After twenty-one years teaching English at a public middle school in South Los Angeles, my eventual choice to change schools was an agonizing decision in a career that had more than its fair share of dilemmas and disasters.
With utterly no training, I had begun my career at this chronically under-performing school as an “emergency” credentialed teacher in 1993. In the intervening decades, I struggled and succeeded, taught whole families, endured each swing of the educational pendulum, and, for every petty and poignant reason imaginable, considered leaving my school countless times.
Yet I always stayed.
Through sheer determination and careful reflection, I discovered that every child can be motivated by a consistent supply of teacher firmness, fairness, fascination, and facilitation. To my surprise, I learned to love middle school and teaching young adult literature.
Sometimes to their surprise, I also loved my students, even the knuckleheads. And I soon won them over, even when they tried their best to fight it or to hide it.
I also loved working alongside some of the most talented and dedicated teachers around. Yet for a variety of reasons and with differing lengths of stay, the vast majority of them opted not to remain at my school.
However, I continued to stay put.
Even though it was never easy and sometimes seemed impossible, I loved influencing, inspiring, and enlightening challenged and challenging students. These kids needed me. And in case you haven’t noticed, few teachers want to teach middle school, and far fewer choose to teach in the hood. If not me, then who would be there for these most deserving of kids?
So I remained.
What I did not love and could no longer abide, however, was the implied and increasingly blatant blaming, badmouthing, belittling, badgering, and bullying of teachers who are doing their best under the most demanding and daunting of circumstances and who are often moving students forward in a myriad of extraordinary, significant ways. I am a strong person, but if you do not think such insult and abuse or chronic micromanaging and faultfinding scrutiny do not wear you down, walk a semester in my shoes.
Teaching in the hood is hard enough, but even as I became a better teacher, everything only became harder. And it wasn’t the kids. It was the insidious system of compliance, “reform,” and “accountability” that only scapegoats and suffocates low-performing, low-income schools and drives great teachers away—even those who long to remain.
And so I finally left.
Two years after my school switch, I am still at a Title I middle school and continuing to choose to teach similarly needy neighborhood kids—in this case, those who haven’t fully benefitted from the surrounding gentrification. Since my new school also now attracts many top-tier students who substantially bolster our test scores, it is identified as high performing and is therefore absolved of the type of onerous, ongoing audit that ruined my beloved former school.
I was even offered the opportunity to teach the highly gifted students at my new school. While I am certain these stellar students would benefit from my skills, I know they do not need me nearly as much as those kids who are struggling academically and suffering emotionally. I have spent my career figuring out how to reach and teach these kids, and I have played a part in some remarkable advancements in my students.
I had to stay with the kids who needed me most.
I do not feel guilty for leaving my old school; I feel sad. I am sad that the school I was committed to serving for my entire career became a place that dismantled professional respect and eradicated autonomy because it viewed teachers as expendable and as part of the problem.
Though nice, I do not require recognition or appreciation as a teacher. I find enough intrinsic satisfaction and personal fulfillment right in my own classroom, right amongst my students, thank you very much.
Yet I cannot work in a place where I routinely begin my day with a knot in my stomach and end it demoralized, insulted, or exasperated. I need to be fresh, focused, and free to teach as enthusiastically, passionately, and conscientiously as every student—and every teacher—deserves.
I remained true to myself, which kept me focused on what truly matters.
Obviously, most teachers are altruistic and compassionate, often to a fault. A great many would be pleased to share their talents at a school that serves disadvantaged students—if they were given the assurance that their safety, sanity, and sense of self-direction would be honored, nurtured, and preserved. No extra perks needed; just the resources, rights, and respect necessary to get the job they already know how to do, done.
It will always be individual teachers who affect real and lasting educational progress. If we want that improvement to reside and flourish in every school, however, we must focus on making the neediest schools places where all teachers, new and veteran alike, feel welcomed, worthwhile, and well supported—and part of the solution.
School districts and administrators must directly support teachers, not dictate to or direct them to death. Start by asking teachers what works and what does not, as well as what would most help them in supporting their students. We must all value common sense and compassion above compliance, people above protocols and programs.
Until that happens, nothing will change, and things may indeed get worse in the settings where they can least afford the status quo, further destabilization, or to lose another great teacher.
Do you have a teaching experience similar to mine? Please share your story and make your voice heard by leaving a comment below.
Robert Ward is the recent author of two books for teachers, The Firm, Fair, Fascinating Facilitator and The Teacher Tune-Up, published by Rowman and Littlefield. His newest book, A Teacher’s Inside Advice to Parents: How Children Thrive with Leadership, Love, laughter, and Learning, joins parents and teachers as allies in education.
Robert’s articles have been featured by Edutopia, Education Week, the U.S. Department of Education’s “Teacher’s Edition” newsletter, ASCD, NCTE, the International Literacy Association, and UKEdChat magazine.
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