Just Do Your Job


Sometimes the day in, day out is a grind, especially when you’ve been at your job for years. And when that job is teaching, when you’ve been going in day after day, usually teaching kids who don’t give a damn about their education, it’s even harder. I know. I’ve been there.

A couple of months ago, I decided that I would start substitute teaching one day a week to help contribute to our household income. My husband doesn’t work on Fridays, so he is able to stay home with our daughters while I work. My former school district hired me, and I’ve spent the last month and a half at the high school that I taught at for 8 years. It’s great because I know all of the secretaries and most of the teachers and I eat lunch with a bunch of my friends. It really has been fun to be back.

This last Friday, I subbed for a teacher in the special education department who teaches only one period a day of math support and spends the rest of his day as a collaborative teacher in main stream “regular” classes. He has a caseload of students who need individualized attention, which comes with a lot of paperwork and parent meetings to make sure that the students’ educational goals and needs are being met. I walked up to his classroom for his second period class and got the usual, “Are you the sub?” as I opened the door with my key. I walked over to the desk, only to find that there were no lesson plans. As the kids sat down I told them I would take roll, then try to find out what we were supposed to do for the day. Their answer was not uncommon, “We should just watch a movie!” I told them we would NOT be watching a movie, but not to worry, I’d find something for them to do. “We always have Movie Fridays,” said another student. “Sure you do,’” I answered, and started calling around to other teachers for ideas. In my calls, I find out that this teacher never leaves lesson plans for subs. As a substitute teacher, this is my worst nightmare, because now I’ve got up to 40 students in a class with nothing to do. For an hour. Awesome.

After about 5 minutes of me floundering and the students texting, the class collaborative teacher came into the room. I told her that I was grateful she was there because there were no lesson plans, and to my surprise, she told me, “We always have Movie Fridays.” She proceeded to pull up Netflix on the classroom computer and pick a movie for the students to watch during class time. The movie she chose was Three Days to Kill with Kevin Costner.

Let me pause for a moment here to tell you that I have NO problem showing movies during class time. In fact, I think that they can be excellent tools to support classroom instruction. I have movies that the kids hated and movies that the kids loved. I’ve shown all sorts of films, from a documentary about Benjamin Franklin (hated) to Their Eyes Were Watching God with Halle Berry (loved). I have film adaptations of short stories that we read every year that I could pull out and use if I needed an extra day to grade essays, and I have the interview that Oprah Winfrey did with Ellie Wiesel, an author and holocaust survivor who wrote about his time in Auschwitz. I even have an entire unit that examines literary devices that cross over into screen direction in Edward Scissorhands. It’s genius, really.

But here’s the thing: Movie Fridays? Um, no. This collaborative teacher went on to explain to me that having Movie Fridays every week gives the teacher a chance to catch up on his paperwork, and the kids love it. Honestly, I was astounded. My mind drifted back to my teaching days, with 40 kids in a class for 5 periods a day. We tested every 6 weeks. Every 6 weeks they wrote essays. If you’re keeping track, that’s 200 essays to read every 6 weeks. It was awful. So I understand needing to catch up. But every week? And the movie that she chose… for those of you who haven’t seen it, in the first 5 minutes, a woman is recognized as a spy, beaten until she is a bloody mess, dragged across a hotel hallway, then her assailant pushes the elevator call button, pries open the elevator door, and when the elevator comes down to their floor, it decapitates her. Mouth literally agape, I turned to the other teacher who said to me, “Oooh, well, it’s PG-13. I hope I don’t get in trouble.” I sat through the rest of the class period watching shootouts, people getting pistol-whipped, and a near rape of a teen-aged girl.

I know that I was not the perfect model of a teacher when I was there full time. I know. There were days that I got side tracked. There were days that I was just too tired, too sick, or too pregnant to be effective. I know this. But there are ways that you can still make students work and learn while you take a little break. Instructional minutes are so valuable and it seemed that at the end of a grading period I just never had enough time to really teach what I needed to teach.

