Now that the days are getting long and hot, and I search for anything to get me through to October when the days might cool off a bit if we’re lucky, I dream of snow. White, cold, fluffy snow.
And snow always makes me think of one of my students.
We have a rule in our school district that if the weather turns bad after a certain time in the morning, the buses will run and the schools will open. No matter how bad the weather gets, once the decision is made schools stay open for the entire day.
We rarely get snow in Dallas, but on this one day it started to snow after the cutoff time. By the time school opened at 8:00, the ground was covered in white and the snow was still falling.
As you can imagine, trying to get a bunch of fifth graders to settle down when all they want to be doing is playing in the snow, is tough. School is the last place they want to be.
On days like this you usually have two kinds of kids who show up: the straight A students who never miss, and the ones you pray will stay home just this one day, please dear God.
Ramon (name changed to protect the innocent) was in that first group. He was a smart kid. He never got in trouble, always did his work, and was very well-liked by his classmates. He even had a few girls think he was cute. But there are times when even the good kids go bad.
Like on a snow day.
After picking up the students, walking them up the stairs and past the windows where they could all moan and groan about the fact that they were here and not there, and telling them for the fifteenth time that no, we can’t go outside and play in the snow, the students settled down and got to work on journal writing. The usual suspects stared off into space, not a clue as to what they should write about, and the others wrote furiously about the unfairness of being stuck at school while so-and-so got to stay home and play in the snow. Pencil leads were snapping, sighs and moans were expelled, and even I felt gipped that school wasn’t closed.
A few minutes into journal writing, Ramon walked up to me with a worried look on his face and asked if he could go to the restroom, it was an emergency. I gave him the Disbelieving Teacher Look, saw the desperate look in his eyes, and decided he was legit. He grabbed the hall pass and escaped.
Class continued. I decided to read a chapter aloud from the book I had been reading to the students, knowing they would lord it over the kids who hadn’t come to school that day. It was a particularly good part of the book, and I was enjoying making the story as dramatic as possible. The class listened intently as I read.
After fifteen minutes or so, I looked up to see the assistant principal standing in my doorway. Mildly annoyed that she was interrupting our right at the good part, I also noticed she had someone with her. Someone who was hiding behind her.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Is this your student?”
Uh oh. I had forgotten about Ramon.
“Yes. He went to the restroom,” I meekly replied.
“Uh huh!” she said. “Do you have any idea where I found him?”
I looked at Ramon. He was looking at the floor. Ramon was in trouble and somehow it was my fault.
The AP called me into the hallway. The class was loving every minute of this. I walked out into the hallway, sweeping the room with my Evil Eye Teacher Look that said don’t even think about it.
Apparently the AP had been making the rounds downstairs after the bell rang, making sure everyone was in class and accounted for, when she heard someone yelling and knocking outside the door to the playground. The door was set to lock when it closed. When she opened the door who did she discover? Ramon.
For some completely innocent reason, Ramon had decided to go to the downstairs restroom. He couldn’t explain why. As he passed the door leading to the playground, he heard someone knocking to be let in. Being the good Samaritan that he is, of course, he opened the door–and was promptly thrown into the snow by some THUGS! They had really done a number on him, too, because his hair, shirt, and jeans were sopping wet.
“Who were these thugs?” I asked. “Just some guys who wanted to be mean” he sheepishly answered.
I said, “Wow, those were some really mean guys to throw you down in the snow like that! That’s awful, Ramon. It’s too bad you opened the door for them.”
He swore it was all true. He even cried.
We sent him into class, closed the door, and burst out laughing in the hallway.
We teased him all year about the thugs. We warned him to watch out for the thugs at dismissal at the end of the day. We asked him if the thugs ate his homework when he didn’t have it in class. We made sure he had a buddy on field trips so the thugs wouldn’t force him to do fun things again.
We were so worried about him, we even had him explain it to his mom on Parent Conference night. After a long look at him, she rolled her eyes and shook her head.
He knew he had been caught red handed, and he laughed along with us. I told him he would never, ever forget the day he went bad. He said he would never, ever do something that stupid again.
