take this job and shove it?: a tired teacher reflects on when enough is enough 

I don’t know how to write this post.

Partially because on some level I feel like it’s already been written, but the act of putting words and phrases to secret utterances will make them reality lived instead of fear assumed.

Partially because it’s been said before by countless other teachers…ex-teachers.

Partially because this is not anybody’s fault who might be reading this. I have worked in 3 buildings that serve at-risk students, and in each of those places are stories of meaningful and authentic work that makes a difference.

But, I must write it. For me. To breath.

For the first time in my career as a teacher, I don’t honestly know if I can keep doing it. I have spent a decade loving students into learning, but I just feel so… Exhausted. Overworked. Underwhelmed. Ineffective. Discouraged. Heartless. Mistreated. Disrespected. Confused.

Being a teacher has been my everything. It is my ministry. It is my purpose. It is my salvation. It is my joy. It is why I get out of bed in the morning and what I relish as I lay down at night. During every interview for my three teaching jobs, the question was always asked: “Why do you want to be a teacher?” And my response was always the same: “It’s not a want, it’s WHO I am. That’s like asking why do you want to breath?”

But now I find myself choking on the very air that used to sustain me.

I find myself breathless from never being enough. Just today, with some squirrely kids in my advisory, I was waiting for respectful attention. They keep talking, as if I’m not even there. As if this is not even class. Finally one says: “Miss what are you waiting for?” I reply, “Respectful attention.” One of the ringleaders mumbles, “Respect must be earned.” And I broke. I just couldn’t take it anymore. So, all the conferencing I’ve done with you…that’s not respect? All the phone calls home to your parent for positive contacts…that’s not respect? All the food I’ve brought you, that’s not respect? Taking your whole class to spend the period playing basketball, that’s not respect? Asking about how you’re doing, that’s not respect? Lending you one million supplies so you could decorate lockers, that’s not respect? Well…then I guess I better accept disrespect, because I have. nothing. else. to. give.

I am breathless from the frantic data collection. Oh, my method of measuring student progress isn’t enough? Right, I see, let me make 26 spreadsheets, input data, and then make a table of contents just to be able to manage all those spreadsheets. Never mind that all this data collection reduces the time I’m able to do what it’s designed for: respond to it. Can I work on this other data and plan some lessons on it? Oh, sorry, right, no I can’t, because I have to jump through this hoop, for you, for them, for the system. When can I just be a teacher instead of a walking calculator?

I am breathless from the impossible standards. For the past two years, I have had the honor of being labeled as “distinguished.” I worked my ass of for it. But you know what? I had to work a LOT harder in my general ed class than my AP classes. And now, I can’t get a distinguished score to save my life. It’s ironic that the day an email comes out with me being highlighted in a video district-wide for my implementation of a teaching criteria is also the same day that I realize that I’m not being scored so much for what I do as what my students do. But you know what? I can’t control them. And in a new building with students who are not quick to give their trust away, well, I guess there goes my ratings. Does that seem fair? I am the same teacher. It is me. But my scores depend so much on them rather than me. And why do I even care? Is that what teaching is about? I don’t know anymore. How do I know I’m good when my students curse at me in frustration and the system curses me with frustration? Somewhere along the line in leaving no child behind, we’ve left the dignity of teachers out to dry.

I am breathless from the expanding–or shifting–duties of teaching. In college, I learned how to plan and grade, how to teach the art of communication, how to select books and write questions, how to modify for students with special needs, how to use standards. You know what’s missing? HOW TO FREAKING MOTIVATE A STUDENT AND CHANGE THEIR MINDSET. And that is all I spend my job doing anymore. I don’t teach English. I don’t teach academics. I spend 80% of my time managing behavior, attending to social and emotional needs, and figuring out what lever will actually spark a student’s intrinsic motive. I am not doing the work of a teacher. I am doing the work of a cognitive therapist or a motivation scientist. And I don’t have the training. I don’t have the time. I have 150 students. In urban ed as teachers of at-risk students, we always say we are their parents, their teachers, their therapists, their nurses, their lunch ladies, their disciplinarians, their cheerleaders, their coaches, their tutors. Just typing that sentence exhausts. And living it for the last 10 years has me completely drained.

