“you can never be overdressed or overeducated.”
I sit here at my kitchen table early on a Saturday morning, thinking about the last two weeks of my life. This time two weeks ago, I was at school making photocopies in anticipation of my first day of teaching. Now, the first two weeks are done and I can say pretty confidently that I am not the same person.
First, this is the first real job I’ve ever had. I spent the “lost year” of my life working retail and at a restaurant. This job is entirely different just in having set days I work every week, which don’t technically involve weekends (but I’m pretty sure I’ll be using my weekends to get ready for school) or holidays. I get a salary. The same amount of money every paycheck, which unfortunately only comes once a month. Guess I’ll really have to learn to budget.
I work with a LOT of other people. Between teachers, staff, janitors, the cafeteria workers and many other employees, there are at least 100 different people working in my building on any given day. I’ve spent the last two weeks trying to learn all these new names and it has admittedly been a struggle. And everyone is coming from different places. There are about 19 teachers new to our building this year, well over half the staff. The veterans are returning on the heels of a rough year of poor student performance and lackluster culture amongst the team. It is hard to navigate the many different feelings we are all coming into this year with and to keep in mind that coming into work every day means something different for each one of us.
I had a limited amount of time this summer to learn as much as I could about teaching, about managing a classroom, about seeking out ways to continually improve, about being a mentor for my kids, about being the “transformational change” my students needed. To be fully honest, this summer was a great experience. I co-taught with some amazing people and a lot of our students made significant gains in our short weeks together. I learned to love my 5th graders and I think by the end of the summer, they were pretty fond of me too.
But here? It is a completely different story. My school is in a tough neighborhood. One of my best friends here teaches at an elementary school less than a mile away from me. During the last few days of summer break, he was in preparing his classroom for this students to return. The custodians, however, were at school repairing a bullet hole in a window of the school. This is at an elementary school, where children as young as kindergarden come to learn every day. If you drove from his school to my school that last week of summer break, you would have passed a makeshift memorial for a young man murdered on the street corner just down the block from my school. There are 11, 12 year old students that grow up in this neighborhood, live in this neighborhood, walk home from school in this neighborhood every single day.
Students in my class that are incredibly far behind. When the bell rings and my class starts, there is not a single child sitting in any one of my classes that reads on grade level. Not a single one. Every student I teach does not meet the state standards for proficiency. It is one thing to talk in hypotheticals about “the achievement gap” and the children that is claims victim, but it is entirely different to try to coach a 7th grader through “Cat in the Hat” and watch him struggle to decode the words. The kids in my class cannot spell the simplest of words. I spend a lot of time simply trying to guess what they were trying to say because so much of their writing is poorly organized, spelled incorrectly and written in illegible penmanship.
There are also a lot of kids in my classes that absolutely hate school. And not only do they hate school, but they want to tell me how much they hate it every chance they get. My students and I will have dialogue journals this year, which will allow them to write about whatever they want while getting that all important practice of putting pen to paper . They each have their own personal journal, in which they are free to write in whatever way they see fit. Every few days, they will write in their journals and turn them in. Once they turn them in, I will respond to each student, thus creating an individual dialogue with each student. The first journal I opened said, “This is stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid. You are stupid. I hate this school.” Well, we’re off to a good start with dialogue journals I’d say! My 7th graders think I’m using the journals to punish them because their past teachers have never required them to write before. They quite literally think I am attempting to upset them by asking them to write a page about themselves. I hand out two page stories for them to read and they groan, asking if I seriously expect them to read that much.
As frustrated as I get at times when they continually refuse to do the assigned classwork, it also makes me incredibly sad. They hate reading and writing because their schools have failed them. They don’t want to read because they really don’t know how to. My kids are in my class for 2 hours and 12 minutes a day for Language Arts. About 75% of them are also in another Reading Intervention class for an additional 66 minutes, where we work on things like vowel sounds, prefixes and suffixes. They are humiliated to be 12 years old and learning how to read words with a long A vowel. I understand their frustration, if I were them I would be angry too. I know we’ll get there, that we’ll start to feel comfortable reading and writing, but it sure is going to take us a long time.
I hope that what I’ve said doesn’t create the impression that my students aren’t intelligent, because they are so bright. They are smart, funny, interesting people who deal with more in one day than I do in a month. As hard as my days are, I still think it’s an honor to be with them every day. Well, the vast majority at least. As one of my fellow teachers told her class this week, “You find new ways to disrespect and disappoint me with your behavior every single day.” And she’s right — there are some kids in my class who straight up do NOT know how to behave. We are starting to make the move towards being well behaved and engaged, but there are still a lot of times when that’s not the case. It is a constant struggle to keep them in their seats, reading or writing, not throwing things at each other and being respectful to me.
We got our state assessment data back this week and the school that I teach at is officially the worst school in my entire school district. We fail to properly educate more students every year than any other single school in our district. It is tough to start teaching at a school with that reputation, but it is important that I take some ownership of that number, since they are my kids now too. I’m still figuring out how to do this whole teaching thing, which certainly makes every day interesting! But I know that I’ll get there. I have a lot of support, which I am thankful for every day, and I have a lot of kids counting on me to teach them. Only 167 school days left!