For the fourth edition in our series on America's public school teachers, we're looking at the broad narratives of teachers' lives, histories, and careers. When we first called for submissions from America's public school teachers in November, I noticed that there was never just one topic that teachers wanted to talk about. Our email submissions were often lengthy chronicles of the joys, dismays, frustrations, and successes teachers experienced every day, ranging from critiques of administration to problems with students to malaise about state testing.
Since I received so many emails that had both timelines and narrative arcs, it felt like a disservice to cut them short, or box their details into certain categories, if there was much more on offer. Instead, here are three essays sent to me by email that break down a wide breadth of experiences and challenges that teachers—past and present—often face. Tomorrow, we will publish a second post with three more.
Note: The following essays were submitted on the condition that their authors remain anonymous.
And How Are the Children?
I have been a public school teacher for five years. I am white, Jewish, and 26 years old. Gray hairs are sprouting above my huge ears and my scalp is becoming more visible on the crown of my head. I can't, without genetic doubt, completely blame my teaching experience for my bodily decay. I still think it's probably the fault of 10 and 11 year old children.
I have the greatest job in the world. I am never bored, I am the center of attention, and I get snow days. I get to experience the years of children when they figure out who they really are. I see humans be empathetic, emotional, and vulnerable at the age when these acts are unscripted and uninhibited. I've experienced kids learning the purpose of reading, and witnessed a child turning into young men and young women. I currently teach a seventh grade boy who audibly farts at every opportunity, and also tearfully begged to give a hug to a wailing, emotionally disturbed kindergartner. I have met children that I hope to be like when I grow up. It's absurdly cliche in the world of education, but I have drank the James Baldwin Kool-Aid of "All the children are ours, every single one of them."
And still I wake up every day acknowledging the futility of a public school education for poor, black, and brown children in America.
My first year of teaching 5th grade in a public school in Chicago, a bullet went through the window across the hall from me. That same year, my white, Jewish cousin entered the 5th grade at a public, predominately white, school on Chicago's North Side. I watched and listened to her father fuss over the inadequacies of a teacher, or homework policy that he felt was concerning. This seemed like a privileged complaint to me. He'd be worried about the vagueness of an assignment while I was worried about not having toilet or copy paper for the next day. If my cousin was in a school where a bullet went through the window, her world would have stopped, changes would be made, and school would feel safe.
This wasn't the case for the 500 hundred black children attending a school south of Roosevelt in Chicago. They were expected to come to school the next day with their homework done, positive faces, tones, and attitudes. In my first years of teaching, I would sit at my uncle's table and dream of a country that cared for their children the way he cared for my cousin. In my first years of teaching, I didn't get it. I blamed parents for their children's failure. It sickens me to admit this, but it's true. (This is also why we need to stop thinking of "highly qualified teachers" as rich, white,guilt ridden teachers with a hero complex, of which I am part of the patient-zero wave).
I didn't get that the parents of my kids cared just as deeply about the opportunities of their children as my uncle did about his daughter. In my naiveté I knew that America had sympathy for children who do have not been given the opportunities that they deserve. I had not fully recognized the plague of America's short memory. The thing is, at some point all children become adults. But whenever we decide a child has become an adult, we stop having sympathy or solutions for the problems they encounter. As America, I care when a black thirteen-year-old is a witness to violence, underfed, or sexually abused. But once that girl turns 16 I'm ready to condemn her for choosing to have a child or live on food stamps. Moreover, as America, I refuse to think about a 16-year-old girl's relationship with her mother who couldn't buy a house outside of a redlined area, and a grandmother who couldn't drink from an all-white water fountain. We refuse to reckon our past as a racist, patriarchal society that systematically squashes the futures of our black and brown children. Until we do, we will continue to chase Finland and China on the path to educational excellence, and, more importantly, we will enforce the results Jim Crow was created to effect.
