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Swiss Army Teachers

Teachers Burdens
Illustration by Brent Holmes

There doesn’t seem to be a limit to the extra duties we pile on educators

The first meeting of Nevada’s School Safety Task Force takes place this month. Created in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead, the group of politicians, policymakers, and principals will, per Governor Brian Sandoval’s executive order, “identify and recommend those school safety practices best suited for implementation in some or all of Nevada’s schools.” But whatever this blue-ribbon group decides, whatever action it mandates, it will fall to the teachers of Nevada to enact it.

It’s unlikely that teachers will be asked to carry weapons in the classroom. Sandoval’s already said, “the consensus was that most of the school districts chose not to do that.” For good reason. There have already been incidents of teachers forgetting guns in bathrooms (to be found by students) or accidentally firing a weapon in class (injuring a student). Heck, ask any teacher how many times they’ve lost their keys or had their stapler jam or misfire. I used to be a teacher, so I know.

Still, asking teachers to be armed security guards would be par for the course. After all, teachers are already expected to be therapists, secretaries, fundraisers, statisticians, actors, lawyers, writers, waiters, custodians, IT guys. It’s an awful lot to put on people who can’t even go to the bathroom when they want, and it’s also unique to the teaching profession. We don’t assume the DMV clerk will arrange for kids’ school uniforms; we don’t expect hospital nurses to direct parking-lot traffic before their shift. Yet we have no compunction about asking educators to do so.

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There seem to be two schools of thought behind this. One: Many still cling to the notion that a teacher’s workday is only the hours they’re with students — and, besides, teachers spend three months of the year lounging in swimming pools, wearing designer sunglasses, and nibbling on imported bonbons. Which is not, shall we say, entirely accurate. A 2015 study by the Trades Union Congress found that teachers are more likely to put in unpaid overtime than members of any other profession, at an average of 13 hours a week. Many work second jobs year-round, and that three-month vacay is more like six or eight weeks once you factor in room breakdown and setup, year-opening preparations, and required continuing-ed classes.

The other reason teachers wind up carrying the extra weight is, frankly, they’re the only ones who will. A survey by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that 85 percent of teachers entered the profession because they “wanted to make a difference,” not just earn a paycheck.

Practically, teachers know better than anyone that being hungry or scared, needing glasses or a coat hurts a child’s ability to learn — but they’re also among the few who see that child as a name, a face, a fondness for string cheese and books about elephants, and not just a data point or dollar amount. As they struggle to be therapists, secretaries, fundraisers, statisticians, actors, lawyers, writers, waiters, custodians, and IT guys, being a teacher can sometimes make Sisyphus’ gig seem like carrying a box of Kleenex up a short flight of stairs.

Those who figure that the camel’s back can bend just a little more ought to cast a wary eye on the teacher strikes in West Virginia and Oklahoma. You only have to look at Oklahoma’s tattered textbooks, the four-day school schedules, and the gaping holes in the education budget to realize that, once again, teachers are stepping up to fight for their students when no one else will. West Virginia teachers even assembled care packages (on their own time and with their own money, as usual) to make sure that students who relied on school breakfasts and lunches didn’t go hungry while schools were closed.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos lambasted teachers, telling them they had to get back to work to “serve the students” — once again, relying on teachers’ sense of duty and desire to “make a difference” to make up the difference while others pass the ever-shrinking buck. Oklahoma teachers pulled the second-lowest starting salary in the nation and hadn’t had a raise in a decade; and spiraling health-insurance premiums were eating ever-increasing chunks of West Virginia’s teachers’ paychecks. A desire to make a difference can only ward off those realities for so long. Teacher Appreciation Week (May 7-11) seems like a good time to reflect on this state of affairs.

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Whatever Nevada’s School Safety Task Force finally decrees, the Silver State’s teachers will no doubt do their best to execute it, carving another little sliver out of an already stretched-out and subdivided day for another round of training, another folder full of paperwork. They’ll try to strike the right note of soothing and scared as they guide 8-year-olds through active-shooter drills. They’ll stay late to talk to that teen who’s been especially on edge lately — and even later to track down a counseling referral. They’ll keep doing whatever needs to be done … so other people don’t have to.