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.
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
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.
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
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.
and how in two of my classes, all the desks are filled.
class time writing grants to get novels because my school doesn’t have the money
before the first bell every day, but I still spend less time at school than
most of my colleagues.
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.
not leave children behind are allowing them to fall even further behind.
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.
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
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.
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%.
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
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
to not leave children behind are also teaching them that hard work doesn’t
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
part of teaching I love so fiercely.
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.
too common, and that I know far too many teachers who have it worse than I do.
car and put my head on the steering wheel and wept.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
process, but I will never stop fighting for these kids, their families, or the
teachers who care about them.