls of one’s room.    With family and friends long dead, estranged or non-existent, when we step outside, we might find ourselves in a city full of busy strangers.  We may blame ourselves for that, but that would be little comfort.

*   In New York City, the financial squeezing and punitive "reforms" initiated by our former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and pushed by Governor Andrew Cuomo and his moneyed allies have greatly aggravated this horrible, manic predicament, for the students as well as their teachers.

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