The Grass Isn’t Always Greener

There is an old saying that goes, “be careful what you wish for, you might get it.”

While working for the past few years in the “hyper-reformist” environment you speak of, I left last summer and have been working at another inner-city public high school in a different school district. I walked away for many reasons, most personal, but I know well, the circus show of which you speak. I remember the daily meetings at my old school because over time they were cattle-branded into my memory through attrition; long, 30 minute sequences of daily smack-downs can change a person. I remember the once monthly staff meetings, round-ups of youngsters and do-gooders over tables of cheap snacks, the administration sequestered in their own tables up front, staring at everyone, making G Dub type- decisions of who was “with them or against them.” I remember the bi-weekly initiatives that were shoved down our teacher throats; I always looked for the Post-It note attached to these documents and protocols that might say “Do it- or get out.” I remember being told that I was being written up for having a “can’t” attitude in a meeting because I expressed concern that my autistic student could not keep up with the AP-For-All English class in which he was enrolled, and of which I was the teacher. I remember the back-stabbing, the pettiness, the administrators with two or three years classroom experience, telling veterans how to do their jobs. But most of all, I remember the coldness of the cement walls of the brand-new exquisite building, and the sound of my principal’s high heels go clank, clank down the entire hallway without stopping once to check in on her incredible teaching staff, or say hello to a student. More than once I muttered to myself- shame on her.

So, to leave and move on sounded like the best option last summer, because who would mind leaving all of this behind? We all love freedom; I was tired of doggedly being ridden like a draft horse in a desert. It will be different someplace else, I thought.

This year I have again been stricken sick in the stomach by some of the ills I saw at my previous school. But it is quite different here. I teach a small group of affluent white children this year for the first time in my career. They attend my inner city public school because their parents believe they have a better chance of getting into college if they are top of their class at a public school rather than than competing within a “tougher” group in a private school for ranking and resume building to get into college. In the past I taught only Hispanic and black children, and I, due to my own engrained bias, expected chaos, instability, drugs, embattled lives, absent parents, teen pregnancy, and low expectations in my inner city Washington, DC school where I taught. I expected this because the public conversation of this country has told the tale of a neglected and unable “hood” culture in our country since I can remember.

However, recently I spoke to three parents of middle-class white children because their kids are failing my class. As it turns out, all three are addicted to drugs. They are children of divorce. Their parents are hanging onto these children by a thread weighted down by medication, bipolar disorder, attempted suicide, sexual activity since 13, seizures due to drug overdose, neglect, running away from home, failed classes. So I am learning it is a country-wide epidemic of lost children we are dealing with, one that transcends racial and socio-economic lines.
The administration here unofficially practices a policy of placing all white kids mentioned above into “Pre-AP” or “Honors” level classes, despite their academic level. Mostly this results from the parents coming in and demanding their children are not put into the “ghetto classes.” As an English teacher I see students in my 10th grade Pre-AP level class who are at a 6th grade writing level at best, and students who write at a tenth grade level in my “on-level” class, as most “on-level” students do not have parents advocating for their placement and education. This is not to say my “Pre-AP” classes are 100% white, they are not. But the racial boundaries are drawn in a unique way here that has been a personal “teachable moment” for me regarding “equity” in the classroom, a favorite buzz word of reform.

I teach in a trailer that is falling apart at the seems (literally, cracking at its foundation) in the middle of the track field behind the school and my principal has never seen me teach. We have exchanged 5 sentences since August. The other day I was in the office and an administrator asked me if I was a student, “Who are you?” she said. I told her I was a teacher at her school and she sort of smiled and walked away. My classroom trailer had no working heat for two months of winter, and my door is permanently broken so the room remains unlocked overnight. As it has been broken into and vandalized already once this year, I don’t need to explain the anxiety of coming to work each day, wondering if my room has been trashed. When my room was destroyed earlier this year, my principal came by and laughed…”oh, these kids!” she said, while she watched me clean up, without lending her own hand to help.

