The Day Job

Sadly, writing does not (yet) pay the bills.  No, like so many other writers, I have to have a day job.  And mine happens to be high school teacher.

I’ve been teaching for the past decade in Northern Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC.  It’s a very different place from where I grew up out in Oklahoma.  Academics are far more competitive, for a start.  Back in the land of prairie grass and oil rigs, it’s all about football.  I remember everyone in town coming to the high school football games on Friday nights: not just students and people with connections to the school, but old guys who graduated thirty years earlier but still wore their letter jackets, trying to hold on to those old glory days like a character in some Bruce Springsteen song.

Out here, it’s all about the academic achievement.  Where I grew up, maybe 1/3 of students went on to college, if that much.  Out here, it’s closer to like 90%.  So there’s a lot of pressure on the students and on the teachers to perform.

Things are a bit different for me.  I’ve always worked in special education, with students who have a variety of learning disabilities and associated Other Health Impairments (a category that covers ADD and ADHD), maybe some emotional disabilities or something on the Autism Spectrum.  I love working with this population, and not just because we tend to play the same video games and watch the same movies and read the same comic books.  There’s something deeply satisfying about working with a group that is so often maligned and mistreated in our society.  Learning disabilities are often treated as punchlines to jokes rather than conditions that can lead to so much frustration, anxiety, and even anger in the classroom and everyday life.  I’ve worked with a broad spectrum of students, from those who were capable of college-level academic work to those who literally cannot dress themselves or bathe themselves.  I’ve had students who could discuss Shakespeare, and students who could not remember my name from one day to the next.

It’s a job that has its bad days, that’s for sure.  Those days when you have what you think is a well-crafted lesson plan that falls apart five minutes in.  Or the ones where you think something will only take ten minutes, but it takes 50.  Or you think it’ll take 50, but it really only takes 5.  Of course, then there’s all the standardized testing you have to get them ready for.  Everyone loves the standardized tests, except that none of us do.

Teaching is far more challenging than most non-teachers think.  The teaching itself may be straight-forward and even simple, but with special education especially, that’s not the hardest part of the job.

No, the hardest part is having to be constantly on.  From the moment you walk into the building until the moment you leave at the end of the day, you are performing.  You have an audience, one that senses fear and mistakes and will jump on either and tear you apart if you’re not careful.  Every action you take, every word you say, it all has to be carefully thought out before you do it, and you are never given the time to actually do that careful thinking.  Decisions must be swift, downright immediate, or you risk everything spiraling out of control.  You can’t let yourself relax or lose focus for even a second, because that’s when disaster can strike.

But it is a rewarding job, as day jobs go.  There’s a sense of satisfaction when you see a student master a new skill, or remember information they didn’t think they’d be able to recall, or see them become interested in a subject they’d detested or thought they could never get into.  Those are the moments that make teaching something I love doing, and something I continue to drag my carcass out of bed for each morning.

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