Today was career day at my school. There used to be a time when I delivered a spiel to my students about the teaching profession. This year, however, I thought it best to keep my mouth closed lest my foot find its way in. If I were to give a spiel, it would probably go something like this:
“Good morning. As many of you might know, I am a high school history teacher. How many of you have ever considered being a teacher? That is what I thought.
There was a time when becoming a history teacher seemed like a good idea. My mother raised me by herself. She was a firm believer in the notion of education as the great equalizer. Everything she did was for the sake of getting me an education. This was certainly the most fundamental factor steering me towards a career in teaching, although I did not know it at the time.
For someone from my background, teaching was a step up. It was a way to move from the poor class to the middle class. When I got my first teaching job, I felt I had achieved a dream. It is strange for me to see these kids from middle-class and privileged backgrounds today who treat teaching as some sort of temporary charity work. I had always seen it as a career, a vocation and something to be cherished.
But money was the furthest thing from my mind. I grew up with exclusively black and Hispanic friends. Like many urban children coming of age in the early 1990s, I embraced the hip-hop culture. Groups like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions were our heroes. We looked up to them not because they were “gangsta” but because they were conscious. They spoke about history and gave us a sense that knowing the past was important. I was always drawn to the respect that groups like them received for their intelligence.
As a junior in Brooklyn Technical High School, I learned about other forms of respect as well. One day, me and my three best friends went to a Wendy’s in downtown Brooklyn to take advantage of some bargain hamburgers. As we were feasting, a group of at least 10 street toughs surrounded us brandishing box cutters. For whatever reason, they took a bad shine to our crew and let it be known that we were toast as soon as we stood up to leave. Suddenly, one of them recognized one of my friends. They smiled and gave each other a pound (a dap or handshake, if you will), at which point the menacing crew exited the establishment. It turns out that my friend’s father was the kid’s math teacher, a man who was respected by some real tough hombres.
This type of respect impressed me. A man did not have to be violent or aggressive to be respected. Respect can be earned from being a part of the community.
Boys like myself who grew up without fathers usually have to scrape the meaning of manhood together from bits and pieces they pick up from the outside: the media, the streets and our friends. I suppose my image of manhood consisted of conscious rappers and upstanding members of the community. While I was fortunate enough to internalize the right lessons, I realized that youth like the ones who almost hurt us that day might be internalizing the wrong ones.
Being a history teacher, therefore, would be the culmination of everything I knew about manhood. If I could gain the respect of my students, perhaps I could use history as a way to help the next generation unlock the meaning of the world around them. Perhaps I could help set some wayward youth on the right path. Perhaps, above all, I could be a role model myself. I could be Chuck D, KRS-1 and my friend’s father all rolled up into one.
These were the things going through my mind when I decided to be a teacher.
As I started my career, I began to become obsessed with history. Not only did I appreciate it for its own sake, I appreciated it for how I could make it relevant to the lives of my students. Public Enemy was constrained by verses, beats and rhyme schemes. I, on other hand, could let the history fly freely through lesson planning. Not even the silly Regents Exam could hold me back from being the best history teacher in the city.
Teaching started out as a personal mission for me. Thirteen years later, I can safely say that it remains so. I still wake up in the morning excited to share the secrets of the past with my students. Every day is different. Every day has its own dynamic. Every day is another brushstroke helping paint a picture of the world for my students that they will never encounter anywhere else. You might understand why, at this point, I do not use the textbook.
Everything used in my class comes out of my own brain. All of the lessons, notes, handouts, questions, exams and projects are my creations. The job does not end when I leave the building. Once I go home, I might relax for a half hour before I start grading homework assignments. The weekend is nothing more than an opportunity for me to write the next unit, the next homework sheet and the next batch of lessons for one of my preps. If I am lucky I might have the time to read a book, always history or philosophy or a literary novel. All of the girlfriends I have had, the ones who were not teachers anyway, questioned why I was working so much when off the clock. I am 34 years old and have never been married. I am married to my work.
In those moments when I am not planning or grading or reading I am on the internet reading and writing. Part of being a teacher, the part of my career that developed too late, is keeping abreast of what is happening in the world of public schooling. If we do not like what is happening, and we never do, it is our duty to speak against it.
There is too much not to like. Teachers are under attack everywhere. There are people who believe we get paid too much, work too little and are not being held “accountable”. They say schools are “failing” and we are to blame for it. Can you imagine that? Their solutions to these so-called “problems” are the scary part: closing public schools, more testing and no job security.
None of this would be too bad if these people who wish to reform the school system actually believed the stuff they say. Unfortunately, their cures for what ails the system are merely fronts for another agenda. In the end, these people do not want you to get an education at all. They are corporate types that would much rather go back to the days when children worked. Barring that, they want to turn education into a series of barks and bubbles. They want to train you, train all of us, to bark on command. They want you to spend every waking hour training to fill in bubbles, the “correct” bubbles as determined by them, your corporate masters.
Is it not obvious at this point? Good barkers and bubblers are good workers and consumers. If left up to them, none of us would have the capacity to think. They wish to disarm our intellect. A thoroughly vegetated population is a population easily controlled.
The stakes have certainly risen since the days when I thought that my only job was to be a role model. You want to teach? Be prepared to wake up early, sleep late, get paid less, do more, have control over nothing and be blamed for everything. Don’t get me wrong, we need teachers but we need teachers who are warriors. It is not enough any longer to love a subject or an age group, carve out a nice little career for yourself and then retire secure in the thought that you made a difference. There will be none of that any longer. Everything you do, whether you are at school, at home or in the grocery store, must revolve around the preservation of this institution we call “education”.
If, after hearing all of this, you still want to be a teacher, then you might be what we need. If not just remember that, one day, you will have children of your own who need a school in which to learn.