The problem is not money, we have that. The problem is that we are distracted by the wrong conversation. We fight about public vs. charter schools, and this test vs. that test. We know the truth is that there are terrible charter schools and wonderful public schools, purposeful assessments and worthless tests. Someone, somewhere, who is content with the status quo, is giddy to watch us squirm and squabble with each other rather than fighting the real battles. Behind all of this is a system that would rather educators fight each other rather than fight the problems that actually keep our children down. When educators fight educators we can't possibly combat the actual problem: the belief that some people's children are more important than other's. Until we treat the children we birth like the children we have never met, we will never have a just educational system or just society.
I'll end with another education cliche, that would be such beautiful thing to be a world cliche, which is the Masai tribe's greeting: "How are the children?" To which the appropriate reply is, "All the children are well." If we greet each other like this, and act like this, we can start to prepare our next generation to be better than we are.
Does Joy Even Matter?
When I was little, there was a kid that sat alone on his porch for hours every day after school. I passed him on my walk home. He usually kept his backpack on. Sometimes he took out a book and read. I asked my mom what she thought that kid was doing out there, sitting like a pathetic lump on the steps. She said she suspected his mom was a hooker. I didn't understand how this answered my question. There was another kid on my street that I saw at his living room window sometimes. He was small. Peeking out from behind the couch, he would watch his mom back out of the driveway. I was pretty sure he was left there alone. Like the porch kid, he knew hours of daily solitude. I don't know where their fathers were. I worried about these kids. I wondered later in life why my family didn't do anything to help them. But we took in stray cats, not kids.
Now I've made a career out of helping kids. I'm a teacher. And I feel slimy saying that. Probably because during this time of year I'm no longer in "helping kids" mode. I'm in survival mode. I am so deep in the trenches that I forget why I teach. I wanted to teach to cultivate joy. I wanted to make school feel like less of a prison. Because that's what it felt like to me most of the time during my school years, except in those certain classrooms where joy was a priority.
But lately I resent my students. I feel like I've given these kids everything. All of my energy. All of my time. All of myself. I'm drained. When I'm feeling the effects of my regular 4:30 a.m. wake up time, my 2.5 hour daily commute, and my 12 hour work day, there will inevitably be a student who begins complaining about the lesson that I've stayed up too late working on. And I lose it. At that moment, I hate that kid. I no longer want to cultivate joy. I want to cultivate vengeance. This little snot – the one who won't stop talking, the one who is rolling his eyes, the one who is mimicking me, or throwing books across the room – is someone I want to destroy.
These are the times that I know I need a break. I cannot give everything of myself. And I can't save everyone. On my drive from school, I look at the dilapidated trailers that populate so much of this town and wonder which ones my students call home. It's easy to feel paralyzed.
In these days of No Child Left Behind and Common Core, does joy even matter?
One of the most difficult things about teaching for me is that I'll never know if I'm doing a good job. Yes, there are facades of accountability aplenty. I can see the results of a standardized test for my students at the beginning of the school year, and then the results when I'm "done with them." But for those who have had a life-changing experience with a teacher, we know that those results are not immediately measurable. I guess I'll have to wait a decade or two for a letter from a former student to know what kind of an influence I've had, to know if I've done my job.
For now, I will take a step back to remind myself of my goal. I will take a break and enjoy mindless reality television. I will take time to write. I will think about that kid on the porch, and I will wonder if that's the situation the "little snot" has to look forward to after school. I will remember that my struggles are pretty miniscule.
Thanks for Loving Us
I hesitate to even click on a link with a headline like yours. I've been a public school teacher for eight years and no matter how hardened my heart, reading critiques or commendations in a public forum is always tough. I've wanted to be a teacher since I was four years old – my mom said I could be anything I wanted and I picked alligator, so technically teaching was my second choice – and it remains one of my chief passions in life.
I love going to work. I love my students. I love the challenge. I love my district, and my team, and my principal. I love the town I teach in. I love knowing that what I do really and truly matters. I enjoy and am fulfilled by my job in ways most people will never experience but that doesn't mean even for a minute that it's easy or that I can't complain about the pay or that because it's a calling I should somehow be above getting disenfranchised.
