Survivor: Public School Edition



I bumped into an old teacher friend of mine, Maggie, at the supermarket the other day and that’s what precipitated this reflection upon our profession. As any teacher would do the same, I asked her how the year was going. She proceeded to regale me with the horrific tales of 3rd grade. Never in my most insidious nightmares could I have imagined a scenario where the events she was describing would occur. For context, I work in a challenging urban high school that consistently under-performs on high stakes testing. The behavior problems which I encounter, while horrifying in their own right, just didn’t compare to what she was telling me. Maggie works in an “urban light” public elementary school about thirty minutes away from my school. She told me about how administrators spend most of their time holding the teachers together and keeping them from breaking. One of her colleagues, next door, sustained multiple contusions and scratches from a 3rd grader who kicked, punched, scratched & spit on her while he screamed because he wanted something another student had and was going to strike that student, had the teacher not intervened. Apparently behaviorally, this is a regular occurrence for this kid. Meanwhile, this teacher has tons of curriculum to actually teach these cherubs while dealing with this ticking time bomb of a child daily. Every morning this teacher has to brace herself for what this child might literally throw at her. This is mental and emotional abuse. No one should have to deal with this as their job. This is an unhealthy & toxic environment. Telling this teacher she is a saint is not helping. When we don’t meet those super teacher expectations because they are absolutely impossible, it makes us feel inadequate and like failures. Now, this is just one child in a class of over twenty. Let’s move on to the emotional shitters.

Now, I didn’t know that this was even a thing. I work at the high school level and have a new appreciation for older children after having this conversation. I’m not by any means, poking fun at these children because I have no idea what is going on there but I will say this: it shouldn’t be going on in an elementary school classroom outside of the occasional emergency accident. It just shouldn’t be on the ever-growing list of shit (pun intended) that teachers have to do and deal with. Apparently they have three, yes I said three, children in that school that poop themselves deliberately when they get angry. What is going on there? Rhetorical question there folks; I don’t really want to know. This is the shit that we deal with? Literally. I know that was bad but I had to. If you can’t find the humor in the everyday drudgery, you will go mad or miserable or both. It’s a bit much though to expect teachers to be potty trainers in the classroom as well as psychologists and behavioral specialists. Those are whole other tracks of education and different degrees. They don’t want to pay us a fair price for the ones we’ve got now! Which complicates our careers substantially as they grow longer. For such educated professionals, we don’t have many career options once you get into a position.

Maggie and I discussed what our plans were for surviving the second half of our careers, as leaving schools is not the most viable option for teachers with a decade or more into a district. As most educators will tell you, it becomes very difficult to find another school that will pay you at the same step you are earning in your current district. It’s much cheaper to hire brand new, inexperienced teachers. Plus, if you work in an urban district then you are likely making more and taking a substantial pay cut to move to a suburban or rural district is simply not a choice that most can make. So you are kind of trapped and I’m pretty sure that’s how they designed it. Maggie has an additional certification on her teaching license that may enable her to bid for a reading specialist position in the future that would give her a smaller student caseload and provide her with the opportunity to actually be able to work with students that need extra help in a separate setting. She feels ineffectual now with so much going on in one classroom. I can relate.

Teaching secondary ELA in a standardized testing environment has become disheartening. A teacher begins to feel like too little butter spread over too much bread. You begin to realize that you’re not really teaching anymore; you’re triaging. You try to sew 3-5 year achievement gaps closed like still bleeding wounds, knowing that’s all there is time for. They need to be passed onto the next so you can now repeat the process with the next set. You feel purposeless because your purpose has become warped, overworked, stretched and doesn’t resemble what it was when it first started. This is not teaching. It’s dotting i’s and crossing t’s. More and more tasks and responsibilities thrown on our desks yet there is less and less accountability on the other side of those desks. When students come in with less, teachers are expected to do more. We can’t make excuses but students can use any single one in the book and the school hands out crutches in exchange, while teachers are lectured on those same students’ low grades. Its maddening.

I have been told that I shouldn’t use zeroes when grading missing student work. I have been told that a zero is too demoralizing and that the student should receive maybe, half credit…for doing nothing. I have been asked by guidance counselors to allow students to turn in work almost two months late because the student didn’t feel like working then but is worried about passing now. I have sat in professional development and been told by administrators that we shouldn’t take it personally when a student tells us to go f**k ourselves. I have had students play on a cell phone all of class despite repeated re-direction but then expect me to stay after school on my own time, to explain to them what they chose not to pay attention to. I have been witness to teachers getting punched, sworn at, physically attacked, maced (that one time), tires that have gotten slashed and all of these students were able to return to school after various lengths of time. I’ve been asked by administrators what a student can do to pass my class when they’ve been absent over 30 days before mid-year. My answer was, “I have no idea how a student that has missed that much instruction could pass.”

The expectation is that the teacher overlook the missing work but they can’t tell you directly to do that because it’s technically illegal, not to mention immoral, unethical and inequitable to every other student in the school that managed to get it done despite what they all have going on at home and in their personal lives. I’ve got some real scrappy kids, just trying to survive like anyone else. Those students overcome their challenging contexts and succeed. They also don’t act like assholes to others that are trying to support their success. Those students are so few though. Too many are enabled and absolved of their own personal accountability because of the school’s desperation to just get them across the stage with a diploma, even if it’s been discounted by 90% off. So they get a diploma. So what? Where do they go? What do they do after high school? I guess that’s not my jurisdiction but if they’re not prepared for life after school then we didn’t do our job as a school. We didn’t meet our purpose. We are not meeting our purpose and I am feeling purposeless in a sea of school chaos and apathy like I have never seen in my building. How do I survive? Do I keep swimming with drive & renewed purpose until I burn out and drown or can I manage to just bob and float around at the whim of the current until I’m finally brought to the safe shores of retirement and my pension?

If you’re a good teacher, it’s impossible to not care. Giving a damn is reflexive. That doesn’t, however, make us martyrs and objects to abuse simply because it can be gotten away with. I don’t have all the answers but I do know that you have to come first. Your health and well being is paramount. No one should tell you otherwise. Take mental health days; that’s what sick & personal time is for. Look into leaving your school if it’s that bad; you never know what is out there and what you might find. See what your options are before cloaking it in impossibility. Talk to a therapist; so many teachers see them and they totally get us. They are very good at teaching us how to take care of ourselves. Get fit; the gym is a great way to stay active, produce endorphins and sweat out frustration and hostility. Yoga & meditation are also beneficial on many levels for the self. Purge your negative emotions and thoughts; either through writing, venting or maybe just yelling out loud, get that stuff out of your system. I don’t think it’s ever too late for a career change. I used fitness as a means to treat my depression and anxiety and it naturally became a coping mechanism for my stress at work. Since it has been my lifestyle now for almost a decade, I am seriously considering obtaining my certification to teach physical education. I have a passion for it that I can convey to my students and that content area would remove me from the realm of high stakes testing for the latter half of my career. This could be my renewed purpose. This could be my survival plan for teaching and in the current era of education, we need a survival plan.     

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