Here, I speak from my own experience and through my own perspective. I don’t feel that I speak for others. I certainly don’t speak for my husband. But as a liberal, union loving public school teacher, I feel it useful to explain how I have found myself teaching at the school I describe below. I am also partially calling out some poor leadership. Be warned.
I feel sheepish explaining the kind of school for which I am about to work. It is private. It serves families of a certain amount of privilege. There is an admissions process. There are not a lot of behavior issues. Rigor is high, and so is the monetary cost of attending. Graduation rates linger around 100%.
Why do I feel sheepish? Because I am a strong believer in American public school teachers and students. You will notice I didn’t say I am a believer in American public schools. That was a very deliberate use of language.
My experience in public education started eleven years ago. I was a recent grad of a masters program where I had earned my secondary social studies licensure. During student teaching, my supervisor from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota noted a few times that I had the right demeanor to work with struggling learners. I decided to give that a try after hearing back about zero of the applications I submitted around southern Minnesota. At that time, there were hundreds of applicants for social studies positions. Now we face a serious shortage in all content areas, but I will get to that later.
I accepted a position as a paraeducator (teacher’s assistant) in a self-contained program for students with significant behavioral and emotional needs. The teacher with whom I worked could be described as a sassy Mother Theresa. She had helped to develop this program. She took no shit, but she also loved her students, and they knew it. Her unerring consistency and support still acts as a guiding light for me, and for many other people who had the good fortune of witnessing her mastery.
That was the 2005-06 school year. I was attending classes each weekend at Augsburg College in Minneapolis to earn my special education licensure. While there were hundreds of applicants for social studies positions back then, there were usually fewer than 2 for special education positions, and fewer yet for EBD (emotional/behavioral disabilities) positions. So, with encouragement from Riley, my professors from St. Mary’s and Augsburg, and from the teacher who I was learning from each day, I applied for an EBD position at a middle school in the area. I was hired and granted a license under a variance while I completed my licensure at Augsburg.
I was a first year teacher in the fall of 2006. My caseload, as classes are called for special education teachers, consisted of about 20 eighth graders. I taught “small” classes math, reading, English, and social studies. I team taught one section of science. It was a rough year: the kids were tough, the principal had the highest standards of anyone I had ever met, and I did not know how to teach reading, English, or math. My variance allowed for me to teach those subjects. But, seriously, I was probably the single applicant for this job, so the school district had limited options.
I worked an average of 12 hour days, went in on most Sundays, and cried on the regular. You know what, though? I never thought that teaching wasn’t for me. I knew I could do it. I genuinely cared about these kids. I once called them my “pride and joy” in class. My heart was on my sleeve, and so many people will tell you that that is a mistake, even a sign of weakness. It is not a mistake and is most definitely not weak (I will actually come back to this, so I better stop myself here with all the “show people you care” stuff).
I made it through that year with the support of my colleagues, specifically the seasoned paraprofessional who worked with me. Now, this lady. She is beyond description. She is a biker babe with a heart of gold. She always says she knew we would get along after I jokingly called her a “bitch”. Risky move on my part, but it paid off.
My second year, there was a student who was particularly difficult, and was likely misdiagnosed, which means she and I had no tools for working with him. We were EBD people. He called me a “fat slut” one day. Later that day, while we were debriefing and decompressing, I mentioned that comment, and she said, “Oh, Amanda. You aren’t fat.” This comment was followed by a sly smile. She is a force for good (and for humor).
The problems in that school were not found in the teachers nor in the students. They were found in the system. My small classes numbered between 6-14 students. That probably sounds pretty doable, but consider that the class of 14 was math and included ALL students with significant behavioral and learning deficits. That they were ALL at different levels of ability in math. That it was scheduled right before lunch–the word HANGRY comes to mind. That I had no experience teaching math. That the classroom itself fit about 9 desks comfortably.
