Two teachers in a Title 1 School…one for 21 years, the other it’s year one.

When I shared with my Facebook Friends that I was inspired to start a blog in support of leaders in Title 1 Schools, I asked what topics I should cover. One topic that came up over and over again was stories of impact and teachers who have stayed in Title 1 schools. As I thought about this, it resonated and I felt conflicted.

It resonated because the headline of “Why I left” is way more common than the headline of “Why I stayed”. There are so many educators who graduated from college or switched careers, and could have done anything. They decided to teach AND intentionally chose to teach in the schools that needed them the most. It also resonated because of the subliminal but overstated message that Title 1 teachers are leaving by the loads. I imagine if I were to pursue a career in accounting, I would leave because I would feel it’s too hard, overwhelming, stressful, and it’s not my passion (#noshadetoaccountants….I just sweat every time I think about my Intro to Accounting class in college!). This would never be in the newspaper or make the 5 o’clock news. But stories about our teachers feeling this way and leaving Title 1 schools are in the paper and on the news. See the bias? It’s that ugly, annoying, and passive racial bias that our kids in Title 1 schools are all out of control and nobody wants to teach them.

I felt conflicted because of the unspoken and outdated expectation disproportionately placed on Title 1 teachers that you are to stay in your job until you retire, because if you leave you are a sell out. Transitions are a natural part of life. People transition in education for all the same reasons employees in other sectors do; relocation, a promotion, graduate school, sick family members, they realize it’s not their passion, or it just wasn’t a good fit. Not everyone stays in Title 1 schools, but everyone doesn’t stay in any organization. The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistic states that the average employee stays with their employer for 4.2 years. We need advocates for our kids at all levels. Being a classroom teacher changes your perspective while simultaneously breeding an unwavering long-term commitment to advocate for our students. The majority of amazing Title 1 teachers I know that left the classroom left to go do more for our students.

Teaching is hard. Teaching children in poverty is even harder. It’s often assumed that anyone can teach in Title 1 schools, but this undermines the social consciousness needed to understand the complexities of poverty and it’s impact. Cornel West said, “You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people.” It is impossible to work in a Title 1 school, be effective, and enjoy it, without a deep love and passion for our students. It’s that deep love, passion, and social consciousness that makes teachers in Title 1 schools so unique and inspiring, but this is rarely the headline. I am determined to change the headline.

Top: Mrs. Giles during her interview. Bottom: Mrs. Mahoney Paulino during her interview.

To help illustrate the unique DNA of teachers in Title 1 schools, I decided to interview two teachers in my building. The first, Mrs. Marilyn Giles (MG) who joined the Ranson IB family 21 years ago as a Life Skills and Career Decisions Teacher (often referred to as Home Economics). Mrs. Giles is currently Ranson IB’s Testing Coordinator and ESL Chairperson. She is truly an inspiration to every child and adult who interacts with her. The second is Mrs. Tiara Mahoney Paulino (MP), who joined the Ranson IB family this year as a 1st year Spanish teacher. When I interviewed her over the summer to work at Ranson IB, the vision she had for our kids and their exploration of the Spanish language and culture left me speechless. In just the first quarter of school, her vision has already come to life.

I sat down with both of them to learn more about why they chose to teach in a Title 1 school and what motivates them each day. Here is their story….

Why did you decide to teach?

MG: “I was looking for a career change. I was in retail management prior to this and people would always ask me why I wasn’t a teacher because that’s what I was doing in my retail job, teaching adults. It was something I thought about in college and even took education classes as electives. I think it is a calling that I didn’t get initially but I got later. I really felt like kids needed someone to love them. I came in with that attitude, “love them up”. My first year and a half here, I was still working at Walmart as an auditor. I would leave here Friday, take a nap, work overnight through the weekend, and come back here Monday. The demands of working in retail was a good way to prepare me for teaching.”

MP: “I’ve had a lot of experience working kids in different capacities. My first job was a soccer referee on the youth field. Ultimately, it was my experience working in my own community in an afterschool program that made me decide to become a teacher. I realized we were trying to put wet blankets on a fire rather than getting deep in the grit of it all. I decided to embark on a journey to impact students on the level of being in the classroom with them and seeing myself as an influencer in the community with them.”

What made you say yes to coming to Ranson IB?

MG: “I submitted my application to teach and the principal at the time called me. We met in his office, had a conversation, and he offered me the job. That was on a Wednesday and I started that Monday. He told me the realities of Ranson and how Ranson was perceived in the community, but I walked in the building and it felt so warm. The first person I met was the Head Custodian, who is still a friend to this day. It was like every connection I made was a positive one. I know this couldn’t be all bad. I didn’t have anything to compare it to since it was my first teaching job but I just knew that kids needed love and I was already feeling it.”

MP: “After having conversations with the previous teacher in my position and with you, I saw that there is something special here as far as the dedication to students that I hadn’t experienced in my other jobs in education. I really wanted the opportunity to work with this specific population but also be in a space where I knew the leadership was taking me to be the type of change agent in the community that wasn’t going to perpetuate the stereotypes and common story around children in Title 1 schools.”

A collection of Ms. Giles’s Ranson IB school pictures

What is/was your first year of teaching like?

MG: “Coming face to face with students who needed extra attention was a little challenging. I will be honest, there were a few that first year who gave me a run for my money (laughs) but it was an eye opening and strengthening experience. There is one young lady I taught who is now an Assistant Manager at Food Lion, and every time I see here she apologizes (laughs). Overall, I had a positive first year experience and I thought, “Okay, I can do this”. I think for most people with situations of what I walked into, you either make it your own or you allow it to take you over. I feel like I made it my own.”

