Essay: An Uneducated Career Move
By Diane Dean-Epps
Posted on October 12, 2006
Photography by Beth Baugher
Why would I leave the glamorous world of public education where, oftentimes, it’s a fight just to get a class set of books, let alone four pairs of scissors that work at the same time? And don’t get me started on the paper scarcity, which practically qualifies clean white paper as the Edsel of teaching instruments. The Garfield poster hanging in my classroom used to say it all, admonishing, “You don’t scare me. I teach school for a living.” But you know what? I am scared. I’m scared that we’re not coming up with real solutions because we haven’t identified the real problems. Teachers are not the problem, but they make for
an easy target.
These days I feel a little like I’m a first-time speaker at an A.A. meeting when I meet new people. “Hello. My name is Diane and I’m a high school English teacher.” Folks tend to nod their heads sympathetically as they exclaim, “Good for you! I couldn’t do it.” Perhaps my contemplation of “educator flight” is because my profession has taken on the patina of “endangered species,” in which case, as a teacher I may be the proverbial dodo. Rounds of well-meaning but off-kilter legislation like “No Child Left Behind,” which I lovingly call “Every Teacher Left Behind,” has many of us working on résumés that haven’t been updated since we listed our employment objective as “wanting to make a difference.” No Child Left Behind, in particular, forces teachers to prove they are “highly qualified” even though the state of California has already certified them as such, creating more work for everyone, particularly the teachers. This does not benefit children.
It all has me thinking. And we know what happens when someone with just enough knowledge to be dangerous begins thinking. An intellectual Molatov cocktail: a new trilevel hairstyle, conversion to a vegan lifestyle or, as in my case, entering a career change turnstile. Maybe I’ll run for Director of Sanity in the Department of Education, or write speeches of some sort for a liberal-leaning, bipartisan-thinking dude or dudette.
Maybe spunk is responsible for this new journey. I’ve always had spunk, and spunk has helped me almost as often as it’s gotten me in so far over my head I need a fireman’s ladder to read the directions for what I’m doing. Yes, I’ve got the spunk gene, and it was a spunky little me who entered the field of education after leaving the world of broadcasting 15 years ago. No one could understand then why I would leave the glitz (translation: nonstop stress) of television for teaching, and maybe no one will understand why I now contemplate departure from teaching into politics. But I want all of you to know why.
It’s not so much that I am “over” my chosen profession as a public school educator as I am “over” the rhetoric and poor behavior that has me wanting to put educated adults who are more interested in sound bites than sound solutions into a corner on a collective time-out until they can “use their words,” “talk nicely” and “be respectful.” You know. Like teachers tell grade school kids to do when they’re acting naughty. I want to lend my voice to the plebe legislative chorus that has come out of the trenches and really knows what we’ve been fighting for, instead of listening to those who were last in a classroom when chalkboards abounded. (For the record, mostly we use whiteboards now with cool, colored pens. I won’t kid you: I’ll miss writing on those whiteboards.)
Many things lead me to the Capitol besides my failed sense of direction that consistently has me exiting, unplanned, on freeway offramps that always seem to lead downtown, presenting a true metaphor for life. There is a natural progression at work here that cannot be simply charged off to rampant idealism. Not only am I a teacher, but I am a writer who has been telling other people’s stories yea these many years. Now I want to tell all of you the stories of my “special interest” group: our kids. That’s right. Your kids. My kids.
Recently, in one week, I dealt with a student’s emotional outburst as a result of a pregnancy scare, and her classmate needed to talk to me—during class—because he was having a whole lot of feelings bubble to the surface because it was the anniversary of his father’s death. Along about that same time, I had to call Child Protective Services because one of my students told me that she had nowhere to live and nothing else to wear because her mother had kicked her out. Granted, every week isn’t like this one. Some weeks I even teach a little grammar, conduct a little state-testing soft shoe and require an essay to be written that doesn’t use nonexistent verb combinations like “could of.”
