It’s important to know your audience. This is a story that I have told to teachers several times and it never comes off well. I’ve finally learned over the years not to tell it at all at my wife’s teacher parties. I think the reason why is because it is a discouraging story and relevant commentary on public education. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never written about it. It also does not reflect well on me. It’s the story of how I went from being a public school music teacher to being a software engineer.
In 1996, I graduated college with a bachelor’s of vocal music education and immediately began looking for jobs as a middle school or high school choir director. Apparently, those are tough positions to find so I settled for a job as an elementary school music teacher at two schools in Moore, Oklahoma. I was to split my time between two schools both of which had music teachers and needed someone else to take a few grades.
Although I had strengths in putting together fine choral programs, I wasn’t really good at nor was I interested in the music education curriculum. I also struggled with classroom discipline. Overall, I was a pretty mediocre teacher, but it was a job with benefits and our expenses were very low. It was just Jenny and me and this was the most money I’d ever made.
There were things I liked about the job. I grew to love my students very much, even ones that raised hell in my classroom. I say classroom very loosely because most of the time, I only had a cart to wheel from classroom to classroom. Eventually, one of the schools gave me a prefab classroom which was a great improvement on my life. I liked teaching songs and playing games with them, and they liked my class as long as that’s what I did. You may think that that is all there is to a music class, but I was also expected to teach my kids how to read and understand music and maybe even play some instruments. But remember, all I really cared about in the beginning was directing choir, and so that’s what I often did. No one complained that I know of.
In my second year, Jenn and I had our first child and things changed. Suddenly, my salary wasn’t enough for us to live as comfortably as we had been living. This created a strain for us. Then I began what became my final year of public school teaching. It started with a letter from Moore Public Schools. This letter is the reason I think it’s a good story and part of the reason why it’s not popular with teachers.
Around the time the new school year starts, teachers receive a letter informing them of their annual raise and any changes to their benefits. My first raise had been modest, but we were getting by; however, this letter was different. I remember only two things from that letter. It began with
Dear Mr. Wilson-Burns,
Congratulations! We are pleased to offer you $-1 raise in your pay.
It was clearly a form letter. If a person had actually looked at this, they might have changed “congratulations” to “unfortunately”. I was stunned. I read and reread the letter until I realized what had happened. The second thing I noticed is that my healthcare premium had raised enough to eclipse my raise in pay. I entered my third year feeling the strain of having a new baby and the resentment for not having received a raise.
There was a change of location for me that year that was convenient. They moved me from one school building a couple of miles away to an annexed building across from the other school. I got the idea that I could march my kids over to my prefab and teach in my own space. So one nice early fall day, I took a third grade class across the street to the prefab. Everything went smoothly until we left the class. In front of the building, and I’ll never know why, there was a post with a rope mounted on the top of it. I turned around to get the kids in order and one of them had wrapped the rope around another’s neck and was intentionally choking him. I shouted at him to let go. For an uncomfortable two seconds he stared me down before he finally let the kid go. I don’t remember what I said or did next, but the kid picked up a large rock and aimed it at my head from about six feet. I tried to keep my cool, but I was really disturbed and seriously afraid he was going to knock me in the head with that rock. I must have said something to convince him to put the rock down because he did. And that’s the first time I thought it, “I don’t get paid enough to put up with this shit.” And that was the last time I took them to the prefab.
Soon after, I was in the other third grade class and there was this one problem child. He had a sweet disposition, but he was prone to bullying. One day, I was teaching the song John Henry, and the kid got up from his desk and so did the kid in the desk in front of him. It’s important to note that my little bully was about fifty pounds heavier than any other kid in the class. A chase ensued. Desks were knocked over. I managed to catch the big kid from behind, but he was big enough that when he collapsed, he took me down with him. I would have been in big trouble for doing that today, but things weren’t so tense then.
I took the kid to the principle’s office with one of my collaborative discipline cards. Collaborative discipline or cooperative discipline, not sure, is when I ask the kid what he thinks the consequence of his behavior in my class should be. He was very cooperative. He decided that he should sit out of my class for a couple of days and copy out of a music book. I consented and we both signed the card. I asked him to send it home to his parents.
The kid was true to his word. He never complained about his consequence (let’s get real, it was a punishment). I was so proud and pleased with myself. But at the end of the day, the principal called me into her office and this I remember in detail.
She said, “Mr. Wilson-Burns, please have a seat.” She spoke in very calm and measured words, “I’ve just received a call from a mother. She didn’t like the way you disciplined her child. She thought it was sadistic of you to make him come up with his own punishment. She’s on her way to school to, and I quote, ‘kick your lily, white ass.”
I was stunned. I’d met this woman. She was a big lady that carried a cane. She had a mean streak and it was easy to see where her son got his violent tendencies.
“She’s probably in the parking lot by now, so there’s no escaping her. Here’s what I suggest. The staff bathroom has a lock on it. Go in there and lock the door and let me take care of her.”
I did not feel good about this, but I was a skinny, lily white kid who did not want to get caned by someone’s scary mama. By lily white, I don’t think she was referring to my race because she was white herself. She was referring to the fact that I was an educated, highfalutin music teacher who would probably hide in a bathroom if she came up to see me.
Nowadays, I would have stayed and worked this out with her. I would have showed her the respect of listening to her concerns, but the principal had scared me. And then for the second time I thought, “I don’t get paid enough to put up with this shit.”
Soon after, I recalled a conversation I’d had with Jennifer’s uncle at a family reunion that summer. He told me about a company who would train and hire anyone to be a computer programmer on the Y2K switch if they could pass a test. They’d start me at 10k higher than I was making as a teacher and would give me a 5k raise once I finished the training.
I didn’t know anything about computer programming, but I figured “What do I have to lose?”
I passed the test, got the job, and resigned my position without notice.
I’ve wondered over the years what would have happened if I’d remained a public school teacher. I supposed I would have toughened up. I figure I’d probably eventually gotten into a high school job. I dream sometimes of being a high school choir director, but it’s no use. We couldn’t afford for me to take a public school salary. I’m contented with being a church choir director.
When I’ve told this story to teachers, they start off enjoying the story, but at some point they see a man who traded the chance to change a child’s life for the big bucks of software engineering. They see a man who cowered when a mom came to school to see him. Perhaps they see someone who crumbled under the kinds of pressures they endure every. I hope not. I hope my teacher friends don’t have to deal with threats of violence on their person from parents and kids. I don’t know why I think a teacher would think this was a good story. My intentions are good, though. I want to show teachers that I used to be one of them even if only for a couple of years, but instead I remind them that they are underpaid and that the good ones often leave. But I don’t think anyone of them walked away thinking I was one of the good ones. I know I had potential, but it would have taken a few more years for it to become anything. I suppose I’ll never know.
But I believe things happen for a reason sometimes. I believe I’m exactly where I’m meant to be. There’s no point in regretting anything I did or didn’t do twenty years ago. I share this story, not as an expression of regret, but to share a pivotal part of my life for whomever will read it.