MP: “My first year of teaching is the biggest challenge I have ever faced. It has been compounded by a family move. This is our first time as a family we are out on our own. So it’s been challenging but not in the sense as it’s too hard. I view challenges as opportunities for growth and making me a better me. It’s been fun. I have one group of scholars who make be laugh on a daily basis which brings me a lot of joy. I am enjoying a lot of the time outside of the classroom too. My morning duty post I love because I get to interact with a lot of students who aren’t in my class, but they like to be around me. I drop knowledge though, I don’t let them just hang out (laughs).”

How do know you are having an impact?

MG: “Sometimes they tell you. I was in a supermarket a while back and a voice from across the store said, “There’s my teacher!” (laughs). I am sure this person is 30+ now. Just seeing him years later and hearing him say “I still have that pillow we made in your class”. It’s really good seeing them after the fact and they still have that connection with what you taught them. I ran into another former student who said “I am a Manager at a Pizza Hut…I am cooking for real now!”. And these were kids who could have easily gone another way. At other times, I could just feel that connection with them. Every year there would be a group of scholars who needed a little extra love. I would start to notice that they struggled to stay in other classrooms but gravitated towards mine. After a while, I was able to help them change their behavior by using my room as an incentive. They may not have said that I made an impact, they were too cool for that, but the connection was definitely felt. It makes me feel good knowing that I may have been a positive influence.”

MP: “I think it would go back to the morning duty post. Especially for students who aren’t in my class who say “Buenos Dias” back to me. It continues to inspire me when I think about being that one ripple in the pond or being that one grain of rice that tips the scale. Each day that one more student says it back to me let’s me know I am having a big impact. In the classroom I know I am having an impact with students because they go from saying “I don’t understand anything you are saying”, to me being able to give directions completely in Spanish, and they know what I am saying and they are doing it.”

Mrs. Mahoney Paulino teaching her scholars about Hispanic Heritage Month

What makes you stay?

MG: “These are the same kids to me. Whether it’s now or as it was back in ’96. Sometimes I say it’s the same script but different cast. When I first started here I used to wash the athletic uniforms for the players. I wasn’t a coach but I just enjoyed doing something for my students I had in class. You never know what situation they are coming from but I do know that they keep proving they can learn. It takes somebody to let them know that you care, whether they do or not, or letting them know it’s okay to make mistakes because you can correct it. Seeing the value in them. They may struggle with some other things but helping them find the good. I have just always found it. That’s a reason to be here, to be supportive.”

MP: “Number one, I am really committed as a person in general. I don’t like to go back on my word. I like being accountable for what I say I am going to do. That part of me brings me here every day. On top of that knowing the fight is so broad, the amount of disadvantage that can be plied onto students day after day. I know and have personally experienced what people out there will think of them knowing they went to Ranson, their neighborhood they came from, the color of their skin, or their income level. I can’t stand by knowing that I can do something about it and not do anything at all. That’s what brought me here every day the first few weeks. Now knowing my students, and seeing them as my own children, my little cousins, brothers and sisters, I can’t imagine saying to them and to this cause, “Oh, I can’t do this anymore”. It means too much to me personally, to what I can show my daughter as a mom, to my family, my community…..to say this is too hard and I am gone.”

Mrs. Giles’s Teacher of the Year spread in Ranson IB’s 2003 Yearbook.

What do you love most about Ranson IB?

MG: “I love the family. I have always felt it. The kids come and go, the staff comes and goes, but there is always some kind of connection. Even people who have come and gone said they don’t have it where they go. I can’t put my finger on it other then saying it’s like family. Because you don’t choose your family but you make the best of what you have. There has been a lot of good in my 20+ years here and I know there is a lot of good to come.”

MP: “What I really love most is the opportunity for not only the students but the staff to be their authentic self. I really like the fact that even though Ranson IB is a school and thereby an institution, it is still a place where students can be themselves. They can bring their culture, their way of dress, their home language into this space. On top of that I quite honestly have never been in a place where I have felt this comfortable being myself. In previous jobs, I’ve always felt I needed to be on egg shells and not be true to my culture because that’s not the “professional” way of doing things. I really like that Ranson IB is a place where we can be us and we still have high expectations.”

What’s one thing others should know about working in Title 1 schools?

MG: “It brings out the true you. Sometimes people come into it thinking they are one person, and they find out very quickly who they really are. It’s not for everybody and I don’t think that’s a negative thing. I personally think it makes you stronger. I’ve heard people say, “Why do I get the kids who have the most need?”, and later they say, “Oh that really helped me. I needed that”. And then what you end up doing is transferring that experience into everything you do.”

MP: “It’s not work for the faint at heart and it’s not work for someone who can’t think or react on a deeper level. Some of the challenges we face have been influenced by our society. We have been socialized to believe that “this is how a child should act with an adult no matter what”, when really and truly that is how a privileged child should act in school and within a community that has all the resources. School was built for children and communities of privilege. As an educator in a Title 1 school you have to realize that you are working within institution that was not built for the children that it serves. Our society has drawn redlines and concentrated issues within a community; children living in that community who may be lacking food at home, taking care of siblings, and trying to have a weekend job to make money for their family. So when that child brings all that responsibility into an institution that wasn’t built for them, you have to be able to look at that child when they have an attitude and see that’s not a child pushing back on me, they are pushing back on a system that says you mean nothing when you should mean the world. So you have to understand the system and I would say wholeheartedly, you have to understand who you are and what you stand for.”