I was planning for 4 different courses, only one of which I had been trained to teach, while also being held responsible BY THE GOVERNMENT to complete paperwork, which includes too much to even try to explain here. Let’s say it’s about 15 pages per student each year, and about 30 pages every three years. For each bit of paperwork, there is a meeting that I also had to schedule within a federally mandated timeline. For crying out loud, people.
The good news about that particular district was that the leadership (including the aforementioned principal with high standards) listened to me, and to other teachers. There was actual action if teachers felt there needed to be. The problems were remedied, for the most part. Many teacher suggestions, which were based on research and experience, were put into practice.
In the fall of 2010, I started at a new school district in the town I called home. The job was in an elementary-aged, self-contained EBD program. That first year was pretty cool. The program was split into two classrooms: one was kindergarten through 2nd grade, while the other, where I worked, was for students grades 3 through 6. The paras I worked with were experienced. The teachers whose classrooms were located around my classroom understood that things got ugly from time to time and knew how to deal with that fact. My special education colleagues seemed friendly and helpful. I could handle this.
In April of that year, something that is referred to as “The Great Shake-Up” happened. Test scores were, not shockingly, lower at the two elementary schools with the highest free and reduced lunch rates (for more on this, check out “The Invisible Classroom” by Dr. Kirke Olson). District leadership decided to move who they deemed underperforming teachers to teams with teachers they deemed successful. Teachers who had been teaching for decades at the same school, and the same grade, were moved. The competition this fostered was destructive and the distrust was toxic.
The way this was handled was, unfortunately, impersonal. We were to schedule five-minute meetings on April 1 (yeah, that was a nice touch) with the Director of HR and our principal. They slid a paper across a desk with the school name and grade/position each teacher would be reporting to in the fall. This sort of movement is not uncommon. If you have ever seen the documentary “Waiting for “Superman””, you know this is called the March of the Lemons. That documentary places the blame pretty squarely on the shoulders of teacher unions. From what I have witnessed, I would blame administrators for their unwillingness to address underperforming teachers directly.
Teachers, in the district I am writing of, can be placed on an improvement plan if their performance following observations and evaluations is sub-par. This rarely happens, but the district leadership felt that enough teachers were underperforming to move numerous veteran teachers out of their area of expertise to address this problem? Oy.
Oh, I cannot believe I forgot this: We had two principals that year. One was moved (notice how many times educators are moved around like this is some sort of chess game where the all-knowing hand controls the board?) to the middle school mid-year and was replaced by a long-term replacement who was a retired school administrator. Both great people and wonderful to work for, but not an ideal situation.
That spring, just after the infamous shake-up, I was informed that they would be eliminating the kindergarten-2nd grade self-contained EBD program creating just the one kindergarten-5th grade program. I honestly do not remember the rationale because I was 17 months pregnant with twins by this time, but I can tell you that the following year, I still could not understand why this was a good idea.
In the fall of 2011, I was on family leave, home with the boys, until mid-October. The long-term sub they were able to wrangle up was not a licensed EBD teacher. And, this was basically a whole new program. The students were younger now, and so, had fewer coping strategies. This is a program where students stay in the same room all day long, and there were kids in there from 2nd grade up to 5th grade. If you were a 5th grade student who already felt isolated and had trouble sorting out your emotions, how would spending the day with 2nd and 3rd graders make you feel? Yeah, exactly.
This group was a volatile bunch. Soon, they moved an experienced special education teacher into the program and the sub out. When I returned in October, the volatility continued. The more I needed support as the year progressed, the more my colleagues seemed to throw their hands up into the air and back away. I felt like I was screaming into a black hole. No matter what I tried, the students struggled. It was frustrating. There was a lot going on that I won’t share here, but suffice it to say the environment in that building after that shake-up changed, and it became a really big chore for me to get up and go to work each day. I felt isolated, bullied, exhausted, dejected.
In January, they moved another teacher into the program with me. He was kind and gentle, and a man, which helped with the physical aspects of the job.
Worst year of my career by far. That March, I requested a transfer. They were probably going to move me anyway for my perceived underperformance. I was on my way to the high school. My classroom was right across the hall from Riley’s.
