Tomorrow is the first day of classes here in NYC public schools, and I know I’m going to be too excited to sleep. Many people who are not teachers have been jealous all summer, longing for the ability to sleep in and go out for drinks every night. People get jealous of my job all the time. They’re jealous of my summer vacation and my 8 to 3 workday. They picture a roomful of teenagers raptly attentive while I lecture and assign homework. Then at 3 o’clock I prance out the door into the sunlight, off to revel in my responsibility-free life.
Of course, if you are a teacher or if you know a teacher, you know the truths about working until 3 pm and summer vacation, and you know that people who complain about the simplicity of this job don’t know the half of it. My mentor teacher has no patience for people who complain about the luxuries of teaching. “They went to school, too,” she says. “Everybody already knows about summer vacation when they’re deciding what to do. It’s not my fault they chose wrong.” This is a good point! But really, I’m ok with people being jealous of my job. As a matter of fact, people should be jealous of my job. I just think they’re jealous for the wrong reasons.
People are jealous of the free time they imagine I roll in, the months of luxury I spend frolicking around and doing nothing, but that’s not what they should envy about my job (primarily because it’s not really true). They should envy this job because it makes me happy.
Every year, I spend the night before the first day of school with butterflies in my stomach. I’m so excited to meet the 100+ new faces I’ll spend the next ten months getting to know. You know that feeling you get when you meet someone who you know will be your friend? You discover some connection and you find yourself looking forward to seeing this potential new friend. You save up stories or topics in your head to bring to this new person, excited to hear what he or she has to say. For most of us, potential new friends are pretty rare. Meeting new people is tough, pretty unusual once college has ended and you have settled into a career. I get to experience this every year. I tell my stories and listen to theirs, and we find ourselves making room for each other in our lives. Our classes become families, supporting one another, eager to be together, sad to leave each other in June. It beats any team-building activity at any work retreat I can imagine.
Instead of longing for my (mythical) three months of free time in the summer, people should be jealous because my job matters. Throughout the year, every time I hear a student mentioning me or our class, it grounds me. Ties me to the world. The things I do at my job – the decisions I make, the texts I read with my students, the conversations I create space for – they impact people. What I do directly influences my students. Not on a test or an essay or a homework assignment, but in their daily lives. When we read 1984, I overhear my students debating Winston and Julia’s relationship. Their other teachers intercept notes about whether or not O’Brien can be trusted. I get emails over the weekend or during school breaks about the propaganda they have seen in commercials and advertisements, after we begin the year studying media literacy and marketing. They tell me about articles, or news stories, or books, or movies and television that mention or relate to what we are studying, with all the excitement of discovery that our classroom connects to the outside world. Just that, their excitement. How often are people excited at other jobs, I wonder. At mine, it really is almost every day, even if only for a few moments. They are wonderful, sustaining moments.
People shouldn’t be jealous that my workday ends at 3 pm (because it doesn’t). They should really be jealous that I spend all day with interesting, hilarious, insane (in a good way) teenagers. My students are at such a fascinating point of their lives, a place where they are really starting to discover and decide who they are, creating a beginning draft of their identity (if not first, then early). In the right classroom environment, they are willing to question the world and even themselves. I get to be there for that. It’s not easy, but it’s amazing to structure an environment that helps people be self-reflective. And they’re funny. No one cracks me up like teenagers.
Don’t get me wrong: teaching is hard. It is a lot of work and I never feel good enough at it. Sometimes, my wonderful, darling teenagers are serious pains. And often when people are jealous of my job – its fantastic schedule, its abundant time for leisure – I want to wax poetic on how demanding and difficult and exhausting teaching can be. But it’s worth it, completely, because even though I don’t get to leave work behind at three pm every day, and even though I don’t get to lounge on a beach in June with three months of vacation in my carry-on, nothing could make me as happy as this job makes me.
So, NYC teachers, I hope tomorrow is an excellent start to a great school year. Enjoy meeting the newest additions to your school families. And the next time people complain about you not working hard enough or long enough, remember that they’re just jealous.