My principal, list of teachers in hand, crept sheepishly into my classroom, his tired and frustrated face still wearing the stress of the teachers he had already talked to before coming to my classroom. He sat down slightly awkwardly into a student desk and halted over his words, telling me that because I had only been in the district two years, I was being notified that I would possibly not have a teaching position to come back to in the fall. I knew it was coming; I had done the math in my head and figured it would be inescapable. But hearing it, with such official finality from my principal, the principal who had hired me after months of calling me every Monday evening on my way home from UCSD graduate courses to assure me they were waiting for a spot to offer me, the principal who had been my own high school principal for three years, the principal who supported me in my first two years of teaching and who respected me the way that my first principal had not, was awful. I was able to mostly hold back my tears until he was gone, choking on the last few words I said to him as I put on a brave face and shrugged that it was inevitable.
But as soon as my classroom door clicked closed behind him as he went off to talk to the next teacher on his list, I dissolved into a puddle of teachers, clutching my face at my desk -- the desk I might have to clean out at the end of the year, and, sitting there through the tears, surveying the corners of my classroom, thinking in a flash of all of my classroom teaching possessions boxed up and taken home to rot in my garage. The weight was too much.
Oh, and did I mention that March 15th, 2008 was my 26th birthday? Because it was.
And that was only the first pink slip I would experience in my short career. I was pink slipped on March 15th, 2009 and again on March 15th, 2010.
In 2008, the first one, it actually didn't officially stick. I mean, it wasn't immediately revoked within a few days; I think it took a little less than two months before most of us were notified that though they'd had to notify us for the March 15th deadline (which is one of those weirdly arbitrary California Ed Code dates), things had improved and we would not be issued the next even scarier notice. We even got a lovely little form letter from the district to say that they were happy to inform us we would, in fact, have a position the following year in the district and apologized for the stress. This was nice.
The next year was not so nice. Unlike the year before, where my principal visited each teacher individually, 2009 was the year of the Epic Pink Slipping. I think there were at least thirty teachers in the room, which our principal and district human resources people assembled in a room to bring the axe down once, as gently as they could. It was awful. Lots of English teachers -- almost half of our department. Many math teachers. Lots of elective teachers and a handful of Social Science Teachers. Thirty teachers at that time was almost a third of the staff. It was gut wrenching and awful, and though high school teachers tend towards biting sarcasm and humor to deal with pain and anger, the fear was pretty poorly masked. Some managed to ask some practical questions, mumbling things about unemployment and COBRA and being able to be on a sub list in the district. Things that make me shut down and pretend like I'm in a coffee shop in Paris and NOT being told, for the second year in a row, that because of something completely and totally out of my control -- out of anyone in that room's control -- I may not have a job the following year. And this time around, things were worse. There were meetings -- hundreds of teachers piled into multipurpose rooms being told to search for other jobs and gather letters of recommendation, being reassured that recently laid-off teachers would not only be hired back in the order of seniority, but would be at the top of the substituting food chain. We were issued packets that explained things like unemployment and COBRA and the rehiring procedures. On the May date -- the "For Reals" deadline in the world of layoffs and pink slips -- we received an even fatter packet than we received on March 15 with an even scarier Reduction In Force letter that heralds, in seemingly cold finality, the official loss of your position in the district. The March 15th letter becomes nothing but a friendly preview for the mayhem to come.
It was terrifying.
For days, weeks, months, I had a stomach ache. I carry all of my stress in my stomach anyway, but I ended up being so bad off that I nearly had a nervous breakdown on my mom's couch with a college friend in town, crying so hard I could barely breathe. I was tired of feeling like crap, tired of not sleeping, tired of being stressed out and freaked out all the time, to the point where it was affecting my health, my relationships with family, friends, and my still-fairly-new-at-the-time boyfriend. I suffered through bouts of vertigo. GERD, which presented itself similarly to morning sickness: I woke up every single morning for weeks feeling scared and shaky and nauseous. I ended up at the doctor's several times in a matter of months; more visits than probably the five years prior combined. I started gaining back a lot of the 90 pounds I'd lost in the two years before, despite all of my efforts to stave it off. The stress of the uncertain future acted like a magnet, keeping it all in place and even piling more on.
And through all of this, I went to school every day and taught my ass off. For what might have been nothing.
