Oct 22, 2010

The Best Job in the World

The first in a four part series.

So I was reading Money magazine the other day. I know, it’s ludicrous; you’d think actually having some money would be a prerequisite to readership, but Babs ordered a subscription in a fit of financial optimism and there you are.

This wasn't the issue I was reading, but I couldn't find the cover I'll be referencing below in Google image search.

Anyway, I was reading Money magazine the other day and one of the articles was about “The 50 Best Jobs in America.” The best job, according to Money, is software architect thanks to its creative challenges, high salaries, and varied workdays. It rates an A for flexibility and a B for satisfaction. Other top jobs included physician assistant, civil engineer, information technology manager. Our friends the Piersons live in this rarified air—dentists are number 12. Saipan friends Virle and Ernie are living the good life too—Certified Public Accountants are number 9 on the list. Our friend Kristina sure seems to be living the Big Life. Her number 19 ranked career as an Occupational Therapist has taken her to London where trips to the Continent—Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam—are the norm. I guess Britni, Jess, and Riki have a lot to look forward to! Most of the top 50 jobs were in the health care industry or in technology.

And what about teachers, you ask? Where do they rank? Sad to say, but not unsurprisingly, teachers are nowhere to be found on Money’s list. Perpetually underpaid, overworked, and unappreciated, it would be hard to make a case for teachers as remotely close to the best job in America.

I’ve been thinking about my profession a lot lately. I’m waist-deep in my master’s program and that has me doing a lot of self-reflection. It’s been exciting, really, to be learning so much and be able to turn around and apply it immediately. Also, Oprah has had a couple of features on her show about education lately, in particular highlighting the hard-hitting new documentary by Davis Guggenheim, Waiting for Superman. This moving film documents the anguished struggle of five families as they seek to get their kids out of failing schools and into good ones. For many it will come down to literal luck of the draw. The children are entered into a lottery for coveted slots at one of the best schools in the district—their entire future hanging on the number of a single plastic ball. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but from what I hear, the heavies of the story are teachers—the bad ones anyway—and the teacher’s unions that protect them. The message of Superman, along with the Obama administration's new program Race to the Top, is that the pressure is on. Our education system is failing and the key factor turns out not to be spending per student (the U.S. spends more than almost all the other developed countries on education and yet continues to lag behind many countries in the quality of education), classroom size, or socioeconomic status. No, the deciding factor, it appears is the quality of the teacher in the classroom.

No pressure or anything.

Seriously though, I welcome the challenge and the scrutiny. Of course when you hear that it all hangs on the teacher, anxiety is a natural response. When they’re decrying all terrible teachers, you can’t help but wonder like the disciples at the Last Supper, “Is it I, Lord?” Am I the one betraying the trust of my students by less than stellar teaching? I comfort myself by figuring that simply asking that question is a sign that I’m on the right track. And I will myself to be better and do better at my job, to make sure that every student is enriched rather than shortchanged for having been in my classroom.

Quite simply if our students our to be the best in the world, then our schools must be the best in the world, and if our schools are to be the best in the world, then our teachers must be the best in the world. And if our teachers are to be the best in the world, then we might want to give a little thought to how to get “classroom teacher” on to Money’s “50 Top Jobs” list. What would it take to make teaching one of the top jobs in the nation? I’d argue that there’s much to recommend it for entrance to the top. It’s hard to beat teaching in terms of creative challenge—and even with all the state requirements teachers are saddled with—there’s still a tremendous amount of freedom and flexibility available to the classroom teacher. Every day presents new adventures and new opportunities. I don’t think I’ve ever had a boring day in the classroom, and no day is ever the same. It’s deeply satisfying—there’s nothing quite like watching the light come on for a young learner. There’s nothing better than watching “your kids” grow up and make their way in the world and knowing that you had a little something to do with helping them get a little closer to their dreams. More often than not, we do make a difference; a difference that lasts a lifetime. Now that’s what I call job satisfaction!

As for the job prospects in the near and long term (another factor Money considered), the outlook is fantastic. The need for teachers has never been greater. A generation of education veterans is approaching retirement and fresh blood is needed.

In fact, if we could somehow solve the issues I mentioned earlier—underpaid, overworked, and unappreciated—I guarantee teaching would quickly shoot to the top of Money’s list. Let’s face it, that trifecta is pretty brutal—work hard for chump change and earn the scorn and condescension of those around you. Doesn’t sound very appealing does it? It takes someone with either incredible passion for the job or very little other prospects to stay in a profession like that.

And yet, I believe that teaching is an amazing and worthy profession. I’m still in the game after more than a dozen years. I’m not in this job for the prestige, or the balance it affords between work, family, and personal time, and of course it’s not about the paycheck. I don’t particularly get a thrill out of grading or lesson planning. I don’t love going to the teacher store, and decorating my classroom is a discipline rather than a delight.

The kids: What it's all about.

