I went home and thought about what had happened in the interview. I had tried to defend myself during Mr. Charter School’s tirade against veteran teachers. I told him I had excellent test scores, that I stayed in my district for so long because I truly believed the inner city students I taught deserved to have a good teacher, and that I had always kept abreast of new innovations and pedagogy in teaching–on my own time, with my own money. I told him how my friends from college were all amazed when I put off grad school and went into an alternative teaching program to teach kindergarten in an elementary school, how they all told me how lucky the school system was to have me, and how I put so much into teaching those first few years that I never made it back to grad school. I told him how I’ve stayed with teaching, year after year, despite serious discipline problems, lack of supplies, educational quick-fix programs, and the crush of mindless paperwork from people above me making twice my salary who need the paperwork to justify their jobs. I told him I created my own curriculum because the district’s was sub par. I told him I have great test scores.
More than anything else, though, even more than feeling old, I couldn’t help but wonder: When did I become the enemy? What about all those first year Teach for America teachers, would they be in the same situation as me if they stayed with teaching nineteen years? Will their years of experience be seen as a negative if they try to change schools after so many years? When did public school teachers become The Evil Ones? Yes, there are bad teachers. There are also bad doctors, bad lawyers, bad hairdressers, bad plumbers, and many bad principals and superintendents. Yes, teachers get great vacation time–but we don’t get paid for it. We only get paid for the days that we work, which to me means it actually is a pretty decent salary–but it still isn’t great, and certainly no one goes into teaching for the money. In my state there is no teacher tenure and teachers’ unions have very little power. Since we are a “right to work” state it is illegal for teachers to strike. I sign a new contract every year.
Charter schools, like the one I interviewed at, may choose their students by lottery, but they can kick them out at any time, especially for discipline. Public schools can’t. We take everyone who walks through the door, regardless of if it’s the first day of school or the last, and we are held accountable for every single one of them, specifically through test scores. One disruptive student can make all the difference in the classroom, and can keep the other students from getting the education they deserve. A good teacher will be able to handle most discipline problems, but there are extreme cases, and administrators are not always willing to assist. Neither are a lot of parents.
Some years, especially like now when economic times are tough, the classroom can turn into a revolving door of students coming and going throughout the year. Poor families seem to move a lot, and it is not uncommon to have a student enter a classroom who has already attended five or more schools in the current school year, and may only stay a few weeks in your classroom before moving on again. Children come to us whose parents are in jail, are dead, or are on drugs and are being raised by their grandparents or aunts and uncles. They live in one bedroom apartments and sleep on couches with their brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. We take them all, and we teach them, and we love many of them. We are strict, we don’t feel sorry for them, and we give them everything we can. I’m not making excuses, but when did choosing to stick with it and not give up become a bad thing?
For the record, I don’t intrinsically have anything against charter schools. I was interviewing at one, after all. What I do have a problem with is all the hype, all the articles and stories and news clips about how public education is failing in this country, and more specifically, how teachers are the problem, especially veteran teachers. Bull. I’ve always said, it’s all about the money. Massive amounts of federal funds go to public education and everyone wants a piece of the pie. If public education is failing then let’s fix it, but let’s start at the top, not down in the trenches with those who are doing the real work. If more schools become schools of choice, and public schools are merely the schools for those no one wants, what will happen to those children who’ve been dealt a rotten hand in life? What will happen to our society? Will we simply raise the white flag and build more prisons instead of schools?
In the end, I decided not to go for that second interview with Mr. Charter School. I debated going in and giving a killer sample lesson, and defending myself vociferously in our scheduled “extensive interview,” but I knew deep down that I didn’t want to be there. Instead, I sent a short email apologizing for canceling and telling him I didn’t think I was the person he was looking for. I decided it wasn’t the school, it was him, and he was someone I didn’t want to work for. Mostly, I took it as a lesson on not beating myself up over someone’s perception of me based on their own stereotypes.
I’m not ready to mail in my AARP card just yet. Even with all the cool discounts.
I knew this was going to happen. Here I was, happily skipping along life’s highway, content in my ignorance and denial, when out of the blue it hit me square in the face: someone thinks I’m old. I didn’t feel old before yesterday, but after my first job interview in twenty years I not only know that I am indeed old, apparently I am also washed-up, burned out, and probably not willing to try new, innovative ideas. (Hmmm, I guess someone didn’t read my blog about change a few weeks ago . . .) All this because I have been teaching for nineteen years.
The truth about being old has slowly crept into the face that stares back at me in the mirror. I didn’t think it was so bad. I really don’t mind the way my face has changed through the years. I like the way a woman looks when she’s allowed life to leave its footprints on her face. Seeing the plastic, wide-eyed, taut skin of today’s aging celebrities is disturbing to me. It’s disturbing because I know I’ll never be able to afford to have my own sagging body parts fixed, but also because I don’t want to have them fixed. Creepy.
My first job interview in twenty years was a beating, plain and simple. First there are all the new interview questions: Describe a time when you had plans that were canceled at the last minute. How did you handle that situation? Or, Describe a situation when you had to deal with conflict at work. Or, Tell about a time when you had too many tasks to accomplish in a short time frame. How did you manage to get everything done? Really???? Who comes up with these questions? Are there really job seekers out there who can’t give good answers? How could the interviewer possibly know if their answers were nothing more than pure fabrication?
That was the first part of the interview and it went very well. The second part was unscheduled, but the HR person felt the director would want to see me. He was young, intense, and talked so fast I had to watch his mouth to catch it all (and no, I’m not hard of hearing). He looked over my resume, noting my university, degree, magna cum laude, work history . . . Then he realized I had been teaching for–gasp!–nineteen years!!!
You would think that when you’re interviewing for a teaching position that nineteen years of experience would be a good thing, right? Not with Mr. Charter School. Instead, I got a long speech about how studies show that teachers stop changing after the first three to five years of teaching, that a teacher with my years of experience is probably inflexible, unwilling to be innovative, and is used to closing her door and doing the same thing year after year. He told me he took a chance on a veteran teacher once and got badly burned. He even–I swear I’m not making this up–threw in something about teachers’ unions. Then he told me that his other teachers were all first year teachers.
My bright balloon from the first interview slowly sank towards the floor.
I didn’t take it personally, and actually appreciated his honesty. But it also ticked me off. It stunned me. Mostly, it made me feel disheartened and dejected. I felt like I had become the walking stereotype of the old, burned out veteran public school teacher, the one who has the same old yellowed outdated posters up on her wall year after year, and who changes the date on the same old lesson plans year after year, and even uses the purple ink ditto machine to run off the same old tests–year after year. In my head I heard all the hype, how American public education is the worst in the world, how our children lag behind in math and science, and how it’s all the teachers’ fault. I felt as if he had stepped straight out of “Waiting for Superman” and would have thrown stones if he had any. He asked if I had ever heard of Teach for America. I told him they also teach for us. I was definitely batting on the losing team.
He wanted to see me teach a sample lesson, and I made an appointment, with misgivings. I walked to the parking lot feeling like I could barely lift my feet from the ground. I was exhausted. Wiped out. Emotionally bare. Stripped clean of any illusions. Mostly, I felt old.
Getting those AARP letters in the mail was bad enough. Now this.