Note: I hope this answers the questions I’ve been getting about my plans for the upcoming year. I apologize for not answering sooner, and I’m sorry for the length of my response and my tendency to ramble. This is long. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. ;)
How many times have I attempted to write this post? I can’t even guess. It’s been on my mind every day since we moved out to Chicago this past June, and I’ve been putting it off—unsure of how to go about writing it—for just as long. Yesterday was September 2nd, the first official school day for children in the Chicago Public Schools system. And yet I wasn’t in front of a classroom, like I have been every September for the last seven years.
I joined the New York City Teaching Fellows back in 2007. If you haven’t heard of it, the NYCTF program is similar to Teach for America. It educates and certifies recent college grads and “career changers,” and places them in hard-to-staff inner-city schools in New York’s five boroughs. At the time, I was feeling unfulfilled in my job as an online editor and down in the dumps about the monotony of my day-to-day. Life inside my cubicle seemed meaningless, and I wanted to make a change. The NYCTF program—which I learned about from a subway advertisement—seemed like the answer. And it was.
Don’t get me wrong; my first year teaching middle school English in the South Bronx was incredibly difficult, and came with its own set of unique challenges. I had three 90-minute classes that were mostly full of over-aged eighth grade students, many with extreme behavioral and emotional problems. (Some of them legitimately terrified me. Heck, one of my kids lit a worksheet on fire that year.) Most came from broken, poverty-stricken families, and had had their innocence ripped away at a terribly young age. Crime, drugs and violence were real parts of their worlds, and, understandably, it was survival—not school—that was often their main concern.
Here I was—this timid, petite blonde girl who’d been offered opportunity after opportunity throughout her life, expecting these kids to listen and relate to her. Please. Instead, they sensed my inexperience and fear… and, as a result, did anything but respect me. To make matters worse, I had almost no support in my classroom. The administrators had too much on their plates, and the parents were largely absent. I called our security officers for backup constantly, and on a few occasions, even had to stand at the door and scream for help. I’d had four weeks of off-site training before starting my job, but any fool could see that I was vastly unprepared for it.
I have this vivid memory from my first year: I’m standing in the middle of my empty classroom during lunch, dialing my father’s number on my cell phone. A physical fight has just occurred in my room, and I’m shaken. Books and garbage are strewn across the floor. I’m at my breaking point, and physically exhausted. (At night, I’m taking graduate school classes in Brooklyn to fulfill New York’s certification requirements for teachers, and what little “free time” I have left is spent commuting back to my tiny apartment on the Upper East Side, lesson planning and grading. Today, I’m running on about four hours of sleep.) Right as Dad picks up, a brown mouse crawls across a couple of battered novels, and I completely lose it. Absolute hysterics. Poor Dad.
That year was pretty disastrous. I made a zillion mistakes, embarrassed myself on countless occasions, and fostered a chaotic learning environment. I thought about quitting every day, but sometime around May or June during our unit on Elie Wiesel’s Night, I realized that I was just where I was supposed to be. While I was beaten down and worn out, I had survived. And I now had a sense of purpose.
Sure, every day was still a battle, and I was just barely keeping my head above water. But my students were starting to trust me, and they were actually making some gains in writing and reading. From each and every one of my failures, I’d learned something invaluable: how to create a safe, nurturing classroom environment and quickly diffuse dangerous situations; the importance of delivering interesting, engaging and relatable lessons, and why it’s necessary to explain how particular skills will help students both now and later in life; the value in having clear expectations and being tough yet compassionate; how to motivate at-risk teens; the importance of having a sense of humor; and why it’s imperative to get to know students as people… and to open yourself up to them. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to hit the ground running the following school year. (After a good, long summer of recovery, of course.)
It would be lovely if this story followed the same plot that nearly every inspirational teacher movie does: New Teacher enters school or situation full of hope and new, innovative ideas. New Teacher is up against all odds. New Teacher realizes few people believe in her. New Teacher initially fails. New Teacher tries other methods. Eventually, New Teacher is able to get students to trust her. Students are inspired and motivated. Students learn. Students succeed. Students teach New Teacher important life lesson. Everybody hugs; the end.