But what I love is the kids. The kids keep me coming back. The kids drive me to my lesson plan book and online looking for fresh ideas. I’m thinking, “How can I come up with a lesson that will really excite Kyel?” The reason I want to grade papers is because I’m dying to know if Tali passed that test—I’m hoping she gets an A, probably more than she is. I put Michi’s work on the wall, so that he can see what I see, that what he did is worthwhile and worthy of notice. It’s seeing Priscilla pull it together and start really building the habits that will take her to greatness. It’s watching Cambren walk down that aisle on graduation day and know that we made it through the storm. It’s helping Joy with her composition assignments—even though she’s not in my classroom, my school, or even on my continent anymore. It’s getting an e-mail update from Aya who was once my student but now is a social worker just back from a UN Conference in Turkey. It’s getting a Facebook message from Xian Xian whose enrolled at the University of Hawaii and hearing that Ara is in acting school now. It’s the kids who continue to struggle and the ones who succeed. It’s everyone from Aaron and Indigo to Tani and Tyler inspiring me by what they may someday become and by what they already are . When the school day ends, I leave the classroom, but the kids come with me, in my heart.

Those kids that grace my “hall of fame” on the wall next to my desk—every class I’ve ever taught since 1998—they are what make this the best job in the world.

This year's Shadow team at our annual drama retreat to kick off the year. There's a roomful of superstars hand-in-hand in this circle (They had just finished untangling "the human knot" for one of our team-building activities). I can't wait to see the places they'll go!

And yet. . .it could be better still.

Coming up next in this series, I address the first of the issues, the fact that teachers are perennially overworked, and what, in my perfect world could be done about it. Skeptical of that picture of the overworked educator? Look for the next entry in this series: “Working Hard or Hardly Working?”

Oct 15, 2010

The Festival on Friday Night

The New Albany Fall Festival, Friday, October 1, 2010.

A fall Friday evening here in America. The high school football team plays tonight, and the pep rally marches down the main drag through town—high school band playing, cheerleaders cheering, drama team singing with Glee. Over in the town square the annual fall festival is in full swing. There are carnival rides, cotton candy and popcorn, hot dogs and beer, a stage where local bands will strut their stuff. A mound of hay has been dumped on some green space next to the Rusty Bucket restaurant and kids are tumbling around in the straw with abandon. Various local businesses have set up booths to hawk their wares. In addition to the Boy Scouts and a couple churches are selling baked goods to raise funds for their organizations. There is an autumnal nip in the air—this is sweater and jacket weather.

It’s Friday night. We just got paid. The weekend is here. You can just feel the collective sigh of relief.

Babs and I along with our Little Feller had a nice time at the annual New Albany Fall Festival two weeks ago. We wandered over to the village center for a little while late Friday afternoon and relished being part of a Friday night scene that undoubtedly played out in thousands of towns and cities all across America that evening:

The Feller and I paid four tickets to take a few trips down the giant slide.

We browsed the booths before settling on some rather bland fried rice from the Thai Chi stand.

We joined other kids and their parents to stare in awe at the policeman on his big white horse.

At gatherings like this, we often find ourselves thinking back to the other small community we once belonged to—our home in Saipan. These types of events remind of us of Flame Tree Festival and the Marianas March Against Cancer and the Taste of the Marianas and the other similar events that bring out the whole community. “Don’t you feel like we should be meeting Carol here?” we say to each other. Indeed, the New Albany Festival seems very reminiscent of a classic Saipan fiesta (albeit, if the entire population of Saipan consisted of the upper class Wireless Ridge and SIS/Whispering Palms ex-pat crowd). Though New Albany is upscale and largely white, community is community, and a Friday night festival feels the same regardless of the income level and ethnicity of those in attendance.

As day is dying in the west, we take our leave and head for the car parked along the side of the road a block or two away. We can hear the announcer intoning a welcome at the football game; we can see the glaring lights of the Eagles’ gorgeous stadium. As Stiff Kitty (to all appearances, a tribute to 80’s hair metal bands) gets ready to take the stage in the town square, the rest of New Albany will carry on with the festival on Friday night. Meanwhile, we have a festival of our own to attend, one that comes not annually but weekly—a celebration of our Creator, a reminder of our Savior. We too have a festival on Friday night, equally rich with tradition. Back at home as darkness falls outside, I’m bathing Elijah and we’re listening to his CD of hymns for children. The familiar melodies bring back memories of countless Friday nights past, going all the way back to my childhood. Then the festival on Friday night meant being fresh from the bath, eating special delicious food, luxuriating in a spanking clean house, and spending time with family and God.

In the hurly-burly hustle and bustle of life as an adult we’ve let a lot of the specialness of Friday night slip away. I’m thinking it might be time to restore the festival on Friday night to its former glory. Don’t get me wrong. Friday night is still special, but I think it could be so much more. Wouldn’t it be nice to welcome the Sabbath once more, instead of having it just let itself in? After all, if there is one thing everyone knows in one sense or another—it’s that Friday night is for festivals.