Teachers who think they can “fix” the education system only set themselves up for failure and disappointment. From one classroom, in one school, you will not change the entire public school system in one city, much less the country.
The teacher who authored BuzzFeed Shift’s “Career Confidential” piece this week states, “All I wanted to do was help, but you’re not really given the opportunity to help, because you just have to fill out paperwork all the time. There was so little time to give [my students] social and emotional help, because the administrators were breathing down my back.” This teacher was looking for an opportunity to help without realizing that every second in her classroom was her opportunity.
While yes, you must compete certain paperwork — lesson plans, homework (try having 100 English essays to grade!), dean’s referrals for misbehavior, documents that log contact with parents, and other data that have become increasingly important with heightened pressure on schools to raise test scores — one of the blessings of being a teacher is that during your class periods, you can close your classroom door and work with your students. Every period. Every day.
I chose to become a teacher because I wanted to give back what society had given me. I grew up in a single-parent household where sometimes things were very tough financially, but my mother kept me in a great school district where I had the opportunity to work with many inspiring educators. How great would it be, I remember thinking when I graduated with a BS in English Education, to also inspire children?
I taught English for six years in New York City public high schools in Lower Manhattan and the South Bronx. Most, if not all, of my students lived in the surrounding public housing.
My first year teaching was by no means easy. I taught out of my license area for half my day, which was my largest worry until the spring, when one of my students committed suicide. Imagine looking at that empty desk while high school boys cry over the death of its former inhabitant, who they relentlessly mocked.
Often my students made fun of me, too, for everything from how my ass would shake when I wrote on the chalk board to the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I ate at my desk during lunch. And why shouldn’t they make fun of me? From their perspective, most teachers in New York City — myself included — are privileged white women whose lives bear little if any resemblance to the lives of those who live in poverty. Students do not automatically trust and respect their teachers — these things must be earned, through mutual respect, genuine caring, high expectations, and a relentless ability to start every day off on a clean slate, no matter what the students said or did the day before.
It would have been easy to throw my hands in the air and proclaim that the kids couldn’t learn. This kid can’t read. That kid can’t sit still. Who were their middle school teachers? Why is it my fault they can’t pass the standardized tests when they have been failed by a decade’s worth of teachers before me? Easy excuses.
Instead of making excuses, I taught. We read To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men, Hamlet and Macbeth. For students who couldn’t read, I downloaded audiobooks to their iPods (thanks, Donorschoose.org). And even though it was high school, we read or acted out every page aloud in the classroom, together, because these city kids did not have the ability to prioritize homework. But they still learned how to hold debates, how to contribute to a class discussion, how to think critically about humanity. Of course this didn’t happen overnight. And of course this didn’t happen for every student. But you would be surprised by what a little bit of respect and perseverance on the part of a teacher can do.
Is city teaching tough? Yes. Will you be called a bitch? Will boys fight in your classroom? Will some of your students be homeless? Cut class? Fall asleep in the middle of a lesson you spent three hours planning? Absolutely. Does this make the students worth less than every other child in this country? Of course not.
One of the benefits of teaching high school is seeing your students go off into the real world to do something with their lives. I had students who had babies too soon or went to jail, but the majority went off to public colleges in the city, while others went to trade school. And I couldn’t be more proud of my time as their teacher.