The next time someone asks me what I do for a living, I plan to say that I’m a dental hygienist. Maybe a carpet salesman. A baker? Hmm… that’s an idea. Who doesn’t love cookies? It’s too bad that I’m a terrible liar.
I was mid-haircut the last time the question was posed to me. “I’m a guidance counselor,” I said, with a smile. I glanced around the salon and waited for the inevitable commentary to come. That train is never late.
“Well, you scored an easy gig!”
“Teachers have such nice hours. It’s like working part-time!”
“You have your own office, right?”
I thought of my caseloads in almost a decade of counseling: abuse victims, gangbangers, children of “Helicopter” parents, brand-new immigrants, students with various learning differences, the undocumented, English language learners, pregnant and parenting teens, the academically gifted, homeless youth, award-winning athletes, students with chronic health problems, those living below the poverty line. Most of my kids claim space in multiple categories. In the most diverse borough of a melting pot city, students don’t fit neatly into boxes. “Average” is an urban legend.
The tote bag at my feet was overflowing with triple-checked schedules, updated transcripts, classroom lessons, and letters of recommendation. I’ve answered email at 2 a.m. And some of my work spaces have had checkered histories. I was once given a repurposed supply closet as an office. I spent that year in a windowless box walled by Plexiglass. The kids and I named it “The Fishbowl.”
I remembered a story I learned in Hebrew school: In the chederim of Eastern Europe, teachers would write out the Aleph Bet in honey. The students would lick the letters, and the taste of knowledge would forever be associated with sweetness. They knew that honey was digested with the daily lesson, nourishing the child and helping them grow. The teachers, itinerant substitutes or beloved Rabbis, were venerated within their communities.
I bet they got their hair cut in peace.
Today, most educators are too busy navigating the newest set of procedures to do PR for ourselves, but we should. Not everyone knows what we do. My students allow me to participate in their lives, talk them through rough patches, and plan their next steps into the world. And most of my colleagues have been excellent, and know what all good teachers should know, which is, as Ben Johnson wrote for Edutopia:
Great teachers do not teach. They stack the deck so that students have a reason to learn and in the process can’t help but learn mainly by teaching themselves. This knowledge then becomes permanent and cherished rather than illusory and irrelevant.
A teacher’s job doesn’t start or end when the bell rings. There’s more to a school than just teaching the three R’s. For many students, schools are their everything. The buildings represent their primary source of food. We provide a safe space for those whose home lives are less than desirable. Students have creative outlets through music and art. Our hope is that they ultimately learn to become productive, successful citizens of the world. The landscape of education is ever-evolving, but at least the goals have stayed consistent throughout the centuries. And we’re still trying to make learning sweet.
I looked at the questioning, expectant faces, peeping at me from under squares of tinfoil. I know what they read in the news: that we’re mostly lazy scheisters, waiting for summer and pensions. While I won’t dispute the existence of those people, they are very rare. Individuals who start teaching for those reasons don’t last long; there are too many years in between. It is work. Education is a different challenge than other fields, but it is not an easier profession. It is just another kind of hard.
I want to defend my friends, and myself, but I’m never quite sure where to start. “It’s exhausting, when you do it right,” I finally say. “But I’m lucky. I love my job.”