I cried today. I was driving down the road listening to some random pop song on the radio, thinking about the funeral of the brother of two of my former students. After talking to the youngest, who was determined to be strong for his family, and consoling the oldest, who was completely falling apart, I made my way to the casket to offer my condolences to the parents. I hugged the mother, who was a substitute janitor for the school system. She thanked me for coming, and I explained to her that there was nowhere else that I would rather be. I told her that her children meant a lot to me. She replied, “You mean so much to our family as well. Thank you for everything you have done for my kids.” On the day she buried her son, she thanked me for my service to her family.
As I recalled that memory, I went from singing along to the music in my car, to in a moments notice, bursting into tears. On one of the hardest days a parent would ever have to face, this mother had thanked me for what I had done for her kids. I had her daughter in class during my first year of teaching, during what was the worst year of my teaching career. I was twenty-two, and her daughter was a senior. I had three classes of seniors that year, and I struggled with becoming an authority figure with that group of kids. Her daughter was the exception. She was always sweet and respectful. I had the same experience with her son the next year when I transferred to the middle school. He was equally as kind and respectful, and my first year teaching eighth grade was the one that I will always remember, because they saved me. When I almost gave up on myself, they gave me a reason to believe again. I wish I could teach that group of students every year. We refused to give up on each other.
When I remembered the words their mother said to me that day, no matter how hard I tried to get myself together, the tears flowed. She believed that I made a difference in the lives of her children. Today, I am dealing with the realization that I have completed my fourth year of teaching and received my notification that my contract will not be renewed. I will no longer be able to have that impact on any other child in my district. Every time I run into a student who tells me the impression I had on their life or a parent tells me that I have made a difference, I feel resentment toward the school system that has not only failed me, but failed the students of our district. When I stepped into my classroom day after day, I did so with a commitment that my students would not only leave more literate, but as better citizens. I would stare at the Common Core State Standards that were taped on my wall with the realization that I had signed a contract to teach those standards within school year. However, I had a moral obligation to help each child I encountered become a better human being as well. I handled those two responsibilities with the upmost dedication, spending tireless hours before, during, and after the school day seeking the best tools that I could find to educate my students in ways that would not only challenge their thinking, but that they would find enjoyable. How dare I believe that learning should be fun, and that a more engaging curriculum might motivate students to meet the objectives that an educator sets? The horror.
In my classroom, I chose to focus on real world issues that students often encountered and had opinions about. I chose articles about homelessness or elections and challenged students find the central idea and supporting ideas for the viewpoint of the authors. I would pose a question and have students respond to that question with ideas from the articles that I had chosen. The key was that I had chosen them. They were articles about timely issues, those that were relevant to students’ lives. Of course, I also included the classics, reading works by Poe and Twain with my students and having them determine theme and characterization in those texts. I did not abandon the standards. I created a curriculum that met the standards while at the same time allowed students to become citizens that were more informed and be able to have conversations about the serious issues that were going on around them.
Another activity that I did with my students that I believed was critical to their overall mental wellbeing was an activity called Start the Day off Write. This was a tool that I picked up from my local chapter of the National Writing Project. Start the Day off Write is an opportunity for students to respond to a journal based prompt in any way that they choose, with the one rule that they have to write. For example, in one of my favorite prompts, I posed a picture of a three-legged dog, and asked students to write about it. Some created a fictional story about the dog being a superhero, others wrote about their own dog, while some wrote about their fear of the species. STDOW gives students a creative freedom in writing that is limited in so many other outlets, but I believed it was critical to creating the community of writers that I wanted in my classroom. Once I posed a prompt, I would grab my own journal, and take a seat amongst my students and write along with them. It was such a game changer for them to see me writing while they wrote, because for probably the first time in their educational careers, a teacher wasn’t sitting at his/her desk working while they completed a task.
One particular STDOW prompt stands out to me from my first year at the middle school. It was toward the beginning of the year, so I was still in the “getting to know you” phase with my students. The prompt that I had chosen was innocent enough: Write a letter to yourself ten years from now. As always, I sat with my kids, and composed the letter to the thirty-three year old me. I tried to keep my composure as I wrote about the future husband I hoped to have one day, and how I prayed that the doctors were wrong when they said I couldn’t have children. Those were words I barely wanted to think about, yet alone commit to paper.