So on these horribly hot days of summer, when I’m running in temperatures that are meant for an oven, I’ll think of Ramon and how much fun he must have had rolling in the snow. He said it was worth it, and I believe him.
I’m one of those people who would probably be happiest being a full-time student. I wouldn’t want to write the papers and take the exams, but I would be happy sitting in class, taking notes, reading the material, and taking part in classroom discussions.
I think it all started with The Golden Treasury of Knowledge.
I probably learned more from The Golden Treasury of Knowledge than anything I learned in school. The Golden Treasury of Knowledge was something akin to The Encyclopedia Britannica, only on a much smaller scale. I think my mom and dad bought them on sale at the grocery store. To a shy, nerdy, bookish grade school kid, they were knowledge nirvana.
I had the first six volumes. Each volume spent three or four pages on different subjects. I particularly liked the pages on gems because I loved collecting rocks. I was also kind of fascinated with the medieval ages.
I spent many summer afternoons reading through the books. I went back to them all the way through junior high and high school. They taught me a lot.
I always loved school, especially grade school. I loved learning. High school was different. My senior year I felt like all I was doing was biding my time until graduation. I was ready to be done, and didn’t put much effort into my classes. The sad thing was, no one really seemed to notice.
Maybe it’s blasphemous coming from a teacher, but I don’t think formal education is necessarily the only–or best–way to learn something.
As a former grade school teacher, I have to acknowledge that at least a quarter of the school day was spent transitioning from one class or activity to another. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve never understood the unrelenting push for “time on task.” Try sitting all day in a seminar or conference with no breaks and you’ll get what I mean. No one is meant to spend eight full hours engaged in learning, least of all small children. And the push to get rid of gym, music, art, library, etc. in order to spend more time on “academic” endeavors (i.e. test taking prep) = complete insanity.
I think anyone can teach themselves anything on their own. In my world, the answer to almost anything can usually be found in a book–or the internet. If I have a problem with anything in life, I usually head for my computer first, a book next, and then all my friends.
Michael and I are teaching ourselves how to garden. We’re building a fence. Neither of us expects perfection, which is key to teaching yourself anything.
When I started running six years ago, before I joined a running group and learned from the experiences of others, I read every book about running I could get my hands on. I still go back periodically and consult the books, especially when I decide to start training for a new race and make a new a training plan.
For me, the best teacher is experience. I’ve learned more about running by just running than anything I ever read in a book.
Michael taught himself everything he knows about computers. Despite a degree in something completely unrelated to computers, he now makes his living from data and computers. He’s also recently taught himself photography and videography.
Hel’s also directly responsible for my own exit out of the technological stone age. A few years ago he showed me how to set up Power Point presentations for my fifth grade social studies lessons. Then he talked me into giving up my Blackberry for a smart phone, and I spent a very stressful weekend reading the online manual trying to understand the mini-computer in my hand.
By the time my son gave me an iPad for Christmas, it took me no time at all to learn the ropes. Learning to blog and upload photos has been huge for me this past year. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
I still love to read and learn new things, especially science. I wish I’d had better science teachers when I was younger.
I recently read a book by Carl Sagan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, which Wikipedia called “a Roots for the human species.” Sagan is one of my idols, and I wish he was still alive. I have to admit, the book was a little dry, but I learned a lot.
I have no idea what happened to my Golden Treasury of Knowledge, volumes 1-6. Like other things from childhood, I suspect it either found a new home or met its end in a trashcan. I can’t imagine not having computers and the internet, but I think we did okay without them when I was growing up.
I don’t know if there’s some type of internet equivalent of The Golden Treasury of Knowledge, but I hope there is. It taught me a lot about the world.
About a week ago I watched the movie Brooklyn’s Finest and it touched a nerve. At first glance it’s not my usual type of movie, but I liked Training Day and thought another movie by the same director might be just as good. For some reason I really connected with one of the characters in the film, and in a strange way his job made me think of my own teaching job.
