13 September, 2023

The Perils of Teaching

This week, we installed a ramp to the front door of the house. We purchased a wheelchair that was far more expensive than I thought wheelchairs would reasonably cost. And we've had multiple doctor's visits dealing with the mobility issues we've had this past year. Next week, Katherine will finally be able to teach in-school again from her new wheelchair.

Katherine's extended absence from school at the beginning of this school year eye-opening. Even though she's been officially on leave, she's been working six hour days just to take care of the learning materials that students will need while the substitute teacher is in the class. I am in awe at how hard Katherine works to help her students learn even while she's stuck at home and not able to see them in the school. I keep thinking back to all the times I took off from work because of being sick, or needing a mental health day… I certainly never spent 75% of that work day doing the work anyway. Katherine's dedication and hard work is laudable, but also scary: according to her, every teacher that takes off from school has to do their lesson plan anyway, so this isn't at all unusual for people in her profession. The more I learn about teaching, the more I am concerned with how schools are organized in this country. I still remember when I first met Katherine and realized that even though she has entire summers off, she still works more than the average number of hours per year that someone who works 52 weeks/year will work. I recall just how flabbergasted I was when I first learned that Katherine spends many multiple thousands of dollars each year of her own money to subsidize her art classroom with supplies. She actually spends much more than this — this is just the portion of it that isn't reimbursed by the school. And now, here I am, watching her take the first extended absence of her multiple decade career, and seeing her work six hour days to provide the substitute teachers with the materials they need for their eight hour days.

I don't think I ever fully appreciated the teachers I had when I was young. Most of the time, I thought very little about them. The first time I connected with a teacher was in the second college I attended, and that didn't turn into an extended relationship because he died shortly after I bonded with him. I've mostly been an autodidact throughout my life. I remember going through Feynman's Lectures on Physics as a teen, thoroughly enjoying the first few sections, and then realizing that in order to appreciate the later sections I'd need to learn quite a bit more mathematics. I went to the library, found the appropriate books, and taught myself calculus, the basics of linear algebra, etc., just so that I could keep reading Feynman. I never thought to speak to a teacher about it. That just wasn't my relationship with teachers at the time. They were little more than minders of my time. Rarely did they ever talk about anything new. By the time a teacher talked about a thing, it was generally something that had exhausted my attention years previous. This held true until college, so I just never bonded with any of them.

Seeing how much work Katherine puts into her career really makes me regret how I spent my youth ignoring teachers of all kinds. I wish I had had a mentor other than the library. At the time, the main branch of the Mobile Public Library had only a single section of shelves dedicated to Dewey Decimal 530; I literally read every single book on physics in the main public library of a city of half a million people within a single month, and it wasn't because I was a fast reader: it was because they just didn't have all that many books. I was so disenamored with other people at the time. I didn't like living in Alabama. I didn't think of any of my teachers as a source of furthering my education. I was such a stupid child.

If I could go back, I would talk more to those teachers. I would find out what their interests were, and I would learn from them on the things they knew best. I would use them to learn how better to learn, rather than to just sit and read. I would have properly appreciated all the teachers I had.

I wonder how many students appreciate all the effort Katherine puts into her job every day, even on days when she's technically on leave. It's probably not very many.