I’ll admit it. I was seduced by Dead Poets Society into thinking that my teaching career was going to be full of inspiring students to stand up on desks for me, that I was going to teach them more than the class content, and that I was going to use literature to change their lives. But I wasn’t teaching the students of Welton Academy. And Mr. Keating I am not. My students needed to learn to write a sentence. And read at grade level. I didn’t even have the freedom to choose my own curriculum, like Ms. Johnson in Dangerous Minds. So on we trudged, through texts like William Bradford’s ship log from his journey on the Mayflower, written in 1620. Are you kidding me? I don’t even care about that. We read Patrick Henry’s “Speech to the Virginia Convention” and when I asked who the audience was, the students couldn’t tell me. Perhaps, the Virginia Convention?

And while I met some really neat kids along the way (who are probably reading this article), there were also the bad apples: the boy who threw an eraser at my head, the girl who called me a fucking bitch to my face, the boy who said if he had been on a slave ship, he would have “tapped” as many women as possible, the student who stole an ipod off my desk, the boy who made one of the most disgusting sexual comments that I have ever heard about me and my husband, and the student who told me that now that I was pregnant, I could be a MILF.

Teaching is hard. And there are so many who go in every day and do it well. I couldn’t anymore. So I got out. And here’s the thing, if you can’t do it anymore, if you have Movie Fridays every week, EVERY WEEK, then it’s time for you to get out, too. As I went on about my day last Friday, I got angrier and angrier. I got angry because there are so many teachers, my own friends, who are rad teachers. And they fight against the crappy kids and the prescribed curriculum and they TEACH. But then there are the few, and believe me, they are few, that have given up, that have Movie Fridays, and Study Hall Mondays, and Free-Time Wednesdays, and they are the teachers that we hear about on the news. They are the ones who are held up as the mascot of all teachers on talk radio. They are the ones that the public holds up as the example and scream about inflated teacher salaries and incompetent classroom management. And you know what, they’re right. The public is right to scream about those burned-out, uninspired, dried-up teachers. But those teachers are not the norm.   And they’re giving the rest of us a really bad name.

This is harsh, I know. But if you’re going to continue teaching, you gotta pick up your game. You gotta pull up your britches and DO YOUR JOB! You don’t have to be Mr. Keating or Ms. Johnson.  But you have to do your job.  Teaching is hard; it is. But you know what, lots of jobs are hard. Lots of people get up every day and go into a job that they dislike. If you were just a pencil pusher in a cubicle that hated your job, I wouldn’t care how you did it. But you aren’t. Your slacking and burn-out is directly affecting the lives of students who desperately need an education. They can’t do basic math.   They can’t write a sentence. They don’t have good examples of responsible adults at home. And when they see you giving up on your job, they see you giving up on them. They may not verbalize that. In fact, they’ll probably love Movie Friday. But deep down inside, they’ll know.

Teachers, let me give you this poem, in the spirit of LouAnn Johnson from Dangerous Minds:

“Do not go gentle into that good night”

Dylan Thomas, 1914 – 1953

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.


Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.


Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

9 thoughts on “Just Do Your Job

  1. Yes, Dana! I personally think that every young person just out of college should do a year of substitute teaching. It would teach them so much about younger kids but also about patience and responsibility.
    I also agree that burnt out teachers are ruining the reputation of hard working and enthusiastic teachers. I am so happy that returning to teaching had been an overall good experience! Miss you!

    • Thanks, Julie! But let me say that subbing one day a week, no grading, is better than full time teaching!!! It’s like a little break and I really do get to hang out with my friends. It’s the best! Miss you, too!! Can’t wait to see you and the family!! XOXO

  2. I am a high school teacher (English, actually) and I like this post SO much. There are several teachers at my school who play movies that have nothing to do with the curriculum on a regular basis and it drives me crazy. I do not see how we can ask students to follow rules and submit work in a timely manner and manager their time if we cannot do the same.

    Come sub for me. I leave five page plans with detailed instructions and advice about all the ways my students may try to dupe you. 🙂

  3. Yea baby. As a teacher I fully agree. I work hard to stay current and teach more than videos. History English any subject really could be taught that way , but a teacher friend of mine uses media in conjunction with teaching and man those kids get it. Meets kids currently but Amen to brushing off teaching to “catch up”. And if you are….. Then show something educational.

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