One of the key components to STDOW is the share time. I always allowed as many students to share as would volunteer. However, no one ever had to feel pressured. They knew up front that every two weeks I would collect their journals and read whatever they had written, so they had to take accountability for the words they put on the page. Students were required to be respectful of those who volunteered to read, because I explained that it took a lot of courage to read what you had written, and they also understood that what was said in my room had to stay in my room. They could not take anyone’s story to the hallway.
So, as always, I took volunteers to share their writing. I got the expected responses: “I hope you go to college”, “I hope you have a nice house/car”, “I hope you get married and have babies”, etc, etc. After several students shared, one student asked me to share my writing. Normally I would have done so without hesitation, but what I had written had been so personal that I didn’t exactly feel comfortable sharing my words. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks that my kids were asking of me exactly what I asked of them: to trust them and to build community with them. I took a breath and told my students of my diagnosis of infertility, and the tears came, from both my students and me. They listened with complete silence, and when I finished reading, no one spoke. They just sat there in the silence, as if paying their respect to the babies I would never have.
A couple of moments later, one of the most popular kids in the eighth grade class spoke up and said a sentence I will never forget: “I wasn’t planning on reading, but since you read, I feel like I have to read this now.” And he did. He wrote about how he hoped that in ten years that he would be married, but that when he got married, he would make it count. He wouldn’t get married and then abandon his wife and kids, because all that does is hurt the kids. As he read, tears streamed down his face, pain laced in every word. He had so much pent up hurt from his own parents’ divorce, and he had never had an outlet to release it. The whole classroom was a sobbing mess, but the student felt better for writing and for sharing his story.
I was quickly labeled the teacher who “could make kids who hate Language Arts love it by the end of the year.” I was proud of that label.
That all changed at the beginning of my third year when the determination was made that test scores weren’t improving and that changes in instruction needed to be made so that the wrath of the state would not come down on our school. The last thing any school wants is to have the state department take over, so the district was ready to take drastic action to ensure that this didn’t happen. Test scores were down in ELA district wide, so the superintendent made the decision to hire a literacy specialist to implement new strategies in our reading and writing instruction. Ironically, even with her stellar record of school improvement, after two years under her guidance, test scores had not progressed and I was accused of not embracing the strategies.
Truth be told, I probably wasn’t embracing the strategies as I should have been. I didn’t give my administration the buy in that they expected or required. I couldn’t, because I didn’t believe that what I was asked to do was what was best for my students. I was becoming a proctor for test prep, spending all the time and energy I had in my classroom getting my kids ready for a test that they ultimately didn’t care about. And for what? Even though no one would come right out and say it, everyone knew it was all about the almighty dollar.
It is a shame that the public education has succumbed to such a vicious cycle of the “big brother” effect. Schools need government money to “fund a better education” for their students, so in order to do so, they educate students based on the Common Core standards set by the government. Those standards are assessed by state testing, and funding that schools receive is based on the scores that students earn. Students do well: the school gets more money. Students do poorly: the school doesn’t receive as much money and run the risk of the state coming into the building to investigate why test scores are so low. So, if students do not perform well on the exam, the school does not receive the government money that they need to “fund a better education” for their students. With that, the vicious cycle continues, and ultimately the government has control of everything that happens in our classroom, because if students do not perform well on the state testing, they close their pocketbook. Big Brother. The government can decide exactly how our kids are educated.
I watched as my students suffered because of the choices that my district made. I stood at the front of my classroom and taught from the manual made by the literacy specialist, focusing only on reading and writing strategies that would help students improve on the state assessment at the end of the year. As I watched my students’ eyes glaze over and they completely lost interest in Language Arts, I knew that I was doing my kids an injustice. They were beginning to resent writing, which was the exact opposite of everything I believed in. One of my main philosophies of education was that if you allow students time to write freely and creatively and teach them the core skills for the other forms of writing, when it comes time for them to put those words to paper in a structured assessment type of atmosphere, they will not be burnt out and resent the process. I had seen it with the implementation of STDOW. However, I spent my time teaching the five-paragraph method instead of giving my students creative freedom as I typically would have, and as expected, by the time state testing rolled around, they hated the notion so much, they wrote for the sake of writing because they knew they had to, but it was of poor quality. They screwed us, because they felt as though I had screwed them. I felt like I had too. I was not the same teacher I had been.
