I’m in my fifth year of teaching English at a Title I middle school. Title I schools are public schools that receive special grants because of their high number of students who have been identified as at-risk. I adore my students and my teaching team. I love teaching. I’m really good at it. I respect my administration and feel valued by them.
But at the end of this year, I’m leaving. I’m not sure if I’ll continue teaching elsewhere or start a new career. If I do leave, I’ll be one of the 40-50% of teachers who leave during their first five years. A drop in the bucket.
To other teachers, I’m sure this isn’t surprising. Without knowing me or where I teach, they can probably easily guess why someone who loves her job and is good at it would be leaving.
But it’s not teachers who need to know what it’s like. It’s everyone else. People who have no idea what it’s like teaching in a Title I school. Some of these people are even making important decisions about education.
There are so many things I would tell them.
I would tell them about the bright bulletin boards, posters, and student work that are either taken down or covered with white butcher paper for most of the spring semester, because the state mandates that there can be no words of any kind on the walls during one of the 14 standardized tests.
I would tell them about the 35 desks I have in my classroom, and how in two of my classes, all the desks are filled.
I would tell them about the hours I’ve spent outside of class time writing grants to get novels because my school doesn’t have the money for them.
I would tell them that I get to school about two hours before the first bell every day, but I still spend less time at school than most of my colleagues.
I would tell them about how I’m not allowed to fail a student without turning in a form to the front office that specifies all instances of parent contact, describing in detail the exact accommodations and extra instruction that the child was given. I would tell them about how impossible this form is to complete, when leaving a voicemail doesn’t count as contact and many parents’ numbers change or are disconnected during the school year. I would tell them how unrealistic it is to document every time you help a child when you have a hundred of them, and how this results in so many teachers passing students who should be failing.
I would tell them how systems that have been put in place to not leave children behind are allowing them to fall even further behind.
I would tell them that even though I love my job and work harder at it than I’ve ever worked for anything, the loudest voice in my head is the one that is constantly saying you’re not doing enough. I hear it all the time.
I would tell them about the student in one of my classes who in August of last year, flat-out refused to do any work because of how much he hated reading. I would tell them that today, when he found out we weren’t going to be doing book groups, I heard him mutter, “Oh, man. I wanted to keep reading,” and I said, “WHAT DID YOU SAY?” really loud and shook his shoulders jokingly. We laughed together and I had to change the subject quickly because I choked up thinking of how much work it has taken both of us to get to this place, and of how badly I hope that his high school teachers don’t give up on him.
I would tell them that if I could compartmentalize things so that teaching was simply instructing a reasonable number of students and grading and planning lessons and visiting students’ families, I would be a teacher forever. No question.
I would tell them that I teach the honors section of my grade level, but only about 70% of my honors students had even passed the standardized test the year before they came to me. My colleagues who teach the non-honors classes inherit students with a passing rate of 30-40%.
I would tell them that almost all my students passed after being in my class, and that I’ve worked really, really hard to find a way of getting my kids to excel without “teaching to the test,” but that instead of being proud of this, I think of the handful who didn’t pass, and how I could have done more for them.
I would tell them about my pencil cup that I keep filled from donations and out of my own pocket. I don’t ask for collateral or even for students to return them because it would take up too much instructional time. I once had a student refuse to do work because he didn’t have a pencil, and I said, Don’t you know that you’ll have to do the work so that you can go on to the next grade with your friends? And he said, without skipping a beat, I’ve failed almost all my classes since third grade and I always promote. I don’t even go to summer school. I stood there, dumbfounded, knowing he was right, but surprised he’d figured out the system so easily. The next day, I had the pencil cup.
I would tell them about how policies that have been designed to not leave children behind are also teaching them that hard work doesn’t matter.
I would tell them about David, a severely dyslexic student my second year of teaching who made my teaching life miserable early on with his constant defiance and disrespect. I would tell them about the day he came in early before school and asked if I could type out a poem that he’d written and memorized in his head, and as he recited it I started crying, then he started crying too, and I would tell them how everything was different between David and me after that.