The movie is really a character study of three NYC cops and follows them for a few ultra violent days in their lives. All three are good at their jobs (one supposedly less so than the others), but they are also all depressed, stressed, and cynical. There’s no separation from the cop and the man, or their jobs and their “real” lives. Their job is their life, and the people they work with–even the ones they are paid to infiltrate and betray–are their family. They have learned to do what it takes to survive in their jobs, and to accept that after years of sacrificing their lives and ideals, no one really cares. The people in charge make ridiculous demands and tell them they’re not working hard enough, even when they’ve sold their souls from giving so much.
These men are unappreciated, underpaid, and despised, and spend most of their days dealing with drugs, danger, and chaos. In the end, only one man is left standing. He survives by keeping his head low, not trying to be a hero, and is reminded several times that he’s really nothing special on the police force. He’s one week away from retirement and he just wants to make it through.
Another cop is working undercover, trained on the streets where he grew up, snitching on men he’s perhaps known since childhood, and asked to turn traitor so he can get off the street and behind a desk. He’s so entrenched in his undercover life that there’s no separation between his job and his “real” life. The last cop is a narc with seven kids who steals drug money so he can buy a new house to replace the too small, moldy-walled one that sends his asthmatic, pregnant-with-twins wife to the hospital. He needs money–fast.
Suffice it to say that these burned out, hardened men have seen the absolute worst side of humanity and still manage to get through the day. These cops are hated and reviled by some, but they carry on and do their jobs. It’s what they do.
But this post isn’t actually meant to be a movie review. Rather, I recognized something in the face of the veteran cop a week from retirement that I see all around me. I used to see it in my own face when I looked in the mirror.
It’s the face of defeat.
It’s the face of someone who knows they work within a system ruled by idiots, one that’s so broken it might not be fixable, a system that takes over every minute of your life, that takes advantage of your idealism and optimism and in the end turns it into cynicism and disbelief. It’s when the bad guys turn the good guys into something worse than themselves, turn them into people who do things they know are wrong but are not strong enough to resist. The system may be broken, they tell you, but it’s all your fault.
I’m talking about teaching.
I might not have taught in NYC, or dealt with drug dealers, guns, and prostitutes in the classroom, but the jobs are nevertheless very similar. The effects of the two jobs can be the same, and I’ve taught in some rough neighborhoods. I’ve seen those faces on many of the veteran teachers I’ve taught with through the years.
Yes, you know them, the veteran teachers: those women and men who are apparently failing our children, not teaching them as well as other countries around the world, the ones who supposedly have tenure and are living the good life off their generous retirement packages. The ones with the short working hours and all the time off. The ones who shouldn’t expect to keep their jobs just because they’ve given 10, 15, 20, or 50 years to it.
Those evil public school teachers. I was one of those people for 19 years.
The veteran cop is given an assignment that is senseless and dangerous: he’s asked to take brand new recruits with him into the worst precinct in the city and act as a mentor. He’s portrayed as being uncooperative, burned out, biding his time, ineffective, a has been, and his methods are looked down upon and second guessed by the new cops–with unfortunate results for them. This man knows what he’s doing, and has learned to pick and choose his battles. He’s not flashy, doesn’t pump himself up in front of others, and doesn’t ask for anything other than to be left alone to do his job.
Most importantly, even though everyone has written him off, you come to know he still cares deeply. You also realize it’s part of the reason he is such a broken man.
He is the true hero of the film, as are the teachers, police officers, fire fighters, social workers, and anyone else who chooses to work in a job that takes more than it gives. These jobs have never been about the money–no one gets rich being a teacher.
This summer I found a Facebook group of people who went to my elementary school. Someone is always posting old photos of the school and their classes and classmates from the 1960’s and 70’s. Almost to a person, everyone loved school and their teachers back then. No one comments on what they learned, or testing, or even the innovative curriculum that was used in the classroom. Back then, the teacher sat at a desk at the front of the room and everyone sat in rows. We did a lot of seatwork and the only time we got up from our desks was when we left the room. There were no collaborative groups, no differentiated learning, no multiple intelligences. We did a lot of rote memorization and a lot of answering questions from the textbook–what we would call “busywork” now. We read a lot of books, and we were always copying things from the chalkboard. The teachers were strict and didn’t put up with excuses, we had art, music, and recess, and it was a shorter day. We all look back fondly on those years.
