Rangeview High School teacher Zeb Carabello wants state lawmakers and much of the public to quit lying to themselves when it comes to the job teachers do and the pay they don’t make.
“If teachers are so well paid, why is no one going into the profession?” the veteran English and journalism teacher asked. “Why is there a major teacher shortage?”
It’s because it’s a lie. Teachers barely make a living, and plenty of them don’t do that. Still, the myth among those who think they could do but don’t teach continues to say that teaching in a public school is a cake job offering lazy summer vay-cays and responsibilities that look a lot like babysitting.
Zeb is a friend of mine. He was a reporter here at the Sentinel before he left to get his master’s degree in teaching English. He chose a path away from the exciting and incredibly financially rewarding field of journalism.
I would be hard pressed to say he’s a better teacher than a writer, because he has long excelled at both. Rated by Aurora Public Schools as a “highly effective teacher” for years, he knows his stuff.
This week, he was among his colleagues at Rangeview in front of the school before it started, rallying attention to the plight of a profession that’s gravely in danger — his.
“Teachers can’t afford to live where they teach, even in Aurora,” Zeb said. “We have young teachers living in parents’ basements. They can’t afford even a one-room apartment, let alone buying a house.”
Who wants to take one of the hardest jobs in the country that costs more than $100,000 in college to get and slowly go broke? Too few people, which is why teachers are rallying and protesting here and across the country to try and change things before it’s too late.
I won’t go over the hard facts that Colorado has consistently ranked near or at the bottom of states spending money on schools and paying teachers.
Instead, I’ll let Zeb, who used to be in the business of setting the story straight, evaporate a few myths and lies.
Myth No. 1: Teaching shouldn’t pay like other professions because it’s so easy.
“You think you can teach?” Zeb asks. “You can’t. I think 75 percent of people wouldn’t last a month.”
Zeb said most intelligent people can learn the skills they need to be a teacher, but very few have the stamina and talent to be successful teachers.
“If you’re not a good teacher, your life sucks,” he said. Parents and administrators will sniff out a fraud in no time. But more than anything, the kids will know you can’t handle it and make your life a living hell.
“You have to learn by doing it. You’ve got 30 to 40 kids in a class, five classes a day, in class for five hours. If you’re not a very effective teacher, that’s the most miserable five hours of your life.”
Amateurs have kids running all over. The best behaved students are just bored to tears and learning nothing. The worst teachers? “You’re spending most of your time just trying to get them to sit down and not burn anything.”
“You have to sell it every minute of every day, or they know,” Zeb said. Five hours a day, five days a week, for 187 days.
Most jobs are a lot like journalism. You work hard for a few days, have a few successes, and then there are days where you just float along. Maybe knock off early or burn through a couple of hours on Facebook or just hunting a fresh story.
Not with teaching. You have to be “on” every minute you’re in class. No slack days ever in the classroom.
Myth No. 2: All you have to do is teach, it’s the kids’ job to learn.
Not even in wealthy school districts are there classes brimming with eager, healthy and happy ready-to-learn kids.
Reality is brutal, especially in the poorest of poor neighborhoods in Aurora.
“These kids break your heart,” Zeb said. They come to school beat up by drug and alcohol-addicted families. They change schools more often than most people celebrate holidays. They are the primary caretakers for other siblings while moms and dads work two or three jobs to keep it together.
Kids come to school and fall asleep in class because they have to work in fast-food restaurants until well after midnight. They sleep in cars or in packed motel rooms. They don’t eat well. They’re sick. And you can’t ignore it.
Many kids are years behind where they’re supposed to be, and every teacher is charged with catching them up on even the most basic skills.
The reality is, most kids think school is pretty boring, and that’s how most adults remember it.
“You have to gain their trust,” he said. “You have to sell them on why school matters. Most people did not enjoy school. You have to sell it every day.”
In addition to that, you have to actually teach them something, which means you have to know your stuff. If you’re thinking the school district just hands you a stack of textbooks and a map to the last day of the school year, it’s nothing like that.
“If you don’t know what you’re teaching, the kids will know,” he said. “You have to give them some credit.”
And in a world where Twitter and Instagram rule, teaching from a textbook doesn’t cut it.
More than anything, teachers have to have the disposition, the discipline and the stamina to teach.
“I’m not just boasting here, but the chances are, I could be trained to do your job” maybe not in engineering ” but in business,” Zeb said. “I can guarantee you that most people can’t do mine.”
Myth No. 3: School districts can’t fire teachers.
If you believe this, you aren’t getting Myths No. 1 and 2.
“The kids fire you,” Zeb said. Lame and even ineffective teachers are driven away by the misery of a job that is out of their control. If you can’t control the job, “your life sucks.”
About half of all teachers leave the profession before their fifth year, he points out. The stress of the low pay, the school loans, the desperate lives of children, the bureaucracy, the pressure to get kids to pass standardized tests they don’t like or care about, planning for and worrying about a mass shooting in school and even taking time once a day or once a week to guard school doors burns most teachers out before they even have enough experience to start getting good at it.
By the time kids reach high school, they’ve had enough teachers to know who’s good or bad. If they smell you out as a fraud, you’re toast.
So why do it? Between the $2-an-hour after-school coaching jobs, the threat of gun violence, the endless river of student-despair, the moronic mandates from clueless state lawmakers and, now, a huge push to renege on teacher pension promises, why?
“It’s the kids,” Zeb said. “You do make a difference. Every day, you see 150 kids a day. I make a difference in one kid’s life every day.”
“I’ve never gotten bored with it,” Zeb said. “But I have gotten tired. I just want people to know we don’t want to get rich, we just want to make a living.”
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