See, the thing about being pink slipped as a teacher is weird. You don't just get laid off and that's that. There's all this somewhat silly Ed Code protocol to it, where there's a pre-warning, and then an official lay off, and even then, it's not ever really actually a lay off until it is the first day or so of school and you don't have a job. But the pink slip doesn't mean you suddenly just stop teaching. You have to keep teaching that school year regardless of your status for the following year. And though that seems obvious, here's the rub: you start to feel like your attempts to better yourself -- better your craft, better your art, better your passion for teaching -- are completely and utterly useless. Why revise that test? You might not need it next year, and that thought is depressing.
Suddenly every assignment, every essay prompt, every quiz and test that you fleetingly ponder changing becomes a hideous reminder that at some point soon, none of it will matter. All this time you've spent creating material, sitting at Starbucks with your team mates until 8:00 at night and walking home in the dark because the time got away from you, or getting up at some fictitious time in the morning like 5:00 am to meet colleagues in your classroom to plan and create materials because you don't have any other time to meet -- all of these things will essentially have meant nothing to your career. To the kids, sure. And this is why we do this, which I'll get to later. But the visceral terror of being jobless in a profession where getting a job was becoming increasingly impossible keeps bubbling to the surface every time you open a document to double-check and revise.
And every time you spend a little too long looking at all of the stuff in your classroom and suddenly imagining it all in boxes.
And every time a student in third period asks why you've been crying on your second period prep.
And every time the newspaper publishes some hateful "blame the teachers" article lambasting how terrible we are at our jobs.
And every time you have to explain to someone -- a student, a non-teacher friend, a family member, that no, the fact that I'm Department Chair of the English department doesn't matter; no, the fact that you love me doesn't matter; no, the fact that I coach Speech and Debate and Science Olympiad and teach AP and CAHSEE Prep and teach technology to teachers and sit on the AVID Site team doesn't matter. None of this matters. All that matters if the hire date, printed in black ink on white paper in your personnel file. And though through your brave face, you explain to these inquisitive and generally well-meaning people that you'd rather it be that way because then your principal and district people don't have to decide, American Idol-style with Polaroids and some grotesque teacher version of Hollywood week, who stays and who goes based on something completely subjective and arbitrary, in reality, on the inside, you're desperate to scream, "THIS IS SO UNFAIR!" because you know you're working harder than a lot of people, not just in your profession, but in many other professions, too.
And every time you spend six hours at the local Starbucks, or the library, or the park, or the zoo, or wherever you've managed to find a quiet, shady spot to grade, grading essays and realize that though this is one of the most wretched part of your job, the alternative is so much scarier.
2009 was bad. I didn't really know for sure until midway through the summer that I would, in fact, be able to return to Poway High. And this was after being the one who has to build the English schedule, plugging in "Teacher X" for my own course load, hoping with crossed fingers and "K. McMillan" would replace "Teacher X" by the end of the year. It took longer than that, but it happened eventually.
2010 sucked, too, though this year, only a handful of seasoned pink slipped veterans huddled in our principal's office, being told for the third year in a row that we might not have jobs. And though you'd think the third time around, it would be easier to hear. Easier to swallow. Easier to brush off and power through.
But it's not.
At least it was for me. Because at some point, you know you can't get lucky that many times in a row. At some point, the pink slip is going to stick. What else can a district do to cut expenses? And they haven't hired anyone in English in the district since the whole pink slipping adventure started, and teachers I worked with and loved and still miss dearly did suffer as a result and had to find jobs elsewhere -- I figured at SOME point, I'd be next. So that third year was probably the hardest. Plus, given that this year, there were maybe only eight of us holding pink slips, the rest of campus seemed not to care; they seemed mostly oblivious to the fact that this year, there were still teachers with jobs in peril, so it became increasingly annoying and frustrating and sad to walk into the staff workroom and overhear comments about salary reductions and union/district/school site leadership -- comments from colleagues whose jobs were safe, and had been for all three of those years. I would walk out of the staff lounge wanting to scream. Or kick. Or punch. But I would just go back to my classroom, pull my door shut a little too hard and sink down into my desk chair and stare at the computer screen.
And that third year, again, I wasn't entirely sure I'd have a job until midway through the summer. All in all, I think I've lived a collective total of 12 months with job uncertainty hanging over my head -- that's a year, people. One year out of the last three worrying I may lose my job.
Now, granted, I didn't lose it. I'm still teaching. I have tenure, which I've actually had since about midway through my second year of teaching. But all those naysayers who are anti-tenure? It doesn't really guarantee me any kind of job security; in a Reduction in Force time, it doesn't matter. Not even a teeny, tiny little bit.
