A Calling Or A Paycheck... Why Not Both? (Guest Blogger: Travis Sloat)

I’ve issued an open call for guest bloggers for the month of October. Partly this is just to break things up, and partly it's because I'll be doing my best to finish strong on #OKElections16.

There are few if any limits on topic or length – I merely ask for basic decency and sincerity. It’s ideal if you disagree with me about something, but given how difficult that is to do once basking in Blue, it’s not a requirement. I'm looking for other voices - whatever the angle or passion in play. 

This post comes from Travis Sloat, an English teacher at Okay High School, where he graduated in 2001 and where he once hit a game winning shot for the high school basketball team. He is a freelance journalist and photographer, a father of three, a college basketball junkie, and a lover of fine Mexican food from Taco Bell. In his minimal free time he can be found patrolling the galaxy in Destiny on his Xbox, or tweeting The Rock to try to get famous.

Travis Sloat

I was standing in front of two assistant managers, both barely five years older than I, and the words rolled off my tongue like I’d been selling used cars for twenty years.

“It doesn’t matter if I make five-fifteen or five-sixty-five, I’m going to push carts to the best of my ability.” 

I wanted a merit raise, an extra fifty cents an hour, and my dad had told me to come in and ask for one, because that’s what people in the workplace did when they wanted more money. I had done exactly that, and then delivered the above answer when asked, “Will more money help you push carts better?” 

The senior assistant manager—who I’d literally known my entire life—stared at me, eyes widening in surprise. 

“Wow! Did you take a class on asking for a raise before you came in?” he asked. 

I laughed and said, “No. That’s just how I was raised.” 

I got the raise. 

***

If the truth were to be told on that spring day in 1999, I was, in fact, raised that way. However, the words I spoke were hollow; empty palaver meant to please the bosses’ ears and get me an extra fifty cents an hour for slugging scalding scraps of steel shaped into shopping carts through the summer sun. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing; but the shoe is definitely on the other foot now. 

Now I am a junior high English teacher, English I teacher, Yearbook Advisor, Webmaster, Bus Driver, and Proofreader of All the Things for Okay High School in the booming metropolis of Okay, Oklahoma. That’s right, Oklahoma - as in, “that state who’s 49th in the nation for lowest average teacher pay.” 

I should add, I love what I do. I love my kids, and I love this town. I say this often, and I say it proudly: I will die here or I will retire here. There are no in-betweens. 

I have taken this job knowing at no point in time will I ever sit in my principal’s office and say, “I’d like a raise please.” I am all too familiar with the economic climate of our state, and the horrendous mismanagement of funding at the state level. It’s not that I wouldn’t mind a raise, shoot, I could always spring for the bigger iPad, or buy my kids Lunchables so they don’t feel as though they are the most mistreated children in the world. 

However, to rephrase a timeless quote from great actor JaRule in the first Fast and Furious movie: “Everyone happens to know a few things, and one of the things that we knows is: teachers don’t get (big) raises.”

So why then, am I here? Why do I walk into this building every day and choose to stand in front of junior high kids who smell like hormones and weird dreams? Why do I choose to teach them how to speak properly, but remind them it’s perfectly okay to slip a “y’all” in sometimes? Why do I make your kid put their phone away and listen to Romeo and Juliet even though they already know the ending (“We know, Mr. Sloat. They all die at the end. Wait. She was fourteen?”)? 

The answer is simple and complicated at the same time, like Nicolas Cage’s success in film, and hopefully you have a similar one for why you are where you are: I had a calling. 

A few years ago, I was sitting pretty at Northeastern State University, with a fantastic (mediocre) GPA and an academic plan which led to a degree in Computer Science. I wanted to be a computer engineer, sitting at a desk and making $100k a year for typing lines of code onto a screen. I wanted to wear weird socks every day, and funny, clever ties with quasi-geeky meanings and joke with my coding buddies at the water cooler about the latest in Game of Thrones Reddit threads. It seemed easy enough, and it seemed like a salary that could afford my family and I all of life’s little delicacies, like large screen iPads and Lunchables and real Mountain Dew instead of “Mountain Lightning.” 

You might be asking why I gave up a potential luxurious life of name brand soda and premium cuts of deli ham with buttery crackers all packaged conveniently into one box for a life where two grown adults with college degrees and professional careers still qualify for free and reduced lunches, and I’ll tell you. 

One Sunday morning I was sitting in church and I heard a sermon preached on the detriments of chasing wealth. The pastor advised us that if we chose money over our passions, we’d ultimately regret our career and we’d never truly be happy. While listening to him break down the scripture backing up the points, I realized a few things. 

The most notable were that all of a sudden sitting a desk typing lines of code for forty hours a week seemed interminably boring, and that I could wear weird socks to school just as easily as to the office. So the next week I strolled into the office of a slightly annoyed registrar and changed my degree plan to Secondary English Education. To date, it’s been one of the best decisions of my life. 

In a few short weeks, Oklahoma will decide whether or not to give myself and my compatriots a $5,000 raise. If they are gracious, my paycheck will still rank in the bottom half of the national average for teacher pay, but it’ll be nice surprise, mostly because my wife is a teacher too, and we’ll be doubling up on it (hello Premium Lunchables!). I’m not one of those teachers who likes to gripe about how much we do and how little we get paid to do it. That said, we need this raise. 

If you’re on the fence, consider what you’re giving and what you’re getting in return. It means highly qualified teachers staying put for a few years. It means dedicated rookie teachers like me not having to worry about picking up side jobs or summer jobs. That in turn puts us in the classroom more, because as any educator can tell you, it’s not a “pack up and leave when the bell rings” job. 

If enough voters decide they simply can’t be asked to fork up an extra penny here and there, that raise won’t happen. The state will then hem and haw and try to pass some other legislation that glances our way and has the appearance of trying to solve the problem, but in reality is just subterfuge and planning to get reelected. It’ll be a mess. 

But you know what? I’m fine either way. I’ll show up on November 9 with a smile on my face, and I’ll teach your kids what a gerund is, how to properly use a semicolon, and I’ll even throw in an extra bit about the Oxford comma although that’s not in the state standards yet (I’m looking at you, Flores). Because it doesn’t matter if I’m making five-fifteen or five-sixty-five, I’m going to teach your kids to the best of my ability. 

I love what I do. I love these kids, and I love this school. I’ll die here or retire here. There is no in between.

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