Kids can be disrespectful. I've been screamed at, cursed out, threatened – by students and parents alike. I've been afraid students will show up at my home or in the parking lot. Kids can be rude. Kids can be lazy. Kids can be frustrating. Kids can be so downright horrifyingly cruel to one another that it would shock you – but kids are kids and you can't expect them to behave like adults. My job as their teacher is to lovingly set and consistently enforce clear boundaries and expectations and to teach them how to walk with dignity and compassion. They aren't all going to get it in the years I have them but everyone grows up sometime and I hope they look back at the times we tried to help them choose the right path. My students are almost never the reason I leave work unhappy, or tearful, or furious because I know I can't count on them behaving correctly at all times – they're still learning how to be people. Kids only make me mad when they quit on themselves and even then I'm a workout and a pep talk away from charging at them again.
The hardest thing about teaching is the lack of respect from everyone over 18. Teachers and leadership teams make a lot of our school policy, but we're also impacted frequently by decisions made high above our heads. It's frustrating to be handed a set of rules or curriculum by someone who has never been a teacher. Education is different from so many other fields because everyone has been to school, so everyone feels they know how school should work – obviously, this must be true, because everyone who has ever flown in an airplane is qualified to be a pilot. Parents remember what school was like for them, or how much they hated homework, or how lazy their social studies teacher was and they carry that college-ruled trauma with them as they walk their kids in the door on back to school night. Legislators and school reformers and every article commenter have a hundred things teachers should do differently and zero hours of field experience. It's maddening to try and work in a hurricane of noise generated by people who feel so entitled to directing us.
I'm the only teacher in my family, so I get a lot of (unsolicited) comparisons to the "real world." My favorite thing is when I talk about our policies on retaking tests, or not penalizing late work, or student-led conferences and someone chimes in with "that would never work in the business world." You know what else probably wouldn't work out too well in the business world? Your average American teenager – we're still trying to turn them into a decent human being so we'll let you focus on making them good office mates when they get to you. My husband works in an unrelated field and makes twice what I do, but never has to bring any work home and isn't harassed on a daily basis about how he should be doing his job. I, however, bring work home almost every night and spend at least 12 hours a week outside of the classroom working, grading and planning. I have a rule for myself and my little family that one night per week and one weekend a month I don't bring anything home so that I can give quality wife and mommy time to my boys. I'm at school 45 hours a week unless it's finals. Or homecoming. Or the week before or after a break. Or the first or last week of the quarter. Those weeks, it's more like 50-55.
Every time an article like this is published, I promise myself I'm not going to read the comments afterward because I know I'm going to see the big three complaints against teachers: 1) "I wish I had summers off" yeah, me too! 2) "Must be rough to only work till 3." Wouldn't know, never been done at three and 3) "The average teacher makes (insert poorly researched number here) and gets great pension and health insurance, and they never have to worry about getting fired – we should all be so lucky." You're right, we should, but I don't make enough money to support my family, the health insurance is prohibitively expensive to have anyone but myself on it and we worry about being fired ALL THE TIME.
My class is a show and I am on all the time. I leave exhausted. I drive to pick my kids up from daycare with the radio off so I can just be quiet for once. I would probably stop teaching if I could imagine myself being happy doing anything else but I can't. Once, a few years ago, a student asked me if I liked creating all the games and activities I make for them or if I was just doing my job. I told him I don't make enough money to just do my job. It's equal parts exhilarating and crazy-making to leave work so drained every single day but to be compensated so poorly.
Today, as I walked to a professional development meeting after class, my principal told me my name was all over the wall. It took me a minute to realize she was talking about dozens of papers leaves the kids had made and taped up to the windows expressing the teachers they were thankful for (these are 13 to 15 year olds). I found quite a few with my name on them – thanks for making it fun, thanks for helping me understand, thanks for being funny. I'm happy you're my teacher. Thanks for the advice. Thanks for loving us. Today, I did cry on the way home.
[Image by Jim Cooke, photo via Shutterstock]