Friday, August 21, 2015

Are You Ready?

It is one of my least favorite questions, particularly when asked in that tone of voice that says, "I'll bet you just hate the idea of stepping back into a classroom. Please tell me how much you hate your job."

I can't think of any other profession that so relentlessly gets the "Don't you just hate to go to work" question. Do people ask doctors, "Boy, all those sick people in your office. What a pain? Amiright?" Do people tell sports stars, "Boy, I bet you're disappointed you made the playoffs and have to keep working."

We're supposed to respond with some version of weary sadness, bonding with the interogator over the shared understanding that, yes, I am sad about having to do my job and he can walk away shaking his head knowingly-- those poor damn teachers, stuck in their stinky jobs.

I can remember as a young teacher feeling kind of sheepish about trying to answer the question, sensing that my answer was not the expected one and yet not seeing a clear way to answer without it being a slap in the face to the person who asked. As regular readers may have noticed, I'm not quite as reluctant to be an ass as I once was. I mean, I understand that people mean well, sort of, and that they are just adopting a socially acceptable avenue of small talk to make conversation, and perhaps that's part of what bugs me about it-- the embedded cultural assumption that of course teachers find their job troublesome and not-look-forwardable-to. Nowadays, mostly, I settle on answering the question as if it were delivered without any subtext-- "Why, yes, I'm looking forward to it," or "Yup, it never gets old. I'm excited to get to it," or "Been getting ready all summer," or "I was born ready." Occasionally, either for people I know can stand it (or people I know can't), "Well, I haven't finished updating the early American lit reading list, and wanted to read through a few more works before heading back, and I was hoping to tweak the materials on verbal phrases because my students always have trouble with nominative absolutes." Only rarely, "Well, of course I'm ready. It's the job I've devoted my entire adult life to, the job I always wanted to do, the job I try really hard to get better at with every passing year. Why wouldn't I be ready?" The word "dumbass" is only implied.

I do know one group that gets a similar subliminal downgrade; all the mothers who are currently being asked how happy they are to get their children out of their houses and back to school. So perhaps the cultural message here is that dealing with children is unpleasant.

Of course, children themselves get their own version of the Are You Ready onslaught. We often puzzle at how small children are so excited about school and older ones are not. I'd suggest that part of the problem is that we keep telling children they shouldn't be excited about school. Not directly, of course, but right now all over the country students are being asked just how sad they are about the end of summer and the start of school.

Just imagine the effect if every single adult that a child encountered in August said some version, "Boy, I bet you're excited to get back to school! Won't it be great? What do you think is going to be the best part? Man, I wish I were your age again and going to school!"

Instead, students keep getting nudges, knowing frowns, and versions of, "Sucks, huh?"

Look, I get that the freedom of vacation is nice and recharging the batteries is useful and both are hard to give up.  But this negative talk about school is pervasive and, because it's more subtle than the "Teachers are destroying education" rhetoric, easier to miss and harder to resist. And yes, there's some stress because there always unknowns-- but the stress is because we want to do well, because we care about the job.

But if we teachers are serious about improving the atmosphere around our work and our schools, it is an easy-- but important-- first step to stop participating in the "Oh, going back to school sucks and should make us sad" party. If you love your job and you're proud of the work and you are happy to get back to your classroom, don't be peer pressure pretending otherwise. Smile. Hold your chin up. Say, "It's great, important work and I'm happy to be employed doing it." Don't apologize, even through silence, for being a teacher. Resolve to make this simple stand for the profession. You know the questions and the comments.

Be ready.


  1. My kids and I were talking about the last day of camp, which is today. They said that while they'll miss their camp friends, they are also excited for the last day of camp, because it means that school is that much closer and they're both really looking forward to getting back to school, meeting their teachers, and seeing their school friends. One of my goals as a parent is for them to continue to have that attitude right through high school and beyond. This is one of the reasons I do what I can to fight for our public schools to keep offering the approach and opportunities that make my kids want to attend them. All kids in public schools should be entitled to the opportunities my kids have.

    1. Sarah, can I just thank you for your approach? If only all parents wanted for "all kids in public schools" the same things they want for their own -- what a difference that would make!

  2. I understand what you are saying, but local conditions can make even committed teachers dread going to work. From the (awesome) Muller article you recommended last week, "The more that work becomes a matter of filling out forms and filling in boxes by which performance is to be measured and rewarded, the more it will repel those who know how to actually think." Amen. How administration handles those forms and checkboxes in evaluating teachers, and how it requires us to generate them in evaluating our students makes the difference between misery and that deep joy that hooks us into teaching in the first place.