Nine years ago, I wandered the aisles of Staples filled with glee and uncertainty for my first year of teaching. I purchased three items: a purple stapler, a pencil holder with a name tag slot on the front and a pack of multicolor Pilot pens for grading. That Friday in my empty classroom, I envisioned students learning and laughing together under my influence. A field of possibility! I placed pens in that black metal holder and wrote my name clearly in red on the name tag. Thus beginning my identity as Ms. C. I left at noon oblivious to the avalanche that would tumble through my door the next nine years.
My first year was a roller coaster or maybe a volcano is the best way to explain it. I taught a 7th grade Reading Intervention class. Imagine all the students that don’t quite fit into your classes slammed into one room with the label of “reading below grade level”. This was my clientele. A combination of unpredictable personalities waiting to explode at any minute. As tumultuous as this year was, remember that I was fresh out of idealistic grad school, I did many things well. We put television on trial for the portrayal of African Americans–a risky, controversial move that I only got away with because of who and what I taught. We wrote historical journals from the perspective of Holocaust survivors, Nazi soldiers, and German citizens. We held a memorial service for child soldiers. We took a field trip to a local bookstore to explore poetry.
While all this was happening, I broke up six fights: 5 outside my classroom door, one inside. In between my fourth and fifth period, I cried in the faculty bathroom. I worked till 8pm almost every night. I ate Lean Cuisine meals and wore suits to school to look the part. Through it all, I believed it was possible. Genuine. Experiential. Education. My passion overcame my hurt, stress, and frustrations. It’s not that bad, I would say. I lived in an oblivious bliss about standardized tests that year, teaching with my heart instead of my head.
Looking back, it’s easy to see how each layer burned away with each year wearing me down in the process. Teaching the way I wanted while preparing students for the test and keeping all constituents happy became arduous. Between parents, administration, collaborating with teachers whose philosophies were different than mine, I watched my idealism melt away. Dripping gently into a puddle of apathy. Slowly I began to want certain test scores to show others my value as a teacher. Slowly I began to drill skills, skills, skills instead of relevant connections to real life. Field trips became stressful to pull together because of the sheer volume of students that I was expected to take with me. As my class sizes grew, the system remained the same. My general education inclusion and English language learner students tested on unfair and biased content; I started to put space between me and the job. The job I thought was going to be the last job I have. The job that I believed would make a difference in this world. One that would influence others into dreaming big and making this world a place they could be proud of. I withdrew. Allowing apathy refuge in my core. I did my job; I laughed with my students, however experiential learning was sacrificed for test scores and covering the “curriculum”.
Once upon a time I had 8th graders perform memorized scenes of Taming of the Shrew! I sanctioned genuine experimentation of student writers with a Writing Core requirement in which they experimented with two-three types of writing monthly.
Then one day I woke to a world in conflict with my belief and saw how this world that I continued to work within had stripped me. The erosion happened so slowly that it was barely noticeable year to year. I was sitting in a CLT (Collaborative Learning Team) in February, when my assistant principal discussed the need to use our planning time to remediate students. It was three months before the state exam. I shook my head silently. Mentally listing all the duties that are on my list that are not in my job description, I inhaled to gain composure. Back in my classroom, I stared at the painting—a product of a senior project from my second year. I knew it was time to take a break and reevaluate. The job I loved. The same one I observed my mom perform for decades had changed. I left school that day eyes wide open and confident in my decision.
Though the job had changed, I also realized months later that, actually, I had too. Thanks to the prescribed curriculum stifling my creativity, I was apathetic. Thanks to the pressure on all of us to get certain scores out of sometimes impossible situations, I was apathetic. Thanks to parents who want to see their children reading only the “classics” in 7th grade, I was apathetic. I was exhausted from fighting for less testing and more teacher autonomy with administration and parents and sometimes even colleagues. Burnt out and depressed, I started my count down to the year’s end.
Most teachers say fight for what’s right, speak up, tell the government. Look at MLK Jr., Gandhi, Chavez! While I’m certainly on this bandwagon, I am also on the wagon that gives me a calm life. One that is less explosive and more still. So, yes I want to see a change in education and I hope that my experiences show that the path we are on in America will leave us with so much erosion that it will take us decades to reconstruct.
When I look in the mirror and see the lines of gray that have sprouted in my hair, equally present is the passionate twenty-six year old bursting for experiential education. To be both I must rest knowing that it may or may not be the end of my teaching career. Teaching is my core and it won’t be washed away! Instead today I stand solidly composed of my decision minus the lava of testing, large class sizes, Special Education, and English Language Learners inside me and hope to see change in my lifetime.