But here's the thing about teaching. It's a calling. Cliche though that may be, it really and truly is. I've known since I was in elementary school that somehow, some way, in some capacity or another, that I would end up in a classroom teaching students of some kind. In my younger and more naive years, I imagined teaching science, as I had always planned on being an aerospace engineering major. But really and truly, I've had teaching in mind as a career path since about the fifth grade. I love it. I breathe it. When I'm with Summer, it's almost all we talk about, and though we have our share of rant sessions, we both love almost every second of what we do.
Because we've been called to it. We can't not do it. Even if we weren't teaching, we'd be teaching. We'd be teaching significant others to cook something; we'd be teaching young children how to swing on a park swing; we'd be teaching parents how to use a semi-colon properly; or we'd be teaching anyone who will listen about why teachers deserve so much more respect than they get these days.
Why else would teachers put up with so little pay? Why else would teachers put up with sometimes abysmal working conditions? Why else would teachers sit up at night grading essays or marking exams or falling asleep on quizzes (like I did last night at about 11:30 pm)? Why else would teachers chaperone Prom every year, or take students on Speech and Debate tournament field trips, or spend hundred of dollars of their own money to make sure that they have pens and pencils for students to use and colored paper for long-term assignments? Why else would teachers deal with parents who don't understand that their kid is one of more than 200 they deal with a day? Why else would teachers come to work sick because they don't trust a sub with their class?
Because we can't help ourselves. We were born to teach; born with some kind of innate ability to impart learning to the youth of our country; born with a genuine, natural, inexplicable desire to spend a day in a 18x18 room full of 42 student desks, two big tables, a teacher desk, four book shelves, 41 students, 1 TA, and three plants... and ultimately enjoy the heck out of it.
We do this for the kids. We love them. They're weird and quirky and stupid and funny and brilliant and annoying and awesome and motivated and human and real. It is amazing to watch them progress over the course of the year; it is amazing to watch them work in groups and have a true moment of realization about a new concept or piece of text; it is amazing to see them all dolled up at Prom or dolled down at the end of a long week of AP testing. It is always a kick when they develop a class inside joke -- one that sticks the whole year, that they bond over and use as a little in-group bonding. I know a lot of people are terrified of what I do: I teach high school. Teenagers aren't cute like elementary school kids; they really do look like young adults, which makes it so much easier to fear them and easier to want to kick them because often they're bigger than you. But I LOVE teaching teenagers. LOVE it. They're a weird paradoxical ball of youth and adulthood, innocence and jadedness, intelligence and stupidity, thoughtfulness and idiocy, and it's absolutely an indescribable feeling to actually watch them grow up and gain consciousness about the world as a result of something you created: an assignment, an essay, a discussion, a group project. Watching consciousness-raising happen on the face of a 16 year old is both awe-inspiring and hilarious. The students are why I do this. I love them. I work my butt off for them. I try to mentor them, try to be a role model for them, try to teach them and mold them and discipline them and love them, and sometimes that last one is really, really hard.
So even though working through the possibility of not returning to the campus that has nurtured you as a teacher and helped you create this unbreakable bond between you and a few hundred students is heinous and awful, it's the kids that make it bearable. They're good at cheering you up and making you laugh and for that I am every day grateful that I have the wonderfully good fortune to spend 8 hours of my day surrounded by 15-17 year olds. Scary? Not to me. Exhilarating.
And why have I just spilled this much electronic ink waxing poetic about pink slips and teaching?
Because today, February 22, 2011, we received word from the district that they would be issuing no layoff notices this year. So for the first year in three years, I won't have to worry about not just losing my livelihood, but also losing what is nearest and dearest to me: my career that defines every fiber of my being. I am my job and my job is me; they're inextricable from each other, and the thought of losing my job as a teacher is essentially to be confronted with the possibility of losing a part of myself. And this year, I don't have to worry.
I might sleep through the night and not wake up tomorrow morning with a stomach ache for the first time since March 2008.
And, as I turn 29 in a few weeks, I will get to ACTUALLY enjoy my birthday without the fresh looming threat of unemployment.
And of course, my mom, ever so supportive, wondered what on Earth we were going to use as a theme for my birthday party this year, since "PINK SLIPS" have been the obvious fan favorite the last three years.
I'm sure we'll think of something.