And in some ways, maybe it does.
In the four years that followed, classroom management and teaching became much easier, and I came to love my job. (I actually enjoyed going to work!) Did I make more mistakes? Yes. Did I experience more failure? Yes. Could I have written a book about all the crazy sh*t I witnessed and dealt with? Yes. But I tried not to dwell on the shocking, upsetting and heartbreaking incidents. Instead, I chose to focus on the time my lowest performing class reenacted the trial of Tom Robinson from To Kill a Mockingbird, and passionately deliberated as a jury for an hour and a half without my assistance. Or the time a struggling student outlined and wrote a five-paragraph essay on a theme found in Of Mice and Men. Or the time my kids spent a week perfecting their letters to Holocaust survivors, and cried when they received responses. Or the time I watched a student perform at the Gotham Comedy Club in Manhattan—his ultimate dream. Or the time I sat with my girls, having heart-to-hearts, discussing fashion, helping them set up their own blogs, and letting them do my hair. Or the time I received a grant for Kindles, read The Hunger Games with my students, and then took them to the theaters to see the movie. Or every time I’ve been visited by or received an email from a past student, filling me in on what’s going on in his or her life. I hope I’ve made an impact on the students I’ve taught over the years, because they’ve had a huge impact on me. They’ve taught me so much about the world and myself, and they’ve helped me appreciate all that I’ve been blessed with. Without them, I’d be a very different person than I am today.
But there’s an unexpected plot twist in my inner-city teaching story: I don’t want to do it anymore.
Every time I say or type it, a wave of guilt and sadness washes over me. How could I not want to help underprivileged youth anymore? What kind of a person am I to walk away from something that took me so long to get right? Don’t I remember how I used to feel, all cooped up in that cubicle, not making a difference? Who will take care of my kids? How many people am I letting down? But the fact of the matter is that my heart just isn’t in it anymore. And a burnt-out teacher helps no one.
When I first drafted this post, I wrote three full pages on the factors that contributed to my decision to take a break from teaching. But this is a blog, not a book, so I ended up deleting them. On those pages, though, I explained that things really began to spiral out of control for me about two years ago. I talked about the negative school culture, the corruption, the power trips, the hypocrisy, the incompetency, the lack of basic materials, and the loss of creative freedom in the classroom. I talked about how priority was far too often placed on standardized testing and the school’s appearance—and not the students’ academic or emotional wellbeing. I talked about unprofessionalism, and how higher ups seemed unqualified for their jobs. I talked about how an overabundance of paperwork, pointless meetings and tedious data entry tasks ate up my time, and detracted from improving my instruction and my ability to provide extra help to struggling students. I talked about mismanagement of school funds, and how our precious budget was wasted on consultants and curricula that didn’t account for our population’s interests and needs. I talked about the unreasonable expectations placed on teachers and students alike. I talked about how there was a lack of support and appreciation for the people who sacrificed so much to make the school a better place. I talked about how often I was talked down to, and treated like a child. I talked about teachers living their professional lives in fear and how some were even hospitalized as a result of the stress. I talked about spiteful emails and yellow sticky notes with nasty messages on them; constant negative feedback and little constructive criticism. I talked about dishonesty, cheating, illegal activities, and tearing people down instead of building them up. I talked about the consequences that came along with speaking up, how the school was run like a prison, and why so many of our best teachers left in droves. Finally, I talked about how I probably should have switched schools when all of this eventually started to get to me. (Listen, I get it. The city and state were coming down on our school on account of its yearly review; student, parent and teacher surveys; and performance on standardized tests. I won’t pretend that I have some magic solution to all the problems we faced, and I can’t imagine how difficult it is to manage a failing school. But a more upbeat approach would have been helpful.)
The one thing I didn’t talk about? The students. They were a handful, but unquestioningly the best part of my days.
