You should know about the mental and physical states, the heartsickness, the frustration, the anger, and the righteous defeat that right now so many American teachers feel.
I am a brilliant English teacher.
Here’s how you can tell, according to the bosses: my 6th grade Language Arts students, whom I taught for three years on an ELL team, an ELL and Special Education Inclusion team, and finally on an ELL and Gifted team, on the Georgia Language Arts CRCT earned passage rates of 100%, 87%, and 96%, respectively, from 2008 - 2010. On the Georgia Reading CRCT, in the same three year period, the same students earned passage rates of 99%, 83%, and 99%, respectively –not my individual homerooms for each year, but the entire team (four homerooms), all of whom I taught Language Arts; after having taught for just two years as a lead teacher, I was asked to be a cooperating/mentor teacher to a student teacher; I was chosen to receive training from The College Board to become a pre-AP teacher of English; I was chosen to earn my Gifted teaching credential, paid for by my employer, and to go on to become Team Leader of the ELL/Gifted Team; I was elected by my colleagues to be the Language Arts teacher representative to serve on the Teacher Advisory Council; I was asked to be a Classroom Management Mentor for some of my colleagues who faced challenges in that area; I taught after school “grade replacement” classes after school and on Saturdays for students who’d failed previous quarters; I taught enrichment and test prep classes on Saturdays for students who needed more individualized attention and more exposure to the Language Arts curriculum; I started a book club for at-risk female students; I taught Summer school; I earned exemplary yearly evaluations; and even farther back than these things, I earned a Master’s Degree in the field of Teaching Secondary English before I dared set foot in a classroom to teach anyone’s child.
Here’s how you can tell, according to my students and their families: my classroom walls and the walls outside my classroom were covered by the best examples of their work so that they could see, daily, that I was proud of them and they should feel pride in their hard work; the walls were also decorated with art and every color in the spectrum; I designed culminating projects to create learning experiences that would help my students connect with and build upon old knowledge, bridging it to new knowledge so that they could apply what they’ve learned – not just memorize it, I created my own tests which included actual short answer and essay questions, and graphic organizers which were visual representations where they could show they were able to think critically about their new knowledge; I sang to them; I read aloud to them from diverse authors like C.S. Lewis, Joel Chandler Harris, Roald Dahl, Virginia Hamilton, and Norton Juster; together we read Maniac Magee, Everything on a Waffle, Money Hungry and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler; we made time for creative writing, not state writing test practice writing, but creative writing; they studied famous authors; we diagrammed sentences IN COLOR (which makes all the difference); every student who wanted one could have a job so that they felt that my classroom was really THEIR classroom; independent reading could be done on the carpet next to your desk, underneath the whiteboard with your jacket as your pillow, or at your desk with your head resting on your arm; we played Scrabble on a huge bulletin board in the classroom, me against the kids; I graded their work in a timely way; I took Spanish for Educators for two years so that I could better communicate with parents who did not speak English; I didn’t allow misbehavior, I was lovingly strict; I didn’t accept work that wasn’t a student’s best; we didn’t just move on –we reviewed basic grammar skills over and over and over and yet over again because there could never be enough practice with grammar; I gifted them books; I believed in their future success even if they themselves could not conceive it. I was to my students who my teachers had been to me. I was this kind of teacher: proud of my work, filled with hope for the future, who believed that I was a part of a profession whose primary mission was to do good, to get the future ready to take the reins, and one day propel or pull or kick us all forward to even greater progress.
I was, indeed, that kind of teacher, until I became a teacher in New Orleans, where the school system, after Hurricane Katrina, became 80% public charter schools.
I resigned my teaching position at a New Orleans charter school two months ago because I was dying, metaphorically, and that ailment had begun to take a rapid physical toll as well. My health reached a critical state, even as I dragged myself into work each morning before sunrise and stayed until after the sun set each night.