While I am busy teaching and planning lessons, I believe it is the admin’s job to check on me, see how I am doing, and make the walk out to the trailer to get to know me as a staff member of their school.

No one has ever asked me for a lesson plan. We have scattershot meetings periodically. I don’t owe anyone data, or charts, or spreadsheets. I have never been officially or unoffically observed. All the time I think and wonder; I could be teaching about Jesus, or safe sex, and no one here would know, let alone give a damn. I have, however, met a few tremendous co-teachers, and they along with the kids of course, have made this experience worthwhile in the grander scheme of the journey.

So I guess I wished for more autonomy. And I got it. All I have ever wanted was to teach, and teach well, improving my craft yearly. But my constant worry is whether or not I will be a better, or worse, teacher when I leave here. At my old school I suffocated; here I stray aimlessly. Therefore I am left with more questions than answers. Is there a school for me? Is public education in America really this fucked? Should I stay teaching? Can I continue to weather the swift kicks to my ego and self-esteem this work constantly requires? Is it all worth it? And most of all- could I really do anything else?

I never thought I would ever say this, but I am going to: I almost miss structured observations.



7 responses to “The Grass Isn’t Always Greener

  1. I believe I understand your feelings here. I long for the school where the admin style is to provide a clear and relevant structure, while leaving teachers the freedom to develop the curriculum they see fit. In my current school, where I have been 6 years, I have never been evaluated, though I have been admonished on several occasions. The only good word I ever heard about my teaching from an admin was right before he admonished me for doing an assignment he didn’t like.

  2. i switched districts this year, and my thoughts and feelings are basically summed up in the last paragraph of this post. especially the worry about being better or worse, and if there is a good school out there. *sigh*

  3. I look on all schools as abusive relationships. Someone is always telling you at least 6 times a day that you are crap and worthless, or else you are being totally ignored. I always assume any accidental non-negative comment is sarcasm. Evidently we teachers need to get some collective psychotherapy.
    So come on people at least once a day, turn back and say “I am a good person. I am not crap. At least I’m better than you.” Stop letting the abusers send us into depression.
    It’s what we advise the kids…

  4. @Mr. Teacherbad: You’re not kidding–this new crop of stories that are coming in to this blog are fantastic.

    @Anon: Thanks for sharing your story. The fact that your principal didn’t know if you were a teacher or student made me really sad. I taught in P.G. County (which as you know is only slightly less screwed up than D.C.) for five years and moved to an upper class school in Broward County, FL, to try to maintain my sanity.

    Like you, I was surprised at how similar the upper class families’ problems are to the inner city families. It seems that rich white (and in my case, rich Colombian and Venezuelan) families are simply better at hiding their issues and putting on a good facade. The kids rarely came to school hungry or dirty and had less of a propensity to solve their problems with violence, but they were just as messed up emotionally. I also felt like I was floundering with so little feedback and structure.

    After two years of that, I went back to the inner city where at least there was a legitimate reason for teaching to be so tough. I lost some of my autonomy but I was happier. Like you, I discovered that the only thing worse than having someone breathe down your neck constantly to make sure your students are meeting standards is having no one supporting you at all and then holding you accountable at years’ end for student progress.

  5. Join the crowd on the heat. I have not had heat in 3 years….well, I have an “illegal” space heater, and went to Home Depot and bought 2 more, but because I the electrical system was built in the 1950s, they other two threw a breaker when plugged in with my and the teacher next door’s computers.
    I unplugged several other items, but alas, even one heater still pulled too much “juice.”
    Should be interesting this next week, we are expecting the coldest weather of the year with possible ice on Friday……I may just retire. I am too old a duck for this crap.

  6. These stories would never be believed by anyone outside of public education in this country. As absurd as teaching in a trailer with NO heat sounds, I know this is all too true…..

  7. Not a teacher, but these comments about the rich and poor families, reminds me of the U-curve my college sociology classes described. The theory was that the highest and lowest socioeconomic classes had a lot in common compared to the middle ones:

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