“If you were a social worker you would be at the top.. social worker of the year.. but the teaching is just not there.”
Something is fundamentally wrong with the state of American Education.
Just past 10am on a Sunday morning, I walk into my school carrying bags heavy with lesson planning materials, homemade math manipulatives, and fresh supplies from yesterdays $100 Staples run. I could have chosen not to buy the cool stickers and the project folders, but I have seen the look my students get when their hard work is displayed in neat, new folders, when the appearance matches their effort. I’d do anything for that look.
As I walk up to my classroom, I pass the auditorium where I see one woman, sitting alone singing hallelujah. I’ve never seen more than a handful of people at the Sunday services that meet at my school, but I’m glad they come, because without them I couldn’t get in on Sundays. I rearrange a few desks, accounting for last week’s quarrels. I make sure to put the students who need glasses up front, the students who struggle with English next to more proficient bilinguals, and to keep the tougher kids spaced out with well behaved kids who can hold their own. I do a little grading and organize my desk. I think about trying to fix the three broken computers, but the thought of sitting in front of a PC from 1998 for the next two hours is daunting, and I have other work to do.
As I leave the building, I side step several buckets and trash cans strategically placed in the hallway. Outside, the winter snow is melting and its starting to come through the ceiling. I don’t look forward to my student’s reactions to the mess tomorrow, it will put them in a bad mood to start off the day. Its hard to feel good about coming to school when the building itself is a reminder that your school is falling apart. Not that they need a visual reminder to know its true; any doubt they may have had about the state of their school was taken care of when Capital Prep Magnet School passed out fliers about how much our school was failing a few months back. They want our building, so turning the community against the school is a good way to boost their chances of a takeover.
I wonder if they would want it as much if they knew the ceilings were leaking.
If you look for it, you will find a large body of literature about how people in poverty often struggle with long term planning. Now I don’t necessarily agree with these studies, but one point often made is that people struggle to think long term because day to day survival takes precedence. This it what its like at my school. Day to day, week to week, or year to year, the focus is just on getting through. Surviving. Thats how things like the ceiling happen. Its hard to remember major structural concerns like that when you’re busy finishing the report from when we had to call the police on a 12 year old. Or putting together another data profile for the district so you’ll still have a job next year. Or following up with the mother of the third grader who threatened suicide last week. Ceilings end up taking a back seat. Just thank God for weekend crew custodians and pray the duct tape will hold through spring.
Today my principal will be emailing me a list of the reasons he has decided not to renew my contract next year. Its unlikely he will include the fact that he needs to show the district he is doing something in order to maintain control of the school. Or the fact that, as a first year teacher, I am easier to get rid of than others. Or even the fact that, once or twice over the year, I chose to do what I thought was right instead of what he said was best, and that by ignoring his directive I marked myself as potentially dangerous. He will definitely include my students’ low standardized tests scores.
In response to his email, I will be sending him a list of the reasons I have chosen to oppose his non-renewal instead of resigning and making things easy. I will give him the same reasons that I will be giving to Teach For America, the Hartford Board of Education, and the Hartford Federation of Teachers over the next few months:
Firing me will not solve the problems that my school, this district, and this country are facing. It will not account for the injustices that have been done to my students. It will not absolve the mistakes made by myself and every other staff member at my school this year. It will not bring more resources to the school. Chances are, it won’t even result in the hiring of a more experienced teacher to replace me. More likely than not, another first year TFA will assume my position next year, because it is much more cost effective.
I may not have been successful in my first year as a teacher, but before that claim can be accurately made, it would be extremely foolish not to consider exactly what that statement means. First, we have to define success. I love my students and they love me. I have relationships with my students’ parents. There is not a single person in my school who will not tell you that I show up and work hard every day. Nor is there a single person that will tell you that my class has not made tremendous growth from where we were at the beginning of the year. So what is success? Test scores. Of course. Which brings us to the next point:
How does one achieve high test scores? Putting aside your knowledge about how standardized testing is culturally bias and lacks both reliability and validity, high test scores are the result of teaching. Remember, though, that I was not a teacher when I began this year. In fact, I entered the fall with minimal to non-existent content knowledge. Seeing as I never claimed to have a background in education, a great degree of onus falls on the organization that claimed to make me a teacher and the school that hired me, knowing full well I wasn’t a teacher. So what did Teach for America and my school do to compensate for the fact that I was coming in without background knowledge? The answer is not enough. Far from enough. I taught myself how to teach, while teaching this year. And although I have made major strides, at the end of the day it wasn’t enough for my students.
But I will not resign. Instead, I will document everything that was done for me this year. Every time I asked for help, every time I received help, every time I lacked critical knowledge, resources, or support. And I will take that evidence to the people responsible and ask them, How did you allow this to happen? And what are you going to do about it now?
Because whether or not I have a job next year is irrelevant. Something has to change in a major way. The time for action is long overdue. The time for revolution is now.