On Tuesday, we shared with you three essays from educators in the American school system. As promised, here are three more, published under the condition of anonymity, from teachers across the country. If you'd like to submit your story, feel free to comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Should I Teach?
I have ALWAYS wanted to be a teacher. I feel for the young people that have no clue about what they would like to pursue after high school. For me, there was absolutely no question.
I started attending a community college to complete general courses while I worked full time. I did this to save money and later transferred to a private college that provided classes on nights and weekends. It took me 6 years to obtain my degree: K-8 licensure with a social studies emphasis. I left school with debt but also bought a house with my boyfriend, later husband, at the age of 20. We did this because it was cheaper than rent.
When I first graduated, there was actually a surplus of teachers in my state, making job placement difficult. Many new teachers, if they were lucky enough to have other insurance—most likely covered by their spouse—went into the substitute pool to network and gain "classroom management" experience. This is what I did.
Subbing was decent money for a job you didn't have to take home with you. There were many rough days; me being a 24-year-old woman trying to engage and manage a classroom of students that were near my own age was certainly difficult. Students were inappropriate; some may call it sexual harassment. I was too young, however, to really see it.
I also would take the less sought-after classroom assignments just to have money for the day. One particular day I was subbing for students with significant behavioral and emotional disorders, a favor for a teacher friend of mine, and I got physically assaulted by one of my students. Bruises all over my arms and my breasts; me, a 25-year-old, 135-pound girl had this student in a choke hold after myself, an elderly paraprofessional, and 3 other students were assaulted. Police were called and I never got paid to stay after the work day to get interviewed by law enforcement and was never paid to attend court in the charges of this student. No one from the district contacted, except for the school's principal, that emailed me a kind letter to encourage me to stick with teaching, even though he could imagine that I had my doubts in doing so. But I stuck with it.
Not every day sucked as a sub, though. I ended up having a good time some days; I loved hearing the stories of these kids. I typically subbed in the high school and found myself getting requests from teachers to have me sub. I was doing a good job. I was engaging the students, they were working, I wasn't the sub that would just sit there. Many trusted me with actually teaching lessons, especially since I was fresh out of school and brushed up on my history, psychology, etc. I was subbing full time once my name got out. Again, no benefits, but still getting paid. I would hear a story of a kid participating in the Martin Luther King Assembly, reciting a poem she wrote but her parents were working and couldn't attend, so I ended up going. I was thrilled to get those open house invitations at the end of the school year, and I would go. I helped some apply for college and how to buy textbooks. I did enjoy these moments.
I ended up interviewing at a different district roughly 15 miles up the road and I got the job. It was a long-term sub assignment, 7th grade history. I was thrilled. The teacher I was subbing for was a 40-something male teacher, strictly "read the book and test" type. Students did not learn much and didn't get large concepts of the state standards. But this teacher was tenured for a number of years, nearly untouchable employment-wise.
I shook things up. I worked like I have never worked before to create meaningful lessons. Loved my students. So very stressed. I would actually drug myself with Tylenol PM at night because I wouldn't be able to turn off my mind. Never really slept, spent at least 10 hours a day at work. Cried, scared, just trying to survive. But oddly, I loved it. I loved teaching. My coworkers were awesome; we collaborated and worked so hard to help our students. I learned so much in that 1.5 years. Made great relationships with my kids and their parents. I truly loved what I was doing. I was making roughly 31K a year. I actually received an "Outstanding Teaching Award" that first year, given to three teachers in our school annually. I did work other jobs during the summer; one being summer school (yuck) and other educational programs. I also worked at a center for autism teaching a variety of kids. Rumor was that the teacher I was long-term subbing for wasn't planning on returning and I wanted to keep my job. He did end up returning, my principal tried to shake things up with staff to keep me but it was a year of district-wide cuts and I was the last hired, so I was let go. Devastated.
