I taught in Washington, DC schools for 1 year and 8 weeks. In honor of Teacher Appreciation Day, I dug up this personal essay I wrote back in early 2015 about why I just couldn’t fucking do it anymore. I’ve added in some additional commentary, which will all be in italics like this.
I’ll be the first (ok, maybe gazillionth) person to admit it: 2014, you were the worst year ever (Oh boy, was I young and naive).
Yes, there were silver linings:
I got engaged (and we actually got married!).
I found a new career that I’m passionate about, and that will allow me autonomy (even though I worked 7 days a week running a retail business, I always quipped “still easier than teaching!” And I meant it).
I moved into a house with two of my best friends (who are now engaged, too!).
But still…there will never be a way for me to reflect on this year without opening a bottle full of grief, guilt, and good cabernet.
I kept very private about the worst thing that happened in 2014, at least in social media land (actually true). But for those of you new to my world, I quit my job as a fourth grade math teacher in a low-performing school in Washington, DC that serves a student population that is 99% African American, and where the same percentage of students qualify for reduced or free meal programs.
I kept private because I did not want to fuel bad blood between myself and my former employer in case I ever chose to teach in DC Public Schools again. I kept private because I did not want to endure the public stigma of admitting my anxiety disorder played a significant role in my decision. I kept private because my anxiety was so crippling I could barely get out of bed or eat, let alone post a Facebook status. I kept private because I did not know how to explain the complexities of the situation.
I really still don’t know how to explain the complexities of the situation. My principal was a misogynist mess, sleeping with members of the staff and then writing them out of the budget. Even though our budget was strained, our traditional whiteboards were replaced with smartboards that didn’t work, so I had to tape paper over it for the first week in order to give my lessons. One week before school started, extended days were implemented to give more time for reading lessons – not arts, recess, or other enrichment programs. I was a science teacher, but the only resources I was provided were textbooks at too high of a reading level for most of my students. Fun fact: the anxiety disorder turned out to be a misdiagnosis! Turns out high anxiety is a normal response to being so fragrantly set up for failure.
But I can say one thing for sure: what I learned in my six weeks at that school has shaped my understanding of the Ferguson protests and my belief in publicizing the TRUTH that #blacklivesmatter. One of my biggest regrets about my life as a small business owner is that I forgot how much this meant to me after teaching. I was afraid if I was too political, I would alienate my customers. In one case I did, after she told me “those inner city Black kids don’t know how to respect their betters. Teachers should be able to smack them.” I told her it was exactly that attitude that made teaching so difficult. Kids need to feel safe and respected in order to learn. At the time she said my opinion was interesting, and then I never saw her again. I should have been proud, but honestly I was just panicked about making ends meet.
I saw very quickly that in the world of education policy, black lives don’t matter. It took me six weeks to break down completely just watching it happen. Hearing my principal call a child an “asshole” when I went to him for help. The look of fear in my student’s eyes as the special education coordinator lifted him off the ground by his shirt collar. The way all my students looked down when the business manager announced she had deals with their parents, and they could be beaten if I sent them to her office. Having the cops called on my students when I asked the administration for support after breaking up a fight in the hallway. The cops telling my students, “do you want to grow up and go to jail? Then listen to your teacher.”
There is no denying the privilege that allowed me to escape. I may be working class, but my white skin and scholarship-funded private education allowed me to escape becoming what Louis Wacquant, Michelle Alexander, and other amazing scholars refer to as “the underclass:” a group of Americans systematically disenfranchised for cheap labor.
It’s truly horrifying to see it happening at the very beginning. To children. Children told everyday that their worth is measured in their willingness to stay silent, walk on the right tile, and fold their hands neatly on their desk. Who are denied the time to access the history of themselves and their country just to make room for more testing – even with extended day programs in place! Who hate coming to school because they are constantly being told they are inadequate, yet have to come to school because it is where they get their food.
Good teachers – and every teacher I knew was a goodhearted teacher – know that every child has an innate love of learning. Every child has things they wonder about. Just take them somewhere new, or even the grocery store, and listen to the questions fly out of their mouths. It is a broken system that insists learning is sitting still, shutting up, and listening to a set list of information. Ask any teacher what makes their job so difficult, and the answer will in some way be “I am told how to teach by people who don’t even know what teaching is -” whether that’s administrators who have never been in a classroom, politicians, or idiots on social media.
I wanted to show them science. I wanted to create real world math problems that allowed them to solve relevant problems that were at an appropriate level. I wanted to teach through questions, not through lectures. I wanted to prepare them for a life of leadership and creativity. But that’s not the point of urban education right now, it just isn’t.
My heart goes out to every teacher who can stick it out, because that is where the people with the kids’ best interests at heart are. Unfortunately, we weren’t the ones calling the shots, and there continues to be a political smear campaign that I imagine will keep pushing out young teachers like myself who initially intended to spend a lifetime in education, instead favoring the Teach for America model where teachers survive 2 years through bribes of MBAs and cushy administration positions.
So don’t feel sorry for me. Do something for the people that live it everyday. Vote for representatives that understand the challenge of urban education is a challenge of poverty first and foremost. Invest in schools and vote for politicians that support a holistic, child-centric approach to schooling. Volunteer for a non-profit like Reading Partners (readingpartners.org) that provides students with the support services they need, but that a classroom teacher cannot be reasonably expected to manage.
That’s not where I’ll be landing in 2015, but more on that later. Literally 3 years later, when I started a new blog because I couldn’t remember the login to this one.