These days, if I had taught the way my teachers taught me, I would have been fired. I’m not saying things were better back then. I had some pretty bad teachers, especially when I got to junior high and high school. But my point is this: everything we hear these days about public education seems to say over and over that teachers are the problem, that they’re somehow failing our children, that they’re not doing their jobs, that you can’t get rid of the bad ones, that all they care about is preserving their retirement benefits and tenure, and that they’re unwilling to change. Are teachers really that much worse than the ones we had when we were in school? If so, why is that?
Teachers’ hands are tied by administrators and policy makers who don’t know the first thing about teaching. Every year there’s a new magic bullet, something that’s going to raise test scores and fix everything that’s wrong with education. Every new change means more paperwork, more restructuring, more accountability. By the time teachers start to get a handle on the changes, everything changes again. A new principal is placed in the school, teachers are indiscriminately switched to different grade levels or different subject matters, and a new cycle begins, over and over and over, until the next great thing appears.
There are a lot of good ideas out there, but the majority are never given a chance to work before they’re abandoned for the next big fix. Most of these fixes come from universities that are paid millions of dollars for something that’s nothing more than common sense repackaged with a new name and new jargon. Even when you do what’s mandated, and the students don’t do well, it’s still your fault, never the program or curriculum you’re forced to implement. Everything is data driven, and children become nothing more than a test score–and “proof ” that a teacher is doing their job–or not.
Everyone from Washington politicians to Steve Jobs seems to believe that teachers’ unions are the Death Star, that education is going downhill because principals can’t get rid of bad teachers (and I’m not talking about Cameron Diaz), and if we just treat education like a business it will solve all our problems.
My point in all of this: it wears you down. You give all of yourself only to turn around and see that you have become the enemy. You must be, because there’s no one else to blame. You do what you know how to do, which is teach. You close your eyes and ears to those who’ve never spent a minute in the classroom, those who suddenly have all the answers, those who never take the time to visit schools and see firsthand what the problems really are, who can’t be bothered to ask teachers what should be done to save public education. Perhaps we should all be asking ourselves this: is all this blaming and fuming really about education and how to save it, or is it more about the money–lots and lots of money that other interests would be only too happy to spend?
The system is broken, but the ones taking the fall are the only good, sane things left.
Like the cop who prevails in the end, the one who carries on despite the odds, you learn to do your job and not listen to the wolves howling outside your door. It doesn’t matter if no one else cares. You care, you give, you make a difference, until all you’re left with one day is the face of defeat looking back at you in the mirror.
I loved school from the very first day. When I ran to the car after that first day of first grade, all I could do was jump up and down on the seat and say oh boy! oh boy! oh boy! over and over. Buying school supplies at Skillerns was almost more fun than Christmas morning, and choosing new school clothes was like becoming a new person. The start of a new school year was a new beginning, full of things to be learned, new friends to be made, and fun events happening, and it would all bring me one step closer to my exciting future life as an adult. I loved every single moment at Henderson Elementary in Oak Cliff, and I loved all the teachers who taught me.
Junior high was a little more rough. The boys all seemed to change over the summer from sixth to seventh grade, and things were no longer as innocent and sweet as they had been. Greiner Jr. High was larger than elementary school, the girls were meaner, and everyone worried incessantly about how they looked. Boys voices changed, girls got figures, and everyone started pairing up into couples. All of this was a huge distraction from learning. The teachers were less nurturing and it was easy to get lost in the crowd. I loved it nevertheless. In addition to my regular classes I learned how to sew and cook, how to write articles for the school newspaper, and how to cheat in Latin class. I was even in a mariachi band and learned to play guitar from a man who spoke not one word of English.