The atmosphere at the high school was much healthier. I was part of an incredible team of teachers and social workers , so I am just going to go ahead and use names here. Steve, Heather, Jenni, Heather.
These next two years mark the best years of my career. We had a thing that really worked. There was support. The paperwork was masterfully handled. Behavior issues began to dwindle once we started to find a balance between compassion, relationship building, and academic expectations. We talked about our work, how to help our students, and we listened to each other. We felt safe sharing our failures with one another, and we felt collective pride in our successes. We could be honest and frank without taking it personally. Most days, it didn’t seem like I was an EBD teacher at all. And then … another shake-up.
Two of the team members were moved into different positions. Again, these professionals were moved from jobs they loved and were successful at because of the underperformance of others not being addressed adequately by administration.
Now, we have landed at the 2015-16 school year. I needed a break from the special education world. The positions that had once existed to decrease paperwork for special education teachers were starting to be cut back. So, I applied for two different positions at the high school: one a social studies position and one a special education instructional coach position. I had to beg to even be interviewed for the social studies job. There I was, someone who had ample experience, already knew the district, had done well on all evaluations and observations, had met all my required annual professional goals, and had been a Teacher of the Year nominee at both districts I had worked in. For the social studies position, I was interviewed and not hired. I was told it would be tough to fill the EBD position left open if I were hired to teach Social Studies.
Then, in a meeting with a special education administrator, I was guaranteed I would be interviewed for the instructional coach position. I never got a call. The first day of back-to-school workshop, I found out another teacher, who had not applied for the position, had been informed she would be moving from an elementary building into this new position ONE DAY BEFORE SHE WAS TO REPORT. That was hard for me to hear. I felt rejected by the district I had planned to retire from.
I asked for a meeting in October of 2015 with two administrators to discuss what I was experiencing. I was hearing in our department meetings that my colleagues were also experiencing the same things: not enough support on paperwork, not enough support from administration in addressing student needs, lack of explanation for the changes, no feedback on questions. And, at that meeting, I was told to be patient, and, also, that I “couldn’t save them all,” referring to the students. I cried at that meeting. Not because I agreed with them, but because I was broken-hearted by their words.
I left the meeting knowing I would not be teaching in the district the following year. When those who are leaders in education enact policies that create competition and fear, and when they dismiss educators who lead with their hearts and those who dare to ask for clarification on decisions that affect students, something is wrong.
This brings me back to wearing the ol’ ticker on your shirtsleeve: never let anyone shame you for caring. You can literally never care too much about other human beings. Caring about others is among the most courageous acts on the planet. Plus, the rewards are boundless.
So, soon after that October meeting, Riley and I registered for the UNI Overseas Recruiting Fair. That fair made this process simple. If you are feeling unsettled in your career as a teacher, or nurse, or social worker, or counselor, or administrator, check it out. The link is at the end of this entry.
I didn’t touch on testing because we all know about testing. I also won’t talk about salaries- inadequate for our level of education and expertise (ok, so I totally just talked about salaries). But, I will take a couple of paragraphs to address the teacher shortage.
The reason I am leaving public education is disillusionment, but not disillusionment with students. It’s with ineffective leadership, public perception that teachers and their unions are greedy, the popular belief that lack of parental involvement is making young people into horrible humans (kids are still awesome, everyone), with government mandates created by business people, lawmakers, and lawyers and without input from educators.
This is my story, and while I know I said I would not speak for others, I will say that I believe if you asked the teachers you know what needs to be fixed in public education, most would respond with something like this: the lack of control we have over our career paths, curriculum, and content due to decisions that are deliberately made without our voices.
You have read from my experiences that in a district where teachers were heard, problems were solved. When teachers are not part of the problem solving teams, the problems compound.
So, let’s empower teachers again. They know what they are doing.
PS- Consider thanking a teacher. They deal with a lot of garbage in exchange for the honor of working with young people.