Teaching is Still One of the Toughest and Best and Most Important Jobs on the Planet

Dan Moulthrop

August 25, 2016

Earlier this week, attn: media put out a video under the headline, "60% of Teachers Can't Survive on Their Salary." I paid attention for a few reasons.

I used to be a teacher, and a decade a go, I co-authored a book about the impact of our de facto national policy of underpaying PK-12 educators. One of my talented co-authors turned that book into a documentary and a non-profit advocacy organization, The Teacher Salary Project (where I volunteer as a member of the board). We provided some of the footage for the ATTN video, so we were pleased to see it viewed and shared so widely. And it was clear that this resonates with people. An award winning author I know and follow on Facebook shared the video and referred to this wierdness--that our teachers don't make enough to live on--as an example of what he called "America's f***ery." He's a writer, so he's allowed to use colorful language. I don't disagree with the sentiment. 

Occasionally, I am asked to speak to groups of teachers. As it turns out, a few days before the ATTN video came out, I was invited to speak at the Opening Convocation at West Geauga School District, about a half hour east of Cleveland. In a gymnasium full of teachers who had just spent a week in professional development sessions and preparing for the year ahead, I made the comments that follow. This is the prepared text. I went off script a few times. I'm posting it here, because a few people had asked me for a copy. After thanking my hosts, I began...

I want to tell you about an experience I had last summer. I was in San Francisco, for a meeting for the Teacher Salary Project. It's a nonprofit organization that works to advocate that teachers get paid the professional salary they deserve--a salary that would allow them to live in the communities in which they teach. That's possible here, but it's not in San Francisco and many cities around the country. We were spending the whole day talking to one another and creating plans about how we can more effectively advocate for the change we want to see. As a board member, I was leading some of the dialogue and I was also helping with the set up, getting the food and supplies into the downtown location where we were hosting the summit.

Now, I can't be in San Francisco without reflecting on the five years I spent as a teacher. Seventeen years ago I was starting my first teaching job. It was in San Francisco, where I taught in a county jail, and I used to ride my bicycle to work, not because I was a fitness enthusiast or particularly environmentally minded. I was broke. And I was working part time in the county jails, and that's what you do in your 20s. Anyway, after a little more than a year in the jails, and I've got plenty of stories I could share with you, I got a job teaching at a high school. San Lorenzo High School, a medium sized high school in a relatively small district in an unincorporated town in the East Bay. It was poor. It was urban. It was diverse--the largest demographic group was Latino, and the Latino gangs would recruit relentlessly.

And we had the most wonderful English department. When I got there, I was green. I was working on my credential while I was teaching my first year, and there was so much I didn't know about teaching, and my students could smell it a mile away. But my colleagues saw my potential, and they helped. They shared curriculum, they observed my lessons and coached me, they planned with me, and they supported me, and I grew to love them and emulate them, eventually serving as a coach and mentor to other new teachers and student teachers.

There was a student I had that year. She had a complicated Nigerian name--Uriridiakoghene Onovakpuri. She told me to call her Uriri. She was great. She was engaged, and paid attention, in spite of my lack of preparation for the job. She was a strong writer, and she was the kind of child who was obviously going to forge her own way and likely encounter some pushback from peers along the way. She was a great student and over the years I watched her grow into someone who was not only capable of speaking up for herself but eventually to speak up for others.

So back to San Francisco for a second. I'm helping to set up for this board meeting, doing what volunteer board members do for scrappy organizations, bringing trays of food and bottles of water and flip charts and all of that from the car into the building, and I'm walking back and forth, because it's San Francisco and there's no easy parking, and there are these windows I'm walking by, up at eye level, they're tinted but I can see that there's a meeting going on in this conference room. And I'm making all these trips back and forth to the car, and because I'm nosy, I'm checking out the meeting as I walk by. And the first time I walk by, I look at the woman leading the meeting, and I think, she reminds me of someone. And the next time I walk by, I think she really reminds me of Uriri Onovakpuri. And the third time I walk by, I'm wishing the window wasn't tinted, because I'm almost positive it's her.

Anyway, as luck would have it, I got pulled into my meeting in this other part of the building, and a day or so later, I message her on Facebook--we'd become Facebook friends in the early days of Facebook, and I really hadn't kept track of her at all. Was that you, leading the meeting in the building on Mission street? I asked. The answer, as you already know, was yes. 

So happy to have seen her doing what she was doing. It was that moment, that, as teachers, we often long for. To be a fly on the wall in some room where one of our former students is leading a meeting, commanding a room, running a program or an organization, having grown into the leader we hoped she would become.