High school was scary at first. Skyline High School was huge and I felt like the teachers barely knew who I was from class to class. The first two years were fun and busy, with commercial art classes and drill team practice, but by the time I got to my senior year I found the classes boring and the teachers stupid. One teacher chastised me over and over in front of the class because of the way I wrote the capital A in my first name. My history and science teachers were all coaches, and class consisted of coloring maps and answering questions from the textbook. With nothing and nobody to challenge me, I did as little work as possible that year to graduate and missed as many days as I could to survive the boredom. I graduated with honors. I was ready for that fun, exciting life as an adult.
And it was. Neither of my parents went to college, and there was no money to go anywhere far, so I enrolled in classes at the local community college, Mountain View. It was like the first day of first grade all over again. I took classes in art history, ancient history, and English literature that all overlapped and melded together. The things I was learning in history class were being expanded and explained more in depth in my art history and literature classes. Suddenly, the world and life started to make sense, and I was in a place where it was cool to be smart and make good grades. Teachers didn’t treat me like an idiot, and they wanted to hear what I had to say. My first semester of college was like coming home to myself.
Life and fate intervened, however, and at Christmas break I left and took a seven year detour to Switzerland. I got married and worked for a few years as an English secretary in a Swiss company that made turbine generators for nuclear power plants, then became a hausfrau and mother to two children. When the marriage failed and I returned to Texas, I went back to Mountain View College, got an Associate’s degree, and won a full scholarship to SMU to finish up my last two years. I was a single mom and a full-time student, but I would have stayed in college forever if I could have. My plan was to take a year off and support myself and my kids, then enter a Ph.D track program in Interdisciplinary Studies, Journalism, or English Literature.
The seed was probably planted that first day of school that I wanted to be a teacher. While I was at SMU I took one class in elementary education, but compared to my other classes it was boring and uninteresting. A few months after graduation, while I was working part-time in the English Department at Mountain View, I met someone who had just been accepted into the Alternative Certification program in Dallas ISD. There was a teacher shortage and they would actually pay to train you to teach and then place you in a classroom. I applied for a high school reading intervention position, but after they learned of my years living overseas and my personal experiences having to learn another language, I was talked into interviewing for an English as a Second Language position at the elementary level instead. I was accepted and decided to put off graduate school and do what I had always wanted to do–teach young children.
I would teach children whose first language wasn’t English, first generation children whose parents were new immigrants to the U.S. I had a few Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian students, but the majority of my students were Spanish speaking. I interviewed with a principal whose first question to me was: would you be scared to teach at a school that is surrounded by barbed wire? I wasn’t, and was hired to teach second grade at a school half a mile from the center of downtown Dallas.
Like a lot of first year teachers, I was awful. When classes were leveled in October, I was moved to kindergarten and two half-day classes of students who spoke and understood almost no English. Many of the students in one class were special needs and could smell my weakness from the moment they walked into the room. I didn’t have a clue about discipline and went home crying most nights. I caught every illness known to man from my students and had an assistant principal who made my life a living hell, threatening to write me up if I didn’t outline my color caterpillar and clean the crayon marks off the backs of the chairs. In addition, I had an old clunker of a car that kept breaking down on the way to school and got me in just as much trouble as the students. Saddest of all, my heart was broken when the very first student to show up for class on the first day of school, one of my original second grade students, was accidentally shot and killed by her cousin when they found a loaded gun under the bed. I still have the little notes she used to put in the makeshift paper plate mailbox outside my new kindergarten classroom, telling me how much she loved me and missed me.
Somehow I survived, and after the first few years I got used to the stress and oddball characters that seem to litter public education. Teaching was much, much harder work than I ever expected, and in those halcyon days of Whole Language, everything was expected to be “authentic” (i.e. handmade and not store bought) and thematic (i.e. interdisciplinary). I loved the creativity of those early years, and spent my evenings copying poems and illustrating them on large sheets of chart paper and finding songs and picture books to go along with our themes–which could be anything from rain forests to families to transportation.
Eventually I found my footing and my confidence as a teacher. Like most teachers, through much patience, trial and error, and help from veteran teachers, I got better at discipline. In the beginning, I loved the fun of teaching the youngest students, but eventually I wanted a new challenge and found my way to fifth grade. I loved the fifth graders’ independence and sense of humor, but had to adjust to some major attitude, lack of motivation, and wisdom beyond their years in areas I knew nothing about until my twenties. Some days it was like teaching teenagers, some days it was like being back in kindergarten. Some of the students actually were teenagers, having been held back several times in the past and entering fifth grade in August as thirteen year olds.