Because my students were continuing to show limited growth, my commitment to the classroom was questioned. My principal blatantly told me that she was disappointed in me, and that while she sat in my classroom that she hurt for me. The literacy specialist said that her “eye twitched” while she observed me teach. When I was called into the office, I was raked through the coals, instead of provided with the constructive criticism that I desperately longed for. I was hurt and infuriated. I loved my job and my students more than anything in the world. What I had a major problem with was the fact that I was being dictated to how to do my job after I spent seemingly endless hours studying the best practice in my field. My heart was for my students and ensuring that they received the best education possible, so the fact that my administration doubted that dedication left me livid.
After that intense and damning conversation with my administrators, and a pink slip looming over my head, I began questioning if I even wanted to continue my career in the education system. At that point, I was only three and a half years in to my career. I would need to work one day into the following year to receive tenure. However, if I was not interesting in teaching until retirement, I wondered if tenure should be something that I should even be concerned about. After several weeks of thought, prayer, and many conversations with my husband, we decided that if I continued to be miserable in my job, it wasn’t worth it. Regardless of if my district decided to pink slip me, I would be leaving, even if it meant resigning.
Two months later, the climate in my building only worsened. The expectations for the ELA department to push our kids to do their best on the state assessment became laughable. We were administering school wide scrimmage tests in reading and writing to assess where students were only weeks before the actual assessment, leading to understandable frustration from our students. It was clear to me that I was not where I needed to be. My school was putting way too much of an emphasis on the state assessment and not enough on the overall education and wellbeing of our students. I needed out.
When I decided to become a teacher, I had a vision for what I wanted my classroom to be like. As a child, I spent my summers with the dry erase board in my room and the teacher editions of books that had been given to me by former teachers. I didn’t just “play school.” I tried to create the perfect classroom. My love of the education system was something that had been long rooted in me. To be accused of not being devoted to the career that I had chosen for myself hurt me deeply. I had poured myself into my position at the middle school, so much that it had put a strain on my marriage. I had only been married to my husband for six months when our district hired the literacy specialist, but immediately, it changed the dynamic of our relationship. I went from being a fun-loving, charismatic and optimistic person, to being resentful and hateful. I cried all the time, because I was so stressed out. I had to go on an anti-anxiety medication, which helped alleviate some of the tension that I felt, but ultimately, I realized that it wasn’t worth it. I knew that I was a better educator that what was I was being branded. I had been accused of pulling “crap off the Internet” and “wasting time” allowing students time to journal. My philosophies for education was radically different from the school culture that my administration was fostering. At that point, I decided that my time in the public education system needed to come to an end.
So here I sit, continuing to process my decision not to apply for any teaching positions in the fall. I recall all of the kind words parents and students have said about me during my time as a teacher, and it breaks my heart to think about not returning to a classroom. To know that I have made a difference and to not make the effort to continue that fight seems like I am failing. However, last year especially, I don’t feel like I made a difference at all. I feel like I was a robot, and that anyone off the street could have done my job. I wasn’t the same teacher that I had been when I began my career. I simply did what I needed to do to get by unscathed. That wasn’t any good for my students, and that certainly wasn’t the kind of teacher that I wanted to be. When I was making a difference in the lives of my students, my classroom wasn’t just a place where students came to learn that you needed a good hook in the introduction of an argument–it was a community where my students trusted one another and weren’t afraid to get the answer wrong or share their views.
Roberta Ford once said, “I want students to be able to say these things when they leave me: I am a worthwhile person; I deserve a place on this Earth; I am successful; I am ready for whatever the world throws at me-today or tomorrow.” If you can live that in good conscience, keep pushing on. I wasn’t sure that my classroom was a place that prepared students for success or made them ready for whatever the world threw at them. That’s why I left. I am not alone. Teachers are leaving the profession at an epidemic rate. We can’t be the problem. However, we can only pray that there is someone actively working towards a solution.
I keep telling people that there may come a time when I will return to the education system. I genuinely want to be a part of the solution. I want to continue to help change the lives of the kids that I get to interact with on a daily basis. I know that is the goal of every person who chooses a career in education. I think for that to happen though, we need to get back to the foundation of what we know works. I am optimistic that there will come a time when the tide will shift, and teachers will be able to teach with the utmost confidence again. I did not write this blog post to tear anyone down or to make anyone feel at fault. I know that we are all doing the best that we can. I just hope that we can come to a point when we can sincerely go to sleep at night knowing that our best was good enough.