I am a first-year science teacher in a failing middle school.
Like many beginning teachers in low-income urban districts,
I came in on a wing and a prayer. During an intensive summer
training before the school year began, every instructor in my
program insisted on the same ideal: Have high expectations for
these students, and they will achieve. I rallied behind that mantra,
repeated that prayer, and I still do. I believe in these kids, and I see
their potential, even if many are reading at a third-grade level in
eighth grade, and even if many come from backgrounds of foster
homes, hard drugs, and gang violence.
But now, the prayer is faltering. The ideal is fading. I’m utterly
exhausted, disheartened, and drowning. It’s not only because of
the difficulty of working with this population of students, or
because this is my first year and success will come with experience.
It’s also because there’s only so much I can do in the classroom
without support from outside it.
There’s only so much I can do when students get into dangerous
fights during class, and, when I call down to the main office
for help, no one answers -- and, when I call again, no one answers.
There’s only so much I can do when to be out sick means
knowing I will be subjected to the exhausted scowls of colleagues
who have to baby-sit my class during my absence, because the school
has such a bad reputation that substitutes rarely take the job.
There’s only so much I can do when morale is so low and
school culture so antagonistic that it seems teachers and administrators
occupy opposing teams rather than hold unified aims.
There’s only so much I can do when administrative roles and
policies are so poorly defined that to have a stack of white paper
on hand is rare, and to effectively manage truants or misbehavior
is even rarer.
There’s only so much I can do when school funds are being
drained through mismanagement and neglect. Each time I attend
staff meetings, full of requests for change, my half-hearted principal --
who has never once set foot in my classroom and is frequently
absent from campus -- says he still doesn’t know what the
school’s budget is.
There’s only so much I can do when the veteran teacher
assigned as my mentor is not only as frazzled and frustrated as
everyone else but also is called upon to serve as the de facto principal.
When administrators ask an already overworked teacher to
shoulder tasks a principal should take on, he has no energy left for
support, collaboration, or encouragement.
If we really want to close the achievement gap, raise test scores,
and instill a love of learning in kids whose positive role models are
few and far between, we need more than high expectations. We
need organization. We need communication. Teachers can’t be
doing the jobs of principals, truancy officers, or administrative-level
disciplinarians, nor can schools function without people in these
roles. Teachers need both the space and the support to teach;
administrators need to know what school policies are, and which
staff position is designed to meet which need; principals need to
help make these distinctions, be present on campus and in the classrooms,
and stay up to speed on school budgets so we can have some
idea of where the money is and where it isn’t.
Yes, attrition rates for teachers, principals, and other staff at
struggling schools in low-income districts are staggering. Yes, I see
myself becoming another statistic. But when the working conditions
are so terrible, when the moral support is so miserably thin,
when the system is crumbling and disorganized, how can anyone be
expected to stay? If the school is hemorrhaging funds and employees
as quickly as it gains them, how can we ever hope to change the
trajectory of these young people, no matter how hard their teachers
work, no matter how high the expectations?
I don’t want to leave teaching; I love teaching. I can see the
small impact I’m making every day in the classroom, even if it’s
draining and difficult. I know that if I weren’t here, there would
be a series of substitutes in my place, and still fewer adults who
these kids could look up to. But I simply
can’t teach without support -- and that
starts with a functioning, unified school
structure. If we try to heal those broken
ties, maybe we can make a difference.
Credit: Brian Cairns
Juniper Hanover is a pseudonym for a first-year middle school teacher in California.