I would tell them about how I try to divide my time between everybody when my students are working in groups, but I almost always end up spending more time with my struggling students. I know that my students who are behind need me, but that doesn’t mean that my advanced students don’t need me just as much. I always feel torn. In an effort to not leave five students behind, I’m leaving behind 30 others.
I would tell them about my students’ parents, and about the dreams they have for their children. I would tell them about the single mom whose husband died last year and left behind two children with learning disabilities, and how she’s now working two jobs to make ends meet. I would tell them about how the dad of one of my students who took me aside at Parent Night and said to me, with tears in his eyes, “I didn’t get past the fifth grade. But Carmen, she’s going places. I know it.”
I would tell them that students who break rules at our school often don’t receive consequences. Last year our school had a higher number of office referrals and in-school suspensions, so this year teachers have been “strongly encouraged” to deal with discipline problems themselves. That means that unless the offense is severe or dangerous, students remain in class, whether or not their behavior is blatantly defiant.
I would tell them what a difficult situation this creates for the brand-new teachers, who are learning for the first time how to manage a classroom in an environment with so little disciplinary support. I would tell them how many teachers—good teachers—I know who have walked away during or after their first year because of this.
I would tell them about how a few weeks ago, I told another teacher’s student I would be escorting her to the office for her behavior, and she replied, “Why the f**k would that matter?” This student was back in that teacher’s class five minutes later with candy she received in the office.
I would tell them how hard it is to not feel hopeless when you realize that systems are teaching students that not only does it not matter if you do work at school, but it also doesn’t matter how you behave.
I would tell them about my quietest student, Isobel, and how, on the day of our poetry slam, she stood up in front of the class and, in a voice that was loud and confident, recited every word of Amy Gerstler’s “Touring the Doll Hospital” by memory, and how all of us gave her a standing ovation and ran to hug her afterwards, and how it made me think of the quote from a character in Wonder by R.J. Palacio, “Everyone deserves a standing ovation because we all overcometh the world.” It was one of those weird moments where literature and life and beauty crash into you together at a thousand miles an hour and it knocks the wind out of you, but you look around and you’re alive, more than ever.
I would tell them how my personality has changed under the stress of the past five years. I used to be fun. I used to be a bright and warm person who would go out of her way to help people or make them laugh. Now, if I can manage to act like myself during the school day, the second the bell rings I’m withdrawn, snappish, and moody.
I would tell them how this stress has started to overrun the part of teaching I love so fiercely.
I would tell them that it feels like I have three choices: 1) stay where I am, continue working hard and destroy myself, 2) stay and protect myself by putting in less effort, or 3) leave and abandon a profession and kids I care about.
I would tell them how much I hate all of those choices.
I would tell them that I’m not alone; that my story is all too common, and that I know far too many teachers who have it worse than I do.
I would tell them about when I interviewed recently at a private school on the other side of town, and how it went really well and the interviewer said she wished she could scoop me up right then and there, and how I got back in my car and put my head on the steering wheel and wept.
Why do I want them to know these things?
Certainly not for the glory. If I’ve learned anything in my time as a teacher, it’s that the only heroes in this story are kids who go to school and do their best despite the systems that are keeping them down.
I’m also not writing this for proof or validation that I work hard. I don’t have anything to prove about my work ethic or value as a teacher, to myself or anyone else, and this is not meant to initiate a game of “who has it worse.”
I’m also not writing this to incriminate my school administrators or my district. If I thought the problem was confined to my school, I would not be sharing this publicly. The problem is nation-wide.
No. I’m writing this because I care about what happens to my students, and other children like them in Title I schools across this country whose needs are not being met, and who are learning harmful lessons from the larger systems in place that are supposed to help them. I am writing this to give others a picture of the type of learning and teaching environments that are being created by these systems. I’m writing because it’s 2015, and far too many children in this country are still receiving a lower quality education because of the neighborhood into which they were born.
I don’t know what to do about it. I have some ideas, but I don’t have nearly enough knowledge of policy to even know where to begin. All I know is what I and others see at the front lines every day, and I just know that it’s not working—for students or their teachers.
This is what I would tell them. I may have burned out in the process, but I will never stop fighting for these kids, their families, or the teachers who care about them.
(Any names of students have been changed in this post.)