This fall began my seventh year teaching and my first year at a new school.
For the first six years of my career, I taught in a large city school with 2,000+ students, half of whom were racial minorities, and over 80% of whom were on free or reduced lunch. In 2015, Harvard University published their findings from a 20-year study on economic mobility and generational poverty. Of the almost 2,500 cities in the study, my city ranked in the bottom ten. Given that we have some of the worst generational poverty in the nation, it is not an overstatement to say that the city’s teachers have one of the most difficult teaching posts in the nation. You can imagine how high the burnout rate is.
I’ll not go into details here about the various factors that made that job nearly impossible, aside from the obvious. That’s a different post for a different time. (A book, really. Probably a darkly humorous memoir, featuring, among others, a sweet anecdote of a time when a boy stormed out of my room and told me, “Fuck you bitch, and your big-ass forehead” all because I’d asked him to please wait a moment before going to get a drink of water. I should note that I was a favored teacher. I should also note that I do indeed have a large forehead.) Suffice to say, it was soul-sucking and gut-wrenching and anxiety-inducing and well, one just didn’t really feel like much of a teacher. I was about four years in when I started to actively pursue leaving, keeping my eyes on neighboring districts when the spring semester rolled around and administrators began posting openings. Around year five, I moved with my husband out to the country. At the end of year six, I was able to get a position for the next school year in the small rural district where we now live.
I say all this about my background because I’ve come to realize the unique challenges facing teachers in large urban schools — where decades of racial discrimination and racist policies intersect with insufficient resources, poverty, and the standardized testing culture — just so often are not addressed by those thought-leaders working in education right now in real and meaningful ways. Rarely did I even have the desire or energy to read or follow anyone writing about education; professional development in the form of personal reading or research was just about nil. But when I did, it never felt applicable or inspiring. It was like being told by well-meaning advisers that I really needed to be investing in a Roth IRA, while I’m over here struggling to pay the light bill.
After one semester in a new school, I feel like I’ve gotten a B12 shot. I’m much more curious about the practice of teaching, and I’ve sought out writers and thinkers on the subject. I reflect on my own practice on a regular basis in an organic way — I keep a notebook on my desk, and every time an idea strikes me or I realize something I want to change for next semester, I jot it down and move on to the next. I follow educators on social media. My mind buzzes with things I want to write, things I think people need to read. None of this was happening at my old job because I simply did not have the mental space or energy to allow for it, and neither do so many other teachers.
I hope to make the most out of this new mental space I’ve freed up. I’m curious about progressive education, especially project-based learning and going gradeless. I’m reading up on place-based learning, something I’m particularly interested in now that I’m a rural educator in a small town. I’m rethinking the role of an English teacher and reevaluating my own objectives for what I think students need to know and be able to do once they leave my class. And in these tumultuous political times, I’m revisiting the role of educators — especially humanities educators— in a democracy and the overall civic duty of the public schools. In addition, I want to always be there to speak the truth about the realities of working in a school where the deck is stacked against you. Not all teachers have the same challenges. Not even close.
This new energy is invigorating, to say the least, and it’s scary to think that I never would have gotten here if I hadn’t changed my teaching position. I had reached a point where I either needed a new school or a new career. I’m thankful the gods of teaching saw fit to provide me with the former.