And what is breaking my heart the most right now, what is suffocating me is the crushing-stone-weight of this question: what good is our system doing for at-risk, urban students? We have sacrificed high expectations on the altar of culturally-responsive education. We have buried beneath their specialized needs the conviction that they can–and will–do great things. We have held their hand until they are bruised. We have carried them on our shoulders until their legs have atrophied. We have handicapped them with scaffolds and differentiation and sentence starters and remastery exercises and outlines and modifications and second and third and fourth chances and misdirected restorative justice conversations and soft behavior systems and resources and… And then, they go to their jobs, and they are late, and instead of getting a pass, they get fired. They go to college, and instead of self-advocacy, they wait in vain for a deliver that has always been there. They go to their families, and instead of someone walking them through a hard conversation, they shut down and quit. They go to vote, and instead of having their voice count, they don’t follow directions and their ballot is struck down. Tragically, in an effort to empower students, we have torn them down to helpless, codependent, thoughtless birds who wait for some momma bird somewhere to drop a warm worm in their mouth. I can’t do it anymore. I won’t do it. Enabling is a band-aid for cancer. And my students, our students, your students, their students… students… deserve better.

I am left, empty and winded, after this post. Maybe I’m having a bad day, a bad month, a bad semester. Maybe it will all get better next semester. Maybe it’s just displaced attempts to grieve as my therapist thinks. Maybe I’m a baby and need to suck it up. Maybe in April I’ll be writing more posts like this or this or this. Maybe.

But until then, let me catch my breath.

 

students vs. statistics: why I stay a teacher

On my way to work each day, looming above the newly-built-but-not-yet-operating-train-tracks is a billboard that declares:

Unlimited Data

Of course, it’s some advertisement for a phone company that offers all the access one could ever want to Facebook, Candy Crush, Snapchat, Twitter and Youtube.

And then I walk through the door of my school, which is a representation of any public school in the American education system, and I hear the same message from above, around, and below:

Unlimited Data


Recently, a dear friend at another school told me a colleague counted somewhere around 27 days of assessment for their school year, not counting authentic assessment teachers are doing in their own classroom on behalf of their own students. Twenty. Seven. Days. That is an entire month of a ten month school year gone, eaten by some number-crunching, spirit-crushing, out-of-the-classroom, higher-up-Pac-Man’s insistent demand we know where are our students are at.

Um, dear pawn of the government, I know where my students are at. My students are below proficiency in reading, writing, math, and science–oh, and they probably will be in gym and social studies, since that’s being tested this year. My students come to school hungry, but are filled with sugar in the morning by the Breakfast in Class program. My students, since they are under-performing, are subjected to overwhelming academic minutes in the seat, without electives and sufficient transitions and a healthy lunch for a full eight hours. My students trip over dead bodies killed by rival gangs in their neighborhood. My students support their moms who have been beaten to seizure-status by their dads. My students take care of four younger siblings while their parents work multiple jobs to pay the bills. My students have surgeries to remove the growing toxins in their bodies from the industrial air they breath daily.


This week, the moon’s fullness has stripped my colleagues and I of spirit. Behavior has been out-of-control. Time is dwindling into unknown black holes. Energy has been sapped. Motive has gone AWOL. On Friday, a colleague and I sat in my “comfort corner” and discussed where we’re at, and how much this is influenced by our nation’s state of education. A nation obsessed with unlimited data. And through discussion we came to the conclusion, we are not against data. We want to know where our students are at relative to the target. We want to know what next steps are for each of our students. This, after all, is good-teaching. And by and large, across our school, across our district, across our nation, teachers strive to be good teachers.

But, then it hit me, education really has moved past the point of data. Unlimited data isn’t data anymore. It’s statistics.  And as a nation, we are shackled by statistics. Unlimited data is data that cannot be processed or utilized. It just sits there, glaring at us in our urban schools with frightening statistics; it is the oppressive gaze.

But, as a teacher, statistics don’t help me. Statistics don’t help my students either.


It is enough to quit. The pressure comes from above (nation, district); from below (statistics, systematic oppression of our students by society); and from the side (unsupportive school systems, weak collaboration). Voices across the nation are echoing the same sentiment. M. Shannon Hernandez nearly begs for systematic change to focus not on statistics, but on students. Elizabeth A. Natale advocates for systematic change to restore the spirit and art of teaching. Sarah Blaine calls for systematic change to honor the challenging profession of teaching. I also have written about my frustrations before.


In my aforementioned conversation with a dear friend, the topic shifted to: how do we stay? In this climate of systematic statistic subjugation, how do we persevere? I was in such a bad place, my question might have even been, why do we stay?

Our students will not get the education they need–they deserve–if not for people like us.

And there it is, the call of my heart. My students. The stories of my students. The souls of my students. The spirits of my students. My students who share the most profound insights as we read literature. My students who leave small gifts on my desk. My students who cry on my shoulders, but then find the strength to wipe their tears and keep showing up. My students who smile so deeply because they’ve finally written something of which they’re proud. My students who read more books in a year than they have in their whole school career. My students who are so resilient, and who overcome, and who shine, and who go on to have functioning families and successful scholarships and courageous college contacts and justified jobs and triumphant testimonials.

And so, like my students, I will persevere and overcome. I will teach, because they need me. And I need them.

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