Ten years ago, this year, I stepped into an elementary school as an AmeriCorps VISTA to help run the literacy tutoring program and tutor students in reading. Before I knew it, I was hooked. I’d always vowed I’d never consider teaching because I grew up with two parents who taught. Many of my childhood memories are the hours after school waiting for my parents to finish lesson planning or the myriad of meetings they always seemed to have to attend. I was privy to many of the unattractive parts of the profession.
I dabbled in honing a dream on investigative journalism that took me around the world by starting a local feature written by teens in our town’s paper. I went off to undergrad convinced I would change the world through my writing and travel the world. Well as most things in life go, when the dream scraps up against the cold hard reality, things change. I very much enjoyed my journalistic studies and am thankful for having earned an undergraduate degree at a great private university. I was spit out into the “real world,” a ripe young thing having decided I didn’t want to spend my time writing obituaries or take the beat to live in a rural part of the country. My dreams of travel and writing were far from my mind as I took a nanny job closer to my family back in my home state.
Come to find out, spending most waking hours with children as a young person,is especially illuminating and isolating. Playing the Mom role wasn’t exactly my thing either but I did notice I loved being around children. So I left for the “big” city of Seattle with $300 and no job to my name. It was at that time I allowed myself to entertain this teaching idea but as existential crises go…I was deep in it.
A week after I arrived back to the “big” city I landed a job as a barista downtown. I did what most people do in their 20s. I partied, drank too much, stayed up too late and fell into a relationship. I gave my 2 weeks notice and was fired the next day. I simply had moon lighted at a coffeeshop a block down from my current gig. All’s fair in love and coffee, so I say.
Still flailing about in my existential goo, I took the job at the elementary school with AmeriCorps. It was hard. It was exhilarating. By the end of that service year, I’d decided that it was in my blood. I was meant to teach. So I took another job with AmeriCorps to expose me to different aged kids–middle and high school. I began looking into all the prereqs I needed and the task of getting into graduate school to become a teacher began. I worked and I studied. I had to retake the writing portion of the state mandated test that is a prereq for getting into graduate school for teaching.
Then, I was in! Two long grueling years of ups and downs, lots of insane drinking, only one all nighter and needing a writing tutor to complete even the simplest paper, I strode across a stage ready to take on the world and my own classroom. Oh sure I’d had my doubts but I loved learning. The process of learning with children, alongside them and in spite of them. I was meant to teach.
I’d been hired months prior to graduation into a school district just south of Seattle. I was placed in a pool and essentially told to wait for a call. All summer, I fretted. Finally in late August, there was an opening and 4 days before school started that fall, I had my teaching home. To say I was excited wouldn’t really do it justice. I was terrified.
I scrambled around in my insecurity and lack of confidence to cobble together some semblance of a classroom. And then here we all were. My first class! As first years go, I hear mine was pretty typical. Bumpy…very very bumpy. This wasn’t like grad school or student teaching at all! It was better and way worse all at the same time. Luckily I was paired with an excellent literacy coach who buoyed me up at my darkest moments and somehow, someway I made it.
Que the following year. They say your first year is your worst and well, they were very very wrong. My second year was utter and complete hell yet I had some unwavering undying source of hope that I could do this, that I could make it work. I could get _____ to focus enough to read, I could get _____ to not push kids down the stairs, that ____ would stop puking under his desk every day, I could get _____ to stop compulsively lying…and we’d all miracrulouly be at grade level!
And through all of this I could somehow stay in tact in my psyche? The joke was on me. I hadn’t chosen a profession. I’d chosen a lifestyle. One that I could not maintain. I was anxious, unable to sleep, fraying at all edges and slowly but surely coming unglued. I didn’t have the experience, the confidence, the strength to do this. Maybe I wasn’t meant to teach.
Still, I kept on. I believed in education. I believed in my students abilities to learn. I wanted to believe in the system. But at every turn it felt stacked against me and my students. My colleagues were as supportive as they could be and I tried as many classroom management techniques as I could muster but it felt like no match against a system bent on failing to recognize that a lot of my students, who I was tasked to teach 4th grade math to, couldn’t subtract, some couldn’t read and yet here I was supposed to lead them to the next level using curriculum materials that essentially laughed in their faces? So like I’d been taught and like I knew in my heart, I met them where they were. But the din of expectations, test test test, and the pressure to perform perform perform never relented. Somehow I made it through that hellacious year.
Cue my third year. I came into my classroom a full month before school started. I was not going to let the last two years drive me down. I met with my administrators in hopes of forming a team feeling rather than an us vs. them feeling. I got an unexpected apology for having been poorly supported. I was starting off on the right foot and I did have a better understanding of the curriculum and the expectations.
Yet a feeling of is-this-for-me followed me around. I went on to have a fantastic year. It wasn’t easy by any means, but I had learned from my past and refined some techniques. I kept an open dialogue with my administrators and called on help when I needed it.
All the while, the expectations of how I taught, what I taught and when I taught it were an ever tightening belt pinching me into something I didn’t want to be. Complacent. I was tired of teaching math and reading for most of the day, treating science, the arts and social studies as an afterthought. It was disheartening to keep moving forward with the prescribed curriculum knowingly leaving many concepts misunderstood by a vast majority of the students. It began to feel stifling and unenjoyable.
The public climate around teaching was also heating up and still rages to this day. When I listened to or looked at the media I was constantly told how to do my job and what about my job I was doing very wrongly. The union seemed an antiquated joke far from helping create a professional atmosphere in which teachers could labor.
Sure I’d had a banner year but it was getting to me. I began a fourth year and I knew I couldn’t go on this way. I wanted change and got it in the form of securing a position at a small innovative school in rural Costa Rica. My experience there was illuminating in ways I’d hoped for and in ways that were just as discouraging as the system I’d left. (See um, well, all previous posts!)
I left Costa Rica to come back to the middle of the school year in the U.S. and was hired as a sub in my former district. I have the distinct honor of working with very talented teachers through a great nonprofit. I recently was working on my application for a hybrid role through said nonprofit and it hit me. I don’t want to do go back full time. The thought of returning to the classroom with the possibility of no hybrid role, sends daggers into my heart.
Yes I’ve built it up. Yes I am extremely hard on myself. But the thing I loved about education has morphed into some unrecognizable shadow of itself. What JOY is there in learning anymore?
I most certainly feel that a big part of my trepidation is lack of solid classroom management. But I think it goes far beyond that. What have we allowed our schools to become? What environment are we creating for teachers and students to labor in? When every minute of every day is regimented and accounted for and taken to task over? When teachers are no longer trusted to know what to do with those precious minutes? No wonder I have a hard time with classroom management when the environment of creativity, discovery and curiosity has been so hijacked by competitive lust for passing tests.
So here I sit, tears literally flowing from my eyes to say, I’ve become a statistic. I’m not returning. At least not this fall. It is such a painful admittance I hid it from myself for a long while.
It stings. It aches. It smarts.
I’ve not reconciled it one bit.
I oscillate between the exhilaration of freedom and the depths of having failed. I still wonder, have I failed or did the system fail me?
Ten years I’ve been in education. If we can destroy it so readily in ten years my hope is that we can begin to heal it in the next ten years’time.
To all my colleagues past and present, I lay my heart at your feet and ask you to safe keep it until I find the strength to jump back into the arena. You are all my heroes/heroines.