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The Disillusioned Academic - Part 3: The Inferiority of Teaching

This is the third and final installment of a series sharing the story of a talented, passionate teacher with a young family who left the classroom to further her schooling only to find that the bureaucracy of education is preventing her from returning to teaching our children. Her story, unfortunately, is not unique. For those of you who have searched to find where you belong, what you are called to, this is a story for you.

Why did you leave us?

I’m sorry, Areli. My contract with the district fell through.

We miss you.

Aww. I miss you guys too. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to get to know all of you.

The sub is mean.

I’m sorry. Try your best. I know you are very capable, my fellow poetry lover.

Areli was in my third period 10thgrade. She was IM’ing me through the Edmodo class site. She sat alone at a table with three others. On the phone—watching YouTube videos or playing a game. When I put the red “No Cell Phones” sign up, her head stayed bent. Hands retreated under the table. On the day I was taking them to the library to pick out independent reading material, she asked if she could stay back. She didn’t want to walk all the way there and back. “No, we all need to go together,” I told her. Last one out the door while I locked up, she and I walked together, in silence at first. “Can we pick poetry?”

“Absolutely. You like poetry?”

“I like Cleo Wade.”

“Cleo Wade? I haven’t read anything by her.”

“She has an Instagram.”

“Ah—I’ll have to look her up.”

In my mind, I began lecturing my teacher candidates. I’m still teaching an online Advanced Field Experience (i.e., student teaching) seminar. I would use this as an example—meet your students where they are. They don’t have to read Emily Dickinson. Introduce Dickinson, of course, but don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something. Let your students also educate you.

* * *

All public education salary scales are public domain. I knew going in that with a doctorate, even if I was considered Level 1, I’d be earning $36,796. Rounding up, it would mean approximately a $15,000 pay cut. Instead, they offered me a $31,000 contract. It’s not even on their scale. A Level 1 teacher with only a BA is listed with a starting salary of $36,000. It felt personal.

My husband and I have been married for 27 years. My story is inextricably our story. We have supported one another through the achievement of every degree. Through the student loans accumulated along the way. Through the trading up of residencies. Through the upward mobility career moves. Both of us first generation college students, we have striven to give our two daughters the opportunities that didn’t seem possible for ourselves.

At the age of twenty-six, our oldest daughter—the one we had at the age of nineteen—is a Columbia Teachers College graduate with two Masters degrees. A licensed school counselor. Our youngest is a freshman in high school. Like her sister, financially, she will not have an unlimited choice of colleges, but her attendance at one isn’t in question.

* * *

Fourth period was the hardest. It was the smallest in terms of numbers, but close to a third of the class had Individualized Education Program (IEP) plans. Three of them had Behavior Intervention Plans (BIPs). On day two, I filled out two referrals.

“You’re writing me up for sharpening my pencil?!”

“Not for sharpening your pencil. For intentionally interrupting the class’s ability to learn after more than one verbal warning. It’s not fair to your classmates.” Gabriel (who knew I did not yet have access to records to match his picture with his name, and insisted his name was Mike), had no intention of following along with the class lesson.

“Not fair to me—written up for sharpening a pencil. That’s some fucked up shit.”

“That language is unacceptable, Gabriel.” Earbuds in, front chair legs off the floor. He was gone. Completely tuned out. It was a balancing act. I needed to establish—and early—that I would not tolerate disrespectful behavior, intentional interruptions, lack of participation. On the other hand, damaging a relationship early could mean a school year of friction. Teacher – student relationships can be fragile and exceedingly hard to mend.

As cliché as it sounds, respect is earned, not given. I hadn’t won this class over yet. They had no reason to trust that I had their best interest at heart. The day I took them to the computer lab was the worst. The chairs had wheels and were too tempting to not race. The lab did not have headphones available for the kids, and the mandatory i-Ready test included audio passages and cheesy brain rests with a cartoon character that leads them in guided breathing. “Please turn your volume down.”

“Can’t—I have to hear it.”

I’d walk away to reprimand a group who were video chatting with classmates in another class, and there would go the audio. There went another race across the room.

* * *

In each of my classrooms, I hung a poster of Eleanor Roosevelt with the quote, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” And that’s what it came down to for me. My husband was willing to stand by me—if I felt it was worth the approximately $24,000 pay cut, then we’d deal with it. My official transcript came in, so that number may have ticked up slightly, but the District still wasn’t willing to recognize my experience at the university—teaching teacher candidates in the Teachers Ed program; coordinating the K-8 Teacher Licensure Program, and training university faculty in best practices for teaching online as “directly related experience as a teacher.”

I turned in my keys and security badge. The principal hugged me and said she understood. My university supervisor hadn’t finished processing my resignation, so it wasn’t difficult to bring me back on fulltime.

I’ve been sharing this story with Margaret, the one student I have currently in the student teaching seminar. She’s about to begin her full assumption where she takes lead of the classroom for three weeks. The other day, she wrote this:

“I don’t have any illusions about teaching, I think; I know just how messy it is and how demoralizing the system can be. What I’m afraid of, I’ve been realizing, is setting my expectations too low. As I’ve started to observe more teachers in my school, it’s hitting me that my [Cooperating Teacher]—while he’s great in many respects—sets the bar low for our students. For example, something that really bothers me is that he hasn’t implemented any literacy [Response to Intervention] this semester. He keeps saying he wants to start guided reading groups, but he doesn’t, and it wasn’t until today, when I volunteered to do it myself, that he even started thinking about how he would group the students. Then he complains when he gets ‘minimally effective’ on his evaluation. His attitude—and the attitude of many of our colleagues, I think—is that the kids’ reading scores are nothing to lose sleep over since our kids could never pass these standardized tests, anyway; and, besides, he’s not paid what he deserves, so why should he kill himself planning?”

Paul Michalec considers this teaching amnesia. He asks, “What happens when the passion of idealism meets the cold hard facts of industrial models of school? What happens when the flames of idealism flicker out and instead a teacher succumbs to the reality of benchmark assessments, data sets, instructional rubrics, disinterested learners, and standardized assessments? What happens when disenchantment overshadows joy?”

“Like medical amnesia,” says Michalec, “teaching amnesia is the result of instructional/institutional trauma or distress.” The day I packed back up my room, the assistant principal came to see me during my planning period. He’d heard the news and was sad to hear. Thought I had made real progress in the short time I’d been with them. The end of my two weeks also marked the end of the six-week grading period, so I needed to post grades before leaving. When I clicked on the grade book, a message from the District popped up. It was a reminder that teacher evaluations were linked to student achievement. The message came across as a warning. Should teachers fear assigning D’s and F’s? Or, maybe they ought to start out grading more harshly so they can later demonstrate student progress? What is the intention of a pop-up reminder about your job security as you’re about to enter grades? I used the word disheartening earlier, but I think disillusioned is more accurate.

My husband works for a Fortune 500 company. His salary has always been twice (or more) what mine has been. When he applies for a new position, he has a resume listing his years of experience and letters of recommendation. There are no charts to fill out down to the number of days/number of hours he worked. I get that the charts are meant to establish equity in pay—in theory at least. In practice, it shows a serious lack of respect for the field. At the top of the District’s pay schedule, it reads: “The following schedule is based on a 184 day (6.5hrs/day) work schedule.” I don’t know a teacher alive—even the worst performing—who only works 184 days a year or 6.5hrs/day. Teaching is a fulltime job. Period. I refuse to let society make me feel inferior for pursuing an undeniable calling. It didn’t end quite the way I’d planned, but this experience has reignited my “deep hunger” to fight.

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