Without a Net: Teachers Need Support -- Yearlong
Undersupported and overwhelmed, a new teacher canâ€™t go it alone.
Credit: Brian Cairns
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. Iâ€™m utterly exhausted, disheartened