Every generation complains about the next generation coming up, about how they have no manners and no discipline, and I’m probably no different. My students today seem more brazen than those from 19 years ago, and they see no reason to behave just because an adult tells them to. As a society we have only ourselves to blame. Television is overflowing with personalities and images that teach our children that being rude is funny, that you can be rich and famous for doing absolutely nothing of value, and that the person who yells the loudest usually gets the biggest piece of the pie. My heroes are those children who stand strong and aren’t afraid to work hard in school, even when everyone else makes fun of them for doing so and tells them it isn’t cool to be smart. It’s so hard to be a kid these days.
I have always simplistically believed that education is the way out, that books and learning can solve all problems. I still believe that. After nineteen years, though, I’ve decided it’s time to go. I’m feeling worn down by politicians who think the only thing that matters in education is a test score, that schools should be run like businesses, and that it’s acceptable to cut music and art and cram more kids into a classroom to save money. I’m tired of the punishing amount of paperwork that is required of teachers, and I’m just plain tired of all the testing. It’s time to move on.
I hope there are former students out there who think fondly of their time in my class and parents who are grateful that I taught their children. I hope they can forgive me for those days when I might have snapped at them impatiently or didn’t listen to them when they needed me to. I hope I made learning fun and interesting, but I also hope I taught them that sometimes learning is nothing more than long hours of hard work.
Most of all, I hope I helped mold some of my students into a bunch of really cool adults, voraciously reading good books and traveling the fifty states, remembering the year they sang Take Me Home, Country Roads in the fifth grade PTA program because it was everyone’s favorite song (to my utter surprise, until I got tired of the kids wanting me to play it over and over all year long), and how they sat spellbound watching and listening to Martin Luther King, Jr’s I Have a Dream speech. I hope my students remember our Sing Song Sing-Along Fridays and that they will read There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom, Freak the Mighty, and Tales from The Odyssey to their own children one day. I won’t forget the children my students once were, and how they gave my own life so much meaning and love.
In the end, I have come full circle, starting and ending in elementary school. I realize now that school has probably always been my true home. I did find that fun, exciting life I always wanted, but like Dorothy, I never really had to leave home to find it. As a child, it was always there, in the books that opened up my world, in the kindness of teachers who pushed me, encouraged me, and never gave up on me, and in the schools that gave me a safe haven to return to each day. As an adult, those same elements remained, only I was the one in charge and and had the heavy responsibility of living up to my students’ expectations each and every day.
Fun and exciting? You better believe it was.
This week I finished up my last week of teaching, two friends lost their mothers, and a dear work colleague passed away after a long battle with breast cancer. We only got the news of the work colleague’s passing the day after her funeral, which upset me more than anything else because the news didn’t get passed on to our school, where she was greatly loved, and many people would have wanted to attend her funeral to say goodbye. I also got the news of her passing right in the middle of a huge fight with Michael, when I walked out of the room and just happened to pick up my phone and see the email, which made the news even harder to take.
Sometimes you just need a good cry.
I hate goodbyes. Leaving people you love is not easy, especially people you’ve worked with for 11 years. I couldn’t even bring myself to tell my classes that I was leaving teaching, and that they would be my last group of students ever. Every time I started to tell them my eyes would water up and I couldn’t go through with it. Saying goodbye at the end of the year luncheon was hard, too, even to people I know I will see again. Our time will never be the same as those years spent teaching together.
Our next door neighbor’s wife had been gone for over a month and we were starting to think she had left him. When he came over to ask us to watch the house, we found out she has been out of town attending to her dying mother. A few days ago I saw my neighbor outside, who told me the news that the mother had finally died, three days before her daughter’s birthday. I felt so sad for her, knowing that her birthday would forevermore be accompanied by such sadness. The next day we were told that our former principal’s mother had also passed away, less than a year after her father’s passing, which was also less than a year after her brother’s death. Those goodbyes are perhaps the most poignant, the final goodbye.