The despair that I felt was overwhelming. It was impossible to sleep. I had no appetite, everything tasted like dust, and I had an insatiable thirst that I couldn’t quench. I didn’t know what I was doing, what I was supposed to be doing for my students in such an environment, where I was going, what to do to feel better or teach better, and worked for the last four months, at least, in a catatonic state. The profession that I entered seven years and four months ago had become unrecognizable; school is no longer school as you and I used to know it. Participating in an institution that is supposed to help children, to make possible better life opportunities for them, to infect them with the magic of learning, questioning, discussion, and discovery — to help perpetuate the kind of public schooling I was lucky enough to have — but which no longer values any of those best parts of education, is what I could no longer do. I walked out of the school where I had just begun working a mere seven weeks prior at the beginning of July (I tried a second charter school in New Orleans after a year long stint in the first), in an emergency state of hysteria, on a Wednesday evening, to see my doctor and I never returned. I still prepared meticulously organized materials for every part of the school day for the next day’s substitute because my students needed those routines and needed for their learning to be uninterrupted. That’s what great teachers do. But I couldn’t go on being one of the criminals enacting psychological violences on the neediest children I have ever taught: the knowledge-thirsty, skill-bereft, spirit-rich, economically impoverished, black children of New Orleans.
Here was my problem: teachers had saved my life. So I chose a career where I could do the same for others that had been done for me, by making my classroom an enchanted, organic, creativity-cultivating, structured, organized place where children with lives almost unfathomably unjust and chaotic could come and feel safe, be themselves, speak words they dare not utter elsewhere, write, read, spell, and visit places far away and previously inconceivable to them by immersing them in the world of books. I would be a teacher. Not just any teacher: the best kind, an English teacher. When I was a kid, there was no place I felt as happy, as fulfilled, and as in control of my own fate as in my English classrooms. In 8th grade, my classmates and I even had to memorize “Invictus” and recite it in front of the entire class as a part of our grade for the first semester of Advanced English Literature and Composition. I had to write an essay comparing Oedipus to Chinua Achebe’s Okonkwo. I was forced to enter a speech competition for the Optimist Club. I wrote short stories and poems that my teachers entered into every writing competition they could find, won prize after prize, and came to know myself because of this.
Eight months after I was laid off from a very large Georgia school system, which found itself with a very large amount of debt for the 2010-2011 school year, I was recruited by an organization called teachNola to come to New Orleans as a member of their Master Teacher Corps to teach in inner city Orleans Parish, and to help rebuild their school system which was still struggling six years after Hurricane Katrina. Having been unceremoniously let go from a school where I’d been more than dedicated, passionate, and effective could come close to describing, I saw relocation to New Orleans as an opportunity to do real good, again, in a public school classroom, for children who were like my most recent students, the majority of whom were from Central and South America. Due to the circumstances of their birth, they were children whose families had very little, but deserved exponentially more than the educations they were receiving.
Once I was admitted to the teachNola Master Teacher Corps, I was immediately flooded with emails and calls from principals from schools all over New Orleans who knew that I had been thoroughly vetted and were made privy to the success my students had earned on standardized tests in Georgia. They coveted a teacher like me with visible saliva dripping from their mouths and fought over me with their recruitment budgets, a process absolutely alien and unheard of to me. Although a red flag should have been raised by this, after just a phone interview that I completed while sitting next to my boyfriend who was playing a very distracting game on his Xbox, the founder and school leader of an independent, charter school from one of the most damaged areas of the city offered to fly me to New Orleans where we could have a face-to-face interview. There would be no need for me to complete a sample teaching lesson for him, he said. It didn’t matter to him that his school was an elementary school and that all of my professional experience and training had been in secondary classrooms, he said. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have a teaching certificate in Early Childhood Education, he said. He would pay for my roundtrip airfare, pay for my stay at The Intercontinental in downtown, and would pay for me to stay for an extra day or two to explore the city if I wanted to. Still, no red flags. Why, I might have asked myself, would a school leader not want to see me in action actually teaching children before he hired me? How is it that a public school can afford to fly in applicants from all over the country and pay for extravagant, for me, hotel rooms, as well as a few days more of sight-seeing? Why didn’t he care if I was actually qualified (certified, credentialed, experienced) at the job for which he was interviewing me? But I didn’t ask those questions. A lay-off to someone as type A and successful as I was, was a crushing, psychological blow like I’d never experienced. It was nice, again, to feel wanted to do a good job at what I was great at doing.
My interview consisted of a fifteen minute conversation about a lesson plan that I’d emailed to him beforehand, a po-boy lunch with him and the other teacher with whom I would teach fourth grade, and a driving tour of the nicer parts of the city. I was hired.