Went back to subbing and waited around for my "big break." Getting hired as a full-time teacher was still very difficult. Tired of putting my life on hold, started to try for children. Had a child, subbed some more. Answered an ad in the newspaper and became a driving instructor; after school hours so I wouldn't need daycare. Had another child. My 7th graders I taught now were graduating from high school. I received open house invitations, tears in my eyes with each invite. Saw these kids I left years ago now 6 feet tall or wearing make up and driving. Such a blessing. These kids ended up becoming some amazing people. I thought to myself, "What an awesome job that I have the opportunity to experience this."
Now I struggle. Should I teach? I know I'll be putting in 10 hour days, for 33K a year, which will be a very small take home after day care costs. I'm not a huge fan of the union; they protect teachers, I get it, but crappy ones, too. The union is the reason I didn't get to keep my position. The same year I got my Outstanding Teacher Award, I was let go. My beloved students that I worked so hard for would be left with a person with no passion, teaching mediocrity at best. I still am paying off my student loans and need to pay more money to take continuing education classes to keep my license. But I know it was worth it in the end: all of my sleepless nights and weekend consumed by grading and planning. All of the emails from parents and conferences with teachers or administration. I would definitely do it all again. I just don't know what the future holds. I love teaching but now that I have children my time is worth more. I thought about possibly leaving the field; I could certainly find a job that requires a degree starting at 45K. It just wouldn't be teaching . . . and I'm torn.
I was a teacher in the School District of Philadelphia for four and a half years. I started in the Philadelphia Teaching Fellows after three years working in Social Service, mostly with clients dual diagnosed with mental illness and drug/alcohol dependence. My last job in Social Service was with Project H.O.M.E where I worked with the chronically homeless. I saw potential in working with kids, the hopes that I could keep some of them off the street.
I started at West Philly High weeks after riots had caused the third floor to be permanently shut off to students. I went up to the third floor a few weeks after I started and it looked like a ghost town. Classrooms with full classroom sets of textbooks still in desks. Lessons still written on the chalkboards. It was creepy. I was working towards my Masters in Special Education and my first assignment at West was to work with small groups of students in a Resource Setting, in order to help them make progress in the general education setting. I worked hard in this position, but unfortunately was force transferred from my school at the end of the year because I was the last person placed at the school. I site selected to University City High School. At UCHS, I taught everything from Corrective Reading to Algebra to Spanish. The school was in turmoil and has since been shuttered. The teachers, for the most part, cared deeply about the students and worked really hard to build real relationships with the students from one of the poorer areas of Philadelphia. UCHS was a school that was originally built for upwards of 2000 students. At the time I worked there the student population hovered at around 900. There were hallways that were blocked off, a balcony that overlooked a common area that was not to be used by students. There were rooms that were not used for years. When I moved into one classroom it had not been used in 12 years. The teacher next door and I found all sorts of filmstrips and super 8's from the 1970's. UCHS had its problems and within 2 years I was looking for a new position after the school district changed the program of the school to one of the Renaissance model schools.
This is when I moved to Kensington Creative and Performing Arts HS. This school was very different from any of the schools I had ever worked at in Philadelphia. The principal came from the neighborhood originally and was fully invested in making sure that HER students, HER family were going to have opportunities that other kids in Kensington were not privy to. The year I started at KCAPA, we moved into a platinum LEED certified building that actually had resources. There were 500 students and the teachers worked VERY closely together. Working at KCAPA was not easy, every year that I worked with the School District resources were regularly cut. We lost teachers, counselors, and nurses as the years progressed. As the resources got cut, each year got harder.
My final straw at KCAPA, was when I broke up a fight in my Geometry class at 7:55 AM. I physically had to remove a student from my class who walked in to fight one of the students that was in attendance in my class. During this altercation, I sprained my shoulder trying to restrain the student so that another teacher could lock the door to keep the aggressor out. I was out on Workman's comp for a week. The student returned the next day. I was floored. When I came back, I went into my principal's office with tears in my eyes, and resigned. I had every intention of staying in the School District of Philadelphia for longer than four and a half years, but it was too much. Every year the district cut the resources, and every year they added more to everyone's plate. I left the SDP three years ago to teach in a public school in Delaware. The first week that I was there I couldn't believe that I hadn't seen a fight, heard a curse word, or been cursed out myself. The school I work at now is not perfect, but it has sports teams, clubs, and money to pay their employees. Don't get me wrong, I see teachers who don't pull their weight, but for the most part whether it is in a failing school district or a school district that is meeting student needs, teachers work hard all day. They give up planning periods and time after school to make sure that students can get what they need. We make efforts to go see students in plays, musical performances, and at their games in the evenings or on weekends. We genuinely care who they become, and make an effort to make sure that students can reach their goals however big or small.