I think all of you probably know or at least have heard of US Senator Cory Booker. He's the senator from New Jersey who used to be the Mayor of Newark. When he was on City Council, he staged a public hunger strike in an open air drug market to draw attention to the crime and poverty of that neighborhood. He recently wrote a book called United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good. He came to Cleveland last year for an event we hosted with the Cuyahoga County Public Library and he told this story about his father. I'm going to quote him telling the same story at a Stanford Commencement address in 2012.

My dad would touch me almost like he was trying to feel my very spirit. He would look at me and he would say in ways that are eloquent, he would impart to me this truth, he would say to me, "Boy, you need to understand that who you are now, you are the physical manifestation of a conspiracy of love. That people whose names you don't even know, who struggled for you, who fought for you, who sweat for you, who volunteered for you – you are here because of them. Do not forget that.

A conspiracy of love. I'm deeply drawn to that idea. That's what we are--that's what you are. You are a part of that conspiracy of love.

I remember when I was teaching, every day, there were students who would eat their lunches in my classroom. They’d sit down at desks or hop up on the counter next to the white board, and they'd talk to me. At the time, I remember thinking about this one girl, Amanda--why is she here? Why is she telling me all this about her life? And I realized that she understood that I cared about her. We would chat, I would have to draw lines and explain what I shouldn't know about her life, but still, in those few moments, I got to be a part of the conspiracy of love that was holding her up and pushing her forward. The same with Uriri.

You are a part of the conspiracy of love that is lifting up each and every one of your students. I know that when the state once again changes the testing regime you just want to shut it down and find another, easier career. When lawmakers who haven't set foot in a public school classroom since they graduated high school decide that a new set of standards is really the one we ought to be following, you want to weep. When someone says schools should be run like businesses, you want to throttle them and say, I can’t fire the third grade! And, When you meet someone for the first time, they ask what you do and you say that you teach and they say good for you, you want to say no, it's good for YOU and it's good for the community and it's good for democracy, but actually, it's not good for me, it's probably not good for my health, it may not be good for my marriage, and I wish I had more time with my own children but I'm too busy helping to raise your children.

I know that this may not be the thing I’m supposed to say, but when you close the door to your classroom, none of that matters.

But despite all that, you are a part of that conspiracy of love. You all know this, you are part of this conspiracy of love that is making our community a better place. The policy makers will always offer something that’s supposed to change what happens in your classroom, but in the end, it’s you in that classroom, doing your best, delivering a well crafted lesson, differentiating the instruction because even before anyone started calling it differentiated instruction, it was pretty clear to the profession that Brad learned differently than Ebony, who really didn’t have much in common with Uriri, or Laurel. It’s you in that classroom, with the high behavioral standards you’ve always had, the high academic standards you’ve always had, the belief you carry with you that these children—these beautiful young emergent human beings—are capable of doing their best, of learning and contributing and caring. 

I remember those moments, when the door to my classroom was closed, and it was just me and 27 juniors, talking about Toni Morrison's Beloved, and they were making all of these connections and understanding how symbolism works in literature and how a character can be a metaphor, and I felt like I was simultaneously in love with the class, with the literature, with the whole enterprise of public education, and I thought, I can't believe I get paid to do this.

Despite everything going on in the world, the reforms and fads and testing and the legions of folks who believe they know better than you what ought to happen in your classroom, you bring love to the classroom every day because you know that students learn from the people they love. Their favorite teachers aren't the smartest ones, they're the ones they love and the ones who love them. That's all of you.

And beyond each of these lives that you are shaping and informing and nurturing, what you do is literally the foundation of our Democracy. The future of democracy is riding on no other profession the way it is riding on the teaching profession. It can seem trite and cliché to say it, but it's true. The future of this community depends on the great work you do every day, and on you doing it even better in the future. And the future of our democracy and its need for well-informed and engaged citizens, depends on legions of teachers in 13,505 other school districts across the nation. 

You all are going to do amazing things in your classrooms this year, and you’ll do amazing things for your colleagues and for the families of this district. There will be some new program to implement and one of you will step up to do that. There will be some new problem that needs to be solved, and some of you will collaborate to figure out how to implement an innovative solution. There will be a student who doesn’t know how to ask for help and only knows how to act out, and you will figure out how to help him. There will be a moment—more likely a series of moments—where the thousand decisions you make in your classroom every hour of every day will set a child on a path or propel them forward down a path that will find her years from now, in front of a group of people, leading them through some key decision that will maker her community a better stronger place.

You will do that, because you are a part of the conspiracy of love that supports these children and makes democracy work. You are all co-conspirators. And I thank you.