Last year was the hardest year of my life. I was deeply unhappy at work and felt extraordinarily guilty about robbing my students of an actual education. As a result, I suffered with depression and anxiety, and found everyday life to be overwhelming and futile. For those of you who haven’t met me in person, I’m generally very cheerful, positive and easygoing. (So much so that my friends often tease me about it.) But last year, it was as if my flame had flickered and then gone out all together. A black cloud seemed to follow me wherever I went, and the gloom seeped into every facet of my personal life. All of a sudden, I had no interest in the activities that had once brought me great joy. I found it difficult to have conversations with friends and family, and had to exert a crazy amount of effort just to fake my way through social functions that I normally would have enjoyed. I was constantly angry, and I overreacted, lashed out, and cried on a regular basis. I also felt like I wasn’t pulling my weight in my marriage—by far, the most important and wonderful part of my life. All I wanted to do was sit on the couch and stare at the television. Who was this girl with a short fuse and no enthusiasm for life? I didn’t recognize her.
Things were even worse at school. I taught to best of my ability and truly cared for my students, but toward the end, I was brash, impatient, and unwilling to put up with everything else that came along with the job. I skipped meetings that I deemed to be a waste of time, ignored emails and memos I found to be unreasonable and ridiculous, “forgot” to complete mind-numbing paperwork, neglected my classroom, altered lessons that I didn’t have permission to change, and was rude to my superiors when I felt that they had wronged my students or me. When pressed for the reason for my behavior, I said I was just finally sticking up for what I believed in. But when I really think about it, I’d sunk to their level, and I was often defiant just for the sake of being defiant. What was the final straw that drove me to this? I can’t figure that out. And why couldn’t I have handled things differently? I’m not sure. All I can say is that somewhere along the line, I’d shut down and given up.
I almost quit in late March. I came so close that I even told the dean that I likely wouldn’t finish out the year. I took a couple of days off to clear my head, and ended up returning. But I made it clear that I was only there for the students. Less than a month later, Mitch was offered a job in Chicago, and a huge burden was lifted from my shoulders. I couldn’t go back to the Bronx. We were moving. It was out of my control. Still, when I look back on my time there, I’m disappointed in myself and saddened by how it ended. I had so many great experiences there over the years, and yet I allowed negativity to get the best of me at the finish line. I wish I had tried another school, or at least found the strength to go out on a positive note. But just like I learned from my first year of teaching, mistakes bring about growth. And with any hope, I’ll become a better person from my missteps and shortcomings.
Over the summer, I considered applying to the Chicago Public Schools system more than once. I used to love teaching, I reminded myself. I was passionate about it. Surely I could reignite my spark with the help of the right school. But I ultimately decided that I wasn’t ready yet. I was still too angry, too tired, and too defeated.
I remember telling my mother that I’d decided to take a break, and do something else this year: freelance writing, editing and photography; creating custom albums and other printed products; and taking on more blog-related opportunities. Basically, anything that didn’t involve getting reamed out so often. “You need this,” Mom said in support. “You can always go back.”
And she’s right. Maybe in a year’s time, I’ll be good to go, and I’ll truly want to return to the classroom. But for now, I need to work on getting “me” back. I know that the peppy, happy girl I used to be is still somewhere inside. I just need to coax her out.
P.S. – Mitch, who is a much stronger person than I am, is working in the Chicago Public Schools system this year! We’re currently trying to raise money for his classroom, and every dollar we collect is appreciated. Donate to the cause here! (OH MY GOODNESS. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you! Mitch and I are floored by your generosity and thoughtfulness, and can’t get over how quickly the project was completed. For those of you who have asked about how to donate now that the project is closed, here is a new one. Again, thank you!)
Edit: There were many, many amazing people who I worked with during my teaching career in New York. They shouldn’t go unmentioned. They cared so much about the kids, and inspired me daily. I’m forever grateful for the lessons they taught me as well as their guidance, friendship and support. Thank you.