I Pass on Your Pity


In the little over a month since I moved, I have had various opportunities to talk to my new neighbors. There are plenty, as this is an apartment building, and no shortage of personalities for me to absorb. Today, I rode up in the elevator (okay, maybe I should have been walking, but give me a break, I had three bags and a box in my arms!) with a lady with whom I’ve previously exchanged pleasantries but never actual conversation.

In true apartment building way, she led off with, “So you’re a teacher, right?” My head was spinning a little bit. After all, I was not wearing my “I’m a teacher” shirt, and I wondered how she knew that. “That’s correct,” I replied. The rest of the exchange was predictable in its content and frustration.

Her: “What do you teach?”

Me: “Elementary special education.”

Her: “Where?”

Me: “(I told her).” (My school’s neighborhood apparently has a reputation in this part of the city).

Her: (Stare/slight disbelief followed by one of those noises where you grimace and inhale through your clenched teeth.) “That must be rough.”

In the interest of niceness, I nodded agreeably (but not too much) and said, “Well, it’s like anything else. It’s got its challenges but it’s very rewarding.”

I immediately hated myself for saying “Well, it’s like anything else.” I consider that one of the tritest justifications for anything, because very few things are like anything else. Especially teaching!

Our conversation ended with her saying, “Good for you” and the door opening on my floor. We parted ways, and about five hours later, after a nap and shower (I had neither for the last three days while camping), I am processing our conversation – and so many others like it – with a clearer, more critical mind.

I can’t tell you how many people have looked at me with sad puppy dog eyes when I tell them what I do for a living. Their looks are joined with anything from what my neighbor said to “That’s gotta be tough” to “Wow, how do you deal with it?” Then there’s always the ironically obvious, “I could never do that.” (Sorry, just had to.)

I am here to say without any equivocation that teaching is tough. At times, my job is very difficult, be it because of my own failings, my students’ hectic home lives, or the constant pressure from all sides. Teaching is never going to be a job in which everything constantly comes up smelling like freshly cut daisies on a warm summer day. I know this, and I’m sure I’ve always known it. Despite what those pity partiers seem to hope, it doesn’t change my opinion about my job or make me regret choosing my field.

I choose to pass on others’ pity. First of all, as a gainfully employed individual at my age, I am not entitled to any pity given the current jobs situation in this country, especially with how difficult it is to find a teaching position in NYC without a specialized license. I am fortunate to be working. As a bonus, I’m working at what I want to be doing. Second, even when the times are hardest at work, I am able to draw on what has always been my mantra, “You are in this for the kids.” My students are my motivation, regardless of what happens around and above me (and regardless of how worn out they may make me feel, both for better and worse).

Teaching is very difficult work, but it’s not a job I would trade.

There is no reason for you to nod at me understandingly or with sympathy in your heart. So, please, when I tell you I’m a teacher (and then shock you with what I teach), rather than look at me in disbelief and bewilderment, ask me what I think about it instead of just assuming that I hate it.

Because I don’t.

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7 responses to “I Pass on Your Pity

  1. As much as that reaction would bother me, the ones I usually get bother me more:

    “Must be nice to get summers off!”
    “So you’re done work before 3? What do you do the rest of the day?”
    “So it’s not REALLY like a full-time job then, right? AND you get benefits?”
    “Your union doesn’t care about kids.”

    And so on…

    • This was my first year teaching, and SO many of my friends relatives have asked me about what I do with all my spare time since I’m “done” by 3 everyday. I found it quite entertaining.

  2. Thanks for reading AND commenting, Damian – great to hear from you.

    Well, it IS nice to get summers off, but it is not okay to use this as justification for teacher bashing. If only people a) knew how critical those months are for us and b) knew how much work many of us put in in those months anyway…

    I never heard the next two, but they make me chuckle!

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  5. I work with kids with special needs at my Church. I only go twice a month, for two hours, in my youth group. I love working with them, but I could never teach them. I have a lot of respect for someone who is constantly kind, patient and loves his students (not to mention students with special needs!).

    Before you get offended by the pity, remember most people don’t understand special needs and they (usually) only know what the television portrays of them. You might not like the pity (which I don’t think comes from teaching in general…), but I’m sure those people look up to you just as well when you tell them who you teach.

  6. I’m also a teacher (high school Spanish) and so is my husband. I speak for both of us when I say we can identify, especially with the students being our source of motivation.

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