The Real Story
During my first year teaching, I was okay. I wasn't great, but I was acceptable. I taught at a community high school that served grades 7 through 9. At the time, it was the fourth worst performing school in the state of Indiana. It has since closed. As a first year teacher I got all of the classes no one else wanted to teach. So, I taught the remedial English classes for students who had not passed I-STEP (our state standardized test). The brilliant idea at our school was that if the students had failed I-STEP they should just have MORE! Eliminate their art! Eliminate electives! Students who had not passed the English portion of the I-STEP had the luck of having me for a double dose of English Language Arts (120 minutes) plus an additional reading class (60 minutes). Talk about a positive vibe walking into my classroom. Oh, you didn't pass the ELA section? Well, we'll strip away anything you found fun and enjoyable and throw you into an overcrowded classroom (36 8th grades in one of my periods) and force you to do ELA drills for hours. I could go on, but that's not the real story.
The real story is Markell. In October our principal decided we should redo the master schedule. I went from teaching 7th, 8th, and 9th to teaching only 8th and 9th. During the first week of the new schedule I saw one of my previous 8th graders in the hall. I asked Markell who his new ELA teacher was, and he responded Mrs. Hurst. I thought that was odd since Markell was an 8th grader, and Mrs. Hurst only taught 7th grade. I asked Markell why he was in 7th grade now, and he told me that the guidance counselor said there had been a mistake, and he was really a 7th grader, not an 8th grader.
When Markell had been in my class, he'd been your typical squirrely 8th grader. He was smart and creative and one of my highest performing students. Still, he would talk back to me, casually ignore my instructions while he chatted up the girl next to him. In hindsight, that was fairly typical middle school behavior, but at the time, it drove me crazy. Nonetheless, it made zero sense that he was in a 7th grade classroom after 3 months in the 8th grade. Also, I knew the statistics by heart. Markell attended a low-performing school, and if he was held back, his chance of graduating diminished substantially. I went to talk to our guidance counselor, and she barely looked up from her desk while informing me that, yeah, he'd done poorly last year, and he should be in 7th grade. If I wanted to do anything about it, I needed to talk to the principal.
Well, I was furious about this development, so I did talk to the principal. He liked me enough, and he just casually brushed it off with an, oh of course, add Markell to 8th grade. Easier said than done. The process of adding Markell back to the 8th grade took an entire month. I had to get the approval in writing from my principal. Then the guidance counselor said actually it needed central office approval (!!). All of this I'm sure was because she didn't want to do it, and she didn't think I'd actually call the superintendent's office. I did, and then this devolved into "why on earth were you calling central office?" My principal was furious even though I was simply following instructions from our guidance counselor.
Eventually, after an entire month of fighting, Markell was moved to the 8th grade. Of course he was added into my bursting-at-the-seams 36-person class, but he was finally where he belonged. After that moment, Markell was one of the best students I ever had. He followed my every instruction, he asked questions, he gave 8th grade his all. I'm not some sort of hero, but my month long battle to get Markell into the appropriate grade was not lost on him. This whole process made me wonder what Markell was up to now. He moved at the end of the year, and I never saw him again. Out of curiosity, I googled him, and I was thrilled to see he's in college and appears to be doing well.
Markell was a win for me. I firmly believe that I made a difference in his life trajectory. For every Markell there are countless students I didn't reach or couldn't help. Isaiah was similar to Markell, but his story ends differently. I think about these students all the time—the students I lost. The system is so deeply, deeply flawed, and my students had everything stacked against them. I don't have the answer, but, I do have their stories.
As always, we are accepting submissions from America's teachers, aides, and administrators. Please comment with your stories below or email me here: email@example.com.
[Image by Jim Cooke, photo via Shutterstock]