Okay, so I didn't really get a million dollar bonus. It's just that, in this crazy culture of ours, it seems like only the quantifiable has value. Teachers don't have much value; you can tell this by looking at our salaries. In an economy based on the profit motive, teachers aren't creating a profit for anyone, therefore they must be of little value. I guess that's what some people must think. Even my students sometimes ask me why I do what I do. They know I make less money than a manager at a fast food restaurant, and they can't figure out why I do it.
On the other hand, the salaries made by CEOs and CFOs don't make much sense either. When you are talking about annual salaries and bonuses in the billions, it becomes sort of meaningless. No one can really spend that much money. I'm convinced that it must be a source of stress for the astronomically rich to figure out what to do with all that money. After a while it must all seem so senseless; those salaries are just a way of measuring themselves against one another, and each one has to feel that he or she is worth the most, even if it is an amount they can never really use.
So, if Wall Street financiers get big bonuses in the billions, what do teachers get?
We get nights like tonight. I spent the evening at school, and it was the kind of evening that makes a teacher feel that it has all been worth while. Our school's teacher cadets (they are students who are learning about the teaching profession) hosted a banquet tonight, and each student honored a teacher who was the most influential teacher in their school career. The students write a letter to their teacher, then read the letter at the banquet, and many tears are shed.
What struck me tonight was the way that each teacher brings his or her gifts to the classroom. A physics teacher was honored for his incredible dedication, and for his hands-on approach. This teacher, a PhD, creates labs for his students, and then he stays after school four days a week for those students who need more help. A psychology and Social Studies teacher teaches lecture style, and makes it compelling. Her students believe that their teacher is the one person who causes them to really be prepared for college. Another teacher is there for a student in ways her family can't be, listening and offering life advice. An anatomy teacher caused one student to fall in love with science and want to be a nurse. Another teacher keeps her students awake with her groovy outfits. Each teacher has a singular gift, and there is a child (or many children) waiting for just that teacher to arrive in her life.
So I got my million dollar bonus tonight. I helped someone fall in love with poetry and decide to become an English teacher. It is me, and the way my voice falls at the ends of my sentences, that created the value of what I do. That must be worth something. Maybe that value is something that we can't attach a dollar figure to; maybe the number of zeros at the end of my paycheck is irrelevant.
Kids can't possibly know the extent to which teaching is relational. So teachers do need and deserve bonuses, and I got mine tonight. It really does make up for everything else: the days it all goes out of control, the dozens of books and supplies that I buy that just disappear, the times when a kid loses it and I feel disrespected.
To the world at large teachers are a mystifying bunch. We may seem like fools, slogging away in a underpaid profession, distrusted by many, insulted by some, ignored by some. It isn't something easily explained, why we keep on going. But judging from the tears and the smiles tonight, about thirty tired teachers went home tonight determined to keep on keeping on.