October 2011 Issue
September 16, 2011

First person: All I ask is that you believe in me

Author: Savanna Kucerak
Source: NYSUT United

Dear America,

When I first decided to go into teaching almost 10 years ago, society generally regarded a career in education as a noble and worthy profession. To teach was to influence and affect the future for the better, and was therefore considered one of the most important jobs in society.

But not long after I had started my first year of teaching, I noticed a distinct and unsettling change in public perceptions of and attitudes toward the career I had worked so hard to attain and was working even harder to perform. Phrases like "glorified babysitter" and "cushy job" were like bullets shot directly into my heart. When people claim that I make "too much money" for a job that "ends at 3 o'clock" with "summers off," their blatant ignorance is just painful. After spending tens of thousands of dollars to earn my degrees — most of which I've yet to pay back, with interest — and almost six years of schooling, I never thought I'd be so disrespected.

For me, 3 p.m. simply means that the students have been dismissed, and I can begin preparing, without interruption, for the four different classes I teach every day — unless there's a straggler, of course, looking for some extra help or maybe just someone to talk to. After my plans are done, copies made, and technology double-checked, it's on to the piles of papers that await me, with all 100 students awaiting and deserving thorough feedback.

Likewise, summers mean a chance to recoup, reevaluate and research. I spent last summer becoming a National Writing Project Teacher-Consultant simply because I wanted to better myself. I was not paid for this, but spending a summer with other like-minded educators was life-changing. I am undoubtedly a better teacher and person because of this and other experiences that I have chosen to attend outside of my typical teaching schedule.

When I am not participating in professional development during the summer, I am working a second job to earn a little more income so that I can afford to be a teacher with a modest lifestyle. I also spend a great deal of the summer revising lesson plans, doing research, or meeting with colleagues about the upcoming school year.

Just because I am not teaching does not mean I am not working.

Between the requirements to become certified as an educator, the stress of the job itself, and the recent trend of teacher bashing, I'm not surprised to hear that so many teachers end up leaving the profession after only three or five years.

In fact, during my junior year of college, one of my professors actually pulled me aside and asked me if I truly wanted to teach. I was too smart to be a teacher, he said.

"Teachers," he claimed, "are 'C' students who couldn't think of anything better to do with their lives."

It absolutely stunned me that he, an educator himself, would regard teachers in such a demeaning light. I couldn't wrap my head around the idea of being too smart to become a teacher. Shouldn't we encourage the best and brightest to teach our students so that they, in turn, will be the best and brightest? Shouldn't we support those who aspire to make a positive difference in the lives of thousands of people over their careers? Shouldn't we applaud those who do what they love, despite financial gain?

I believe the answer should be a resounding yes.

I don't regret my decision to become a teacher. Every day, I work hard, facing difficult challenges from students, parents, colleagues, and administration, but I love what I do.

Every time I see a student "get it," or tell me about the first book he's ever read the entire way through, or raise her hand for the first time all year, I'm reminded that I'm exactly where I need to be. And even though the nation right now seeks to blame me for the economic crisis and the downfall of American education, I fight to rise above the madness and keep my spirit afloat.

I understand that times are tough, with no desirable solutions for anyone involved.
All that I ask is that you believe in me.

Savanna Kucerak, pictured above, is a fourth-year English teacher at Homer High School and a member of the Homer Teachers Association. She first sent this essay to her representatives in Congress.