I worked for five years at two different public elementary schools in downtown Manhattan. I taught kids up to third grade. I came out of graduate school, with my masters in education, and I felt like it was looked down upon to go work at a private school. (Also, the pay is better at public school than it is at private school.) You get inspired and you think you can fix all these problems with education.
There were kids who threatened to kill each other. There was once a kid who lit a bulletin board on fire. We had to evacuate the building. There was a kid who stole a pair of scissors from the drawer and cut up another kid’s jacket.
I felt like I was a part-time teacher and a part-time therapist. That’s what the kids needed. 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 them social and emotional help, because the administrators were breathing down my back.
This one girl stole money from me. I left money for a field trip on my desk, and she stole it. She’d been a kleptomaniac since she was in Pre-K. You need help for that kind of problem. And her parents weren’t going to help, because her mother stole too, from the PTA.
The kids called me a bitch a lot. And I had a combination lock for the closet where I would keep my things. They watched over my shoulder so they could see the combination lock and break in. They went through my stuff. A lot of these things aren’t reportable. If I saw there was definitely a serious problem in a child’s home, I would report it.
Elementary school is tough, but middle school is the worst to deal with. The middle schoolers have sex in the basement. I’d find condoms around the school, because the elementary and middle schools are connected. That was pretty gross. The elementary school kids just talk about sex. They don’t actually have it.
Of course, the majority of the kids weren’t like that — most just needed someone to talk to. A lot of the parents work late, or don’t speak English. The kids would beg to go down to talk to the social workers, but they’re so busy doing emergency interventions for the more serious cases. They’re dealing with kids who are having meltdowns and throwing desks at teachers or lighting bulletin boards on fire. They don’t have time for the kids who just need a checkup every now and then, who just need to talk to someone about what’s going on in their life.
Out of grad school, I thought I was going to change the world. One of the big struggles is that you’re constantly filling out paperwork to appease the administrators, who have to appease the superintendents. We had to write out day-by-day lesson plans to show that we were doing our jobs. We had to prove the school was being well-run. But by the time you finish writing up all these reports, there isn’t much time left to help the kids who really need help.
There was also pressure around the fact that I had kids who were testing two or three years behind grade level. It was expected that the kids would pass 3rd grade reading tests, when they started the year at kindergarten level. I’d be held accountable for that.
One thing I’ll say is that the other teachers are actually really great. Sometimes administrators pit teachers against each other to try to get them to one-up each other. And teachers get a bad rap — people think they’re lazy and just want to run out the door at the end of the day. But I never met a teacher like that.
As told to Hillary Reinsberg.
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