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Jennifer Havenner Headshot

I'm a Teacher and After Tuesday, I Could Be Fired

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I became a teacher for the most ignoble of reasons. I wanted job security. Sure, I like kids. I like the idea that my job benefits others and might even occasionally change the direction of someone's life for the better. But, I also like vacation time, reasonable working hours and most importantly: job security.

I came from the theater world. I was a low-level stage manager scrambling for work in my early to mid-twenties. I would work 12-15 hour days for four months, be out of work for two months, work another three- to four-month span, and then be out of work again. My schedule was erratic enough that I couldn't even really find a decent off-season job when I wasn't at the theater. Who wants to hire someone knowing they will be quitting in two months, even sooner if a job pops up?  

I'll tell you: no one. I worked in bagel shops alongside 16-year-olds, I waited tables, I made coffee drinks. I felt myself reverting to the late high school/college version of myself in which I worked a job without any real ambition just to make a teeny bit of money.  

Even when I did have a stage managing job, I scraped for money. You might think that when you work 15-hour days, you make 15 hours of pay. Not so much. Salary jobs and long hours meant I was working for free coffee and complimentary beef jerky much of the time. 

Still, I loved it. The excitement of opening night, standing in the wings and watching the performances night after night, the silent, expertly orchestrated ballet of scene changes and prop placements that happens backstage. I loved the people I worked with most of all. When you work such long hours, your co-workers become your family. My family put up with my early 20s growing pains, my foolish and annoying behavior, and my occasional utter lack of skill and ability, and still accepted me. 

But I began to miss my actual family, the one I married. I wanted something that allowed me the ability to eat dinner with my husband, to even contemplate having children; something that gave me the chance to feel like a grown-up. So I left.

Teaching was the most obvious option for me. I come from a family of teachers. All my life my mother had told me that while she didn't make much money, she never had to worry about having a job and she was able to have a life outside of her work. Sounded pretty good to me. 

I went back to school and actually earned a second Bachelor's Degree and a teaching certificate. Again, I waited tables and answered phones, worked the night desk at a hotel; but this time I knew there was an exit. When I graduated and became a teacher, I would never again have to worry about whether or not I would be employed. I would never have to worry about having basic health care and as long as I lived modestly, I would never have to worry about paying my bills. 

RIF notices, or layoff notices for the non-teachers out there, will be distributed on March 15.  The Ides of March. The scuttlebutt around the school is that they are laying off anyone who's been there under 10 years.  In a school like mine -- low-income, low performing -- that doesn't leave much. The teachers who are RIF'd will stress out the rest of the school year on contract praying to whatever deity they hold sacred that their RIF is rescinded and they get their job back. The others will be asked to substitute teach for themselves, as their job has not been deemed worthy enough to save, yet somehow the kids still need to take that class.  Some of these teachers will agree to this arrangement.  They will be paid a fraction of their salary; they will not receive any health benefits for at least 100 days of subbing; and they will not have any sick days.They will not have any job security.  

Of course, in my particular school, it's a moot point.  We're staring down the barrel of a complete reconstitution. Yes, it's exactly like it sounds. The school will effectively vomit up all that it contains, fire the entire staff and then those who reapply will re-interview for their jobs. Fifty percent have the possibility of being rehired. The rest will go elsewhere. Maybe they'll become stage managers so they can finally have some job security. 

It's not an entirely bad thing. Schools need to revamp their approach sometimes, they need to start fresh without the bad habits and practices that have led it to be the third lowest performing school in the district. The problem, of course, is that it's a bit like the "where are they now" follow-ups on The Biggest Loser contestants. Sure, they purged and exercised, and worked away 200 pounds. But without the infrastructure, the core of their identities and habits solid, they gained back 100. 

Will my school gain back 100 pounds? Probably. Still, that's better than how we were doing. I find myself wrestling with the melancholy dilemma of whether any measurable improvement warrants the shock and trauma of reconstitution.  

The systemic failures in a school don't disappear with a reconstitution; they only take on a different form. Just like you can perform the same script with a different set of actors, Macbeth is going to die no matter who's on stage.  

So, what's the answer? Do we not try at all? Do we bulldoze the school and send our students into the wild, Thoreau-style, to learn from the wonders of nature?  Or do we change the system? 

While I have no evidence, I bet you can see a decline in school performance parallel with the education cuts that have teachers subbing for themselves and living in a constant state of professional static. It's hard for even the most dedicated professional to work to their fullest potential when every force around them is screaming that they are not worth that effort.  

I do not know what the Ides of March will bring for me. I can only hope that it is not a return to making lattes and dreaming of a day when my chosen profession will provide me the security that I lack.