Let me cut to the chase. It did not take long to become concerned about my new teaching environment. I, at age 31, was considered the veteran teacher on staff. No other teacher had more than my six years of experience. More than half of the staff were Teach for America Corps members, fresh out of college, with no background in education. There were only two people who held Special Education certification in the entire elementary school. There was no process to identify, evaluate, and legally serve students who were performing extremely behind grade level. I was the sole classroom teacher of color in a school with a student population that was 99.98% Black. The school “culture” was militaristic: students were only allowed to walk on taped lines on the floors in hallways, classrooms, and outside sidewalks, they were required to chant as a way to pump them up about being in school and to remind themselves that they could learn, they were not allowed to speak during breakfast or lunch, children were not allowed to bring their own lunches from home, and most importantly, I was told that there were to be no projects or activities conducted in my teaching. I was told that these distracted from mastering the standards, which should be something that I should be able to measure at the end of each and every class period on each day by a student completing an exit ticket. Every lesson was to begin with a ten to fifteen minute mini-lesson, there was never any need, I was told, for more than that because the student to teacher talk ratio should always have more student talk time than teacher talk time. I wasn’t required to keep a grade book, grade assignments to send home, or communicate to parents about their child’s progress or challenges. I was told that at every possible moment that I could, it was a part of our mission to reject the parts of students which were as natural to them as breathing in-out: their “culture of the streets”. Report cards were generated by a student’s performance on an end-of-quarter benchmark test created by a private company who was contracted to provide the standardized benchmark tests for every charter school in the district as well as the teacher coaching to help teachers help students do well on the standardized benchmark tests. Parents were only guaranteed to receive report cards if they came to the school to get them; if work or transportation did not permit them to do so, a parent could very likely never receive one of their child’s report cards for the entire academic year. As a matter of routine, students from grades Kindergarten to 4th would break out of school: they would, in the middle of any lesson, stand up, run for the door, into the hallway, out of the modular school building, around the campus, to the parking lot, off the grounds, desperate to reach the residential neighborhood surrounding the school—for freedom. This happened every week. Other children were even sometimes employed by the administration to help corner, capture, and re-imprison their schoolmates, crushing that child’s impulse for momentary liberation from the place where I helped to institutionalize them. To corral them. To oppress them. To rob them of true educational experiences. To attempt to standardize them. To test them. To test them. To benchmark them. To rank them. To drill them. To worksheet them. To blow whistles at them to move. To ring bells for them to stand. To watch them like a hawk as they visited the restroom. The PE coach once remarked that I “looked like their CO” (correctional officer) as my students walked in line and I watched them to be sure they did so with the absolute perfection mandated by my boss, the school founder, who, although they were of age, did not enroll his own children, who were eligible because they, too, lived in Orleans Parish, in the school which he founded. He said that it wouldn’t be fair to them to have them attend the school of their father’s creation. He said they would be the only white children. And the principal’s kids. He sent them to the only public school in the parish where the rest of the white children attended. It was best for them to learn there without all of the things at his school which he imposed on Black children: non-descript uniforms, trailers, inexperienced and unqualified teachers, longer school days by way of three additional hours, and adults all around them who were as battered, abused, and depressed as they were. Each and every day. There was no one to whom educators could turn to give voice to the great injustices and illegalities transpiring in those walls. The Recovery School District, the entity supposed to provide oversight, preferred instead to give laissez-faire to charter schools unless the press got wind of something, as long as the charter schools delivered, or worked toward delivering, the desired end-of-year test scores on standardized tests. The school’s Board of Directors were all the best friends of the school’s founder; they were cherry-picked by him and therefore relentlessly loyal to him, rather than to students and their parents.
So once I stepped back and accepted that I was dying, it was a quick realization, spurred by my doctor’s angry proselytizing, that I didn’t have to continue to be dying because of my work. I could stop what I was doing, thereby stop killing myself, which would in turn mean that I would no longer be one of the entities crushing the children whom I had come to love best of all those I’d ever taught. It is just like they say; I loved them more because they needed me far more than any of the others ever could. But I could just stop it, so I did. I resigned, quitting that charter school, quitting so-called education reform, quitting those mildewed and disease-incubating trailers, quitting those children.
I have not quit public school education. How could I? I have infinite powers of language, communications, public speaking, and passion beyond measure. I can do ever so much more for those children, and those all over this country from outside of what has become of the public school classroom as a true advocate for their interests, their little souls, and their capacities for exponential growth by telling the truth about their schools. Our schools, in the United States, in Georgia, in 2012, all caught up in these races which lead to incomprehensible but certain concrete-thick dead ends.
I am a brilliant English teacher. So, I quit. I won’t return until I’ve helped to make it better than what it now is.
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