I knew it would be hard, but when I said goodbye to my daughter outside her dorm the very first year of college in Austin, I wanted to turn back time, back to those days when she was small enough that I could protect her from anything the world might throw her way. I cried the entire three hour drive back to Dallas, my husband sitting helplessly next to me, unsure of what to do or say. Even though she wasn’t that far away and I would see her often, I knew, deep in my heart, that things would never be the same again–and they weren’t. She grew up and didn’t need me as much, which is a good thing, but hard for a mother to accept. It’s hard to let go sometimes.
And there are the goodbyes you never get to say, when those you love are suddenly and inexplicably taken away by death.
There are all the goodbyes we’ve said to our childhood pets, and to those we’ve had as adults. My good friend, Carol, a fellow teacher, inadvertently killed both of her fire-bellied toads, Twodee and Fruity, on the last day of school. She cried all morning, until one of her second graders yelled out, “Let’s get a fish!” She couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of the comment on the last day of school.
My dad’s job transferred him from Dallas to Massachusetts the summer after sixth grade. It was a grand adventure for all of us. Our street was at the end of a cul-de-sac and it was teeming with kids. We spent the entire summer biking, swimming, chasing, digging, and doing everything kids should do, from dawn to dusk, outside and barefoot. It was the summer of the Munich Olympics, and one night our neighbor, a former National Geographic photographer, took us all outside and showed us the Northern Lights, something we knew we’d never see in Texas. It was also the summer of my first crush, when Chris, the cute newspaper boy across the street, would come out at dusk and we would sit against the fence in my front yard in the dark (with my dad nervously peeking out the window) and look at the stars and talk about Lost in Space, Time Tunnel, Star Trek, and Land of the Giants. A few months later, when my dad got transferred back to Dallas, I sat in the U-haul truck with all our furniture piled in the back and cried as I said goodbye to Chris and the best summer of my life. As we drove away and I looked out the window through the tears I tried to hide, Seals and Crofts sang We May Never Pass this Way Again on the radio (I swear I’m not making this up), and I knew that I would never be the same again. That song will forever be the soundtrack to that lost summer–and I never did return to Chicopee Falls, MA.
There are the goodbyes you say when you realize you must move on from a relationship, and the goodbyes you’re cheated out of when you get dumped by a lover. Cry me a river doesn’t even come close sometimes.
So many goodbyes. Before I closed the door to my classroom for the last time yesterday, I stopped and looked around at the empty room, remembering all the other rooms I had taught in. So very many memories . . . I said goodbye to room 201 and to teaching, turned in my keys, and went home and had a good cry. It was exactly what I needed to do.
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.
Continuing the topic of joy . . . Three weeks ago I took an incentive pay package and quit my job. It is one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. After 19 years of teaching in the same downtown neighborhood, it was time to go. I couldn’t deny the fact that my job wasn’t making me happy any longer, and that it had been years since I had looked forward to going to work every morning. That’s a miserable place to be. Life is too short to settle for the security of a regular paycheck in a job that no longer brings you joy. I kept hoping some new type of job would show itself, that the universe would hear my call and answer it for me, but either I missed the signs or it never happened. Finally, even though it felt like one foot was dangling off the edge of a cliff, I decided to stop letting others call the shots and start doing what was best for me. After a sleepless night and three good cries, I turned in the paperwork and said goodbye to teaching. By lunchtime I wondered why I hadn’t done it years ago.
Though I’m still teaching until June 3 and will get paid through the end of August, it’s the great unknown of afterwards that makes me nervous. I have to say, however, that I’m excited about the possibilities of all the things I could do with the rest of my life. It’s like the way I feel every New Years Day, the expectancy of change and renewal, and the chance to start fresh. In truth, we have that chance every single day that we’re alive, but how many of us take that chance and make those changes in our lives? I never thought I was strong enough to make such a huge change–until I actually did. In the end, it feels like I have the chance to find myself again–and what could be more joyous than that?