That was the first interview question I remember being asked for the first job I would accept as a high school teacher. I cooly responded to the question, unflinching, aware that this question was a tactical maneuver by the vice principal, a test of my resolve and a test of my decorum. I am white, female and barely reach five feet without heels. Today, ten years after I was asked this question, I look as though I’m in my early twenties. Ten years ago I must have looked barely old enough for high school myself, and yet I was applying to teach in a run-down, all special education high school in Southeast DC, just a short bus ride away from the Anacostia metro station. It was 2007 and I had no experience as a teacher.
Today, I would never accept a job from a man who asked me this question. Such questions, I now know, are a harbinger of disorganization and smack of defeatism and resignation. Ten years after that interview, my willingness to put up with the indignities of being a teacher in some of DC’s toughest schools has worn me down and pushed me away from the profession. I would never exchange the ten years I have spent in the classroom for anything else, but I must admit that, for me, the burden of teaching has finally caught up with me.
I started teaching because I am a problem solver. In college, I read Jonathan Kozol and took classes about the inequities in America. So I decided that if I wanted to complain about these injustices, I had better become a part of the solution to them. As a senior in college, I felt I had absolutely nothing to contribute to the world apart from my outrage. So, driven by my indignation, I applied for, and was accepted to the DC Teaching Fellows, a fast track teacher training program. With my degree in Political Science and my sincerely collected interview answer to the question I started this piece with, I became a history teacher in the fall of 2007.
I became a teacher with a wide threshold for disorganization and terrible working conditions. I was, and remain, unperturbed by the stories, and personal experiences, of students who cussed me out, threw my books out of the classroom window, wrestled in hallways, punched walls, started fights, and, even, once at the end of that first year, hit me so hard I was sore for days. Baby-faced though I might be, I was never afraid of anything that was coming.
A decade of teaching will produce more than good stories. It will produce insight, confidence, organization and high caliber teaching practices. It will create opportunities to travel, to witness humanity at its most profound and it’s most depraved. And it will not necessarily produce any meaningful change. Today, I live in with a fear I never expected to encounter; the fear that all of my hard work has amounted to very little. I fear that my insistence that my students read, and that they write research papers, my determination to provoke them to critical thinking has contributed far less than I thought to their success. Looking back over ten years, there are very few, if any, lives that I “changed.” Most of the students I taught are now grateful for the skills they learned in my class, but there are not legions of college grads who owe their success to the work my colleagues and I did.
The fear that will drive me from my classroom at the end of the 2016-2017 school year is the fear that the hard work I put into my classroom was not enough when pitted against the forces of a disengaged and segregated society.
My first year teaching was also Michelle Rhee’s first year as DCPS’ chancellor. The winds of change, of reform and, more importantly of hope, blew fiercely through the halls of the schools I taught at. And yet, I know that too many of the success boasted of by schools and by educators like me are little more than polite interpretations of the same data scores. I know that because nearly half of all enrolled students in my school miss their first period class because of tardiness, first period now starts thirty minutes later than it did at the start of the school year. I know that students who fail my class in the first quarter can simply show up to school for four Saturdays in a row under the tutelage of an administrator, can finish forgotten assignments, write a one page summary, and then have their grade changed. I know that students with GPAs under a 2.0 can be accepted into colleges who do not have resources to help them. I know that most of my students will in fact be accepted into college, but will not graduate college. I know that the economic forces of poverty beat down the backs of my students, embittering them and holding them hostage.
I went into teaching emboldened to ignore economic systems and societal pressure because I believed that I could become a great teacher and that great teachers could transform individual experiences and trajectories. Now, I am afraid that the systems I once ignored crept into my classroom and the schools I worked for when I wasn’t looking, when I was hard at work teaching thesis statements. Too much of what I see in my school today are exactly what I saw ten years ago. While I have had much politer interview questions, I have never had one that was so brutally honest, albeit resigned. I cannot help but wonder what my government and school leaders were doing for the last ten years. I cannot help but fear that too many of them were resigned to a system that does that have high expectations for low income students and so gives them a pass out of sympathy and guilt.
I do not know how to transform our city’s school system but I do think that a nation that can rescue humanity from the clutches of death’s door by infection and send men to the moon can do great deal more to help the lives of nearly a third of the people who live here.
Next fall, my identity as problem solver will lead me to become a student again, as a graduate student for public policy. My decade old identity as teacher will lead me to speak up loudly in the hopes that I can provide some honest insight into how desperate the need is for a transformed school system.