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View from an elementary teacher

In a week when teachers flocked to social media sites to vent about school air conditioning systems and the stalled union contract negoations, Westchase Elementary first grade teacher Jamie Cook asked if we would print a post that she has already shared on public sites.

In the way of background: The district estimates the value of its contract offer at $139 million, including $100 million in insurance benefits alone, and the $4,000 raises that about a third of the teachers will get when they receive credit for a year of service. Additionally, Superintendent Jeff Eakins has been working to bring more training and mentoring to teachers at their schools. Still, as this essay shows, morale issues exist.

These were Ms. Cook's thoughts at the end of the week:

This is what my school parking lot looked like when I left at 6:30 on this Friday evening. Even the bus drivers had gone home, the buses put out to pasture for the weekend. I am a single mother, and my time with my own children is the most precious thing in the world to me. And this is MY weekend with them. But tonight, they're with my dad, better known as Papa, babysitter supreme, having what I'm sure is a wonderful time. But I miss them deeply.

Teachers have a choice. We can work our paid eight hours and call it a day, and settle for "just good enough" on our evaluations. Or we can live and breathe and bleed educational excellence, above and beyond our classroom hours, to get that stellar evaluation. Does one choice or the other make one a better teacher? No. But those of us passionate about it can't seem to choose the "good enough, now go live your life" option, even when our personal lives suffer, our families suffer, our physical and emotional bodies suffer. I want to be and feel excellent at my two most important jobs: mother and teacher. But it feels nearly impossible to achieve both of those goals in a 24-hour day, a 7-day week, a 180-day school year, a 5-week long summer.

Meanwhile, the feedback is lacking. During those amazing moments in our classroom when our students are exploding with epiphanies, we instinctively turn around to high five an adult who gets it, but no one is ever watching. Then, when someone does come in once a year or once a month to evaluate you, or just to walk through your classroom with a clipboard (as if one can fit the evolution of a tiny human mind into a checkmark box), something inevitably goes awry (as will happen with children), and your heart sinks. You missed your chance to shine. And you know they won't be back soon. Simultaneously you wish they would just leave you alone forever and that they would come every day to see how great you are, how great your kids are on a day-to-day basis. But life happens, and lessons go badly, or you must tend to a little one's bloody nose or bloody knee or (Heaven help me) vomit. Or maybe we just need to sit and catch our breath for a moment. Someone will perhaps choose that one moment, 3 minutes out of 180 hard-worked days, to stop by and judge.

Day in and day out, I am there for my students and they are there for me. We are an island in a lovely little Hogwarts-themed classroom tucked in a secluded corner of a large school. And we take care of each other, and I forgive them as they interrupt me for the 600th time, and they forgive me when I get frustrated because they can't do what the state has decided that they should be able to do, academically and behaviorally, at 6 years old. And I forgive myself, knowing that every child is different, and that they ARE JUST 6 years old. And we support each other as we all try to do better the next day. It's a well-oiled machine of a microcosmic community, a beauty that gets lost in a bureaucracy that cares mainly about academic urgency and rigor and forgets the importance of human connection and the momentum that a child's curiosity naturally brings.

Our school district has decided that for all of our hard work, we deserve a cost-of-living raise that equals 55 cents a day. In a very honest letter, our union president pointed out something so obvious, yet rarely acknowledged: they know we won't quit. Most of us rely on our income, but more notably, we are dedicated to our students. We are dedicated to our field. So we accept what we are offered, call it better-than-nothing, laugh an uncomfortable, tired laugh about it with colleagues, and continue on. Through bones aching, yawns stretching, our own little ones calling for us as we head to our classrooms, we continue on. Because little minds await, and we have a job to do.