I have been in education 18 years. I taught my first two years in inner-city Detroit while attending grad school full time at the University of Michigan as part of a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer fellowship. Since that time, I have taught in a public middle school in Juneau, Alaska, and two elite international schools, one in Thailand and one in Egypt.
In Egypt, my teaching schedule allowed for plenty of prep time: at least 90 minutes a day, and nearly 180 minutes every other day. My class size was limited to 20. The packing list for new teachers included a tuxedo or evening gown for the staff Christmas party.
Parents and the school treated teachers with five-star status. Most seventh-grade students had more stamps in their passports than I did. My class roster included the grandson of the president, the nephew of the head of the United Nations, and other prominent family names I recognized before even meeting the student. I eventually realized they were fine with or without me. I longed to get back to public education to work with students who did not have these privileged, "first-class" opportunities.
I got the job at Hedrick Middle School four years ago. I was ecstatic. I was not, however, expecting the same level of instruction I was used to at the elite international schools.
What I witnessed, and witness to this day, is the work of incredibly dedicated, professional, caring educators. The quality and innovation occurring in the classrooms astonishes me.
Too many of my fellow teachers work 55 to 60 hours every week. Clearly, this is already an impossible job. My first year, I struggled with the norm others made look easy: 208 students a day, four minutes of passing time between classes.
Recall the tale of the frog in boiling water? If a frog jumps into the boiling water, he jumps right out. The frog that stays in the water as it reaches a boil won't perceive the danger and will perish.
I know what it feels like to be well-compensated, well-supported and treated like a professional. Yet, I've willingly jumped into a boiling pot of overworked, under-supported teachers who are charged with the impossible task of creating an informed future citizenry and a skilled 21st-century workforce without even time to run to the bathroom during the work day.
I will not jump out. But I will demand that my profession and my colleagues are treated with the respect they deserve and that the heat is turned down by those with the power and resources to do so.
I believe in public education as the underpinnings of our social and cultural construction. Public education built, and will heal, America. I am called to be in the front lines of this fight because public education is the transmission of civilization.
The thing is, the picket line hurts. Badly. The choking back of tears watching students go into a school I am no longer allowed to step foot in, to be taken care of by strangers who don't know them. The helplessness of waving to a frustrated parent who is clearly taxed and weary.
And yet, I must stand firm on the sidewalk with soaked signs and a smile and a wave. Democracy is messy. It is not pain-free.
Media distorts and power corrupts. Though I've always understood this on an intellectual level as a political scientist, I've never been a victim of it before on such a visceral level as has been the case with this strike.
Public meetings by public servants. Transparency and honesty in communication from our leaders. Media who fact-check. Civil discourse in our community. These are the things this strike has made me value because I see how precariously they teeter when crisis comes.
I watched nearly all of my colleagues stand up to exercise their right to strike for quality education. Out of these nearly 600 teachers, we have tea party members, Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, all standing up to say this is wrong. This is wrong, and I stand for what is right.
Lee Iacocca said, "In a completely rational society, the best among us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something else."
I am grateful I got to see the true nature of the professionals I work with as they were drenched to the bone and standing on the sidewalk: dedicated to students, to quality education, and all heart. I stand for that.
Mary Noble is a teacher at Hedrick Middle School.