Teaching is rather like many jobs that are high stress, high pressure, high maintenance, but have some great day-off patterns (think firefighters and nurses). From the outside looking in, the career looks attractive and easy and, dare I say, heroic. The reality is that an individual would last about the time it took to write this article if the only motivation was a run of long vacations. After approximately 180 days a year of enduring our students’ collective pain, it’s possible that the eight-week vacation teachers enjoy every summer really is a mental necessity. These sweet, needy, verbal children are our special-interest group and we drop everything when they open up, but it costs us. Even so, it’s not enough for me to limit my efforts to the classroom. Maybe the fact that I connect with them is exactly why I’m compelled to seek an audience on their behalf.
I wish to work with those who still believe, as I do, that the legislative system is mainly populated with a majority. A majority of good folks who work for their constituents on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis. Who honestly try to be, well, honest. These are the folks who feel it’s important to visit a cross section of schools, not just the cute little classrooms where people wear funny hats as they hold books from which they read in a sing-songy voice, but also schools that sometimes seem as though they are prisons, minus the sound of barbells clunking together after each set of reps.
Sure, I may be leaving my “cushy” job where I get up at 5 every morning, stop and get a latte that costs half of my hourly wage and toddle on in to run my small business of 180 workers, some of whom want to be there. It’s downright luxurious using those Dollar Tree pens I purchase that occasionally write the first time, perching on my thrift-store chair that’s missing a crucial bolt so I list to the right—or is it to the left? (Perhaps a subliminal political message there.) And the workload. Now that is sweet. I continuously show up ready to do my job—teaching material per state-mandated English content standards to high school students—while I listen to my students, trying to meet their emotional needs, as I read in the papers about the dismantling of my STRS retirement program. All of this as I fight for things like dictionaries, tables that can stand longer than I can and mileage reimbursement for a job-related conference I attended six months ago.
Why would I contemplate leaving the field of education and try my hand at framing events in a highly charged political environment? OK, I’ll answer a question with a question. How does that basic criteria differ from the job I am currently working? Because with this big mouth, active pen and idealistic viewpoint, I unknowingly have been politically active my whole life. Whether I’m spiritedly debating the issues surrounding the exit exam, sticking up for teenagers and their need for vocational options (no, they don’t all go to college and yes, it’s true that some do begin college, but unfortunately the majority do not finish), or simply showing up to teach a group of underaged voters, I am in the fray. In the political arena. Because that is where you are when you care. When you devote your life to causes, you learn to harness the passion and effect positive change. It’s not OK to sit back and let others do it.
Oh, sure, I’ve fantasized about the sound of my high heels on those beautiful marble floors at the Capitol as I clop around fighting for justice like some sort of middle-aged superhero—maybe Estrogen Woman. I’ve even thought about a dream press conference where the Democrats and Republicans sit side by side and rediscover the power of compromise. Oh, how I want what I want, but I know things just don’t work that way. And then there’s that visual where I’m dressed to the nines—heck, maybe to the 15s—talking to legislators and being heard by them. But that’s always a teacher’s fantasy. Saying words that will motivate. Inspire. Get through to those who aren’t big on listening. It would be a thrill to have people—even adults—actually listen intently to me without commenting, “Dude. Did you, like, totally dye your hair this weekend?” Heady stuff, this contemplation of political recourse through verbal discourse.
And yet I am fearful—fearful of not being with my teenaged “peeps” and hearing their funny cadence of speaking, their queries about how my weekend was, their endless complaints about homework, the early hours of our school and the icky smell that makes my old portable classroom reek like warm, day-old raccoon. I am fearful that I will lose my way without them to guide me daily, because any teacher who is worth the money it takes to pay union dues knows that a teacher learns much more from the students than the students learn from the teacher. I’m not sure if I’ll ever run for elected office, but I know that running away isn’t an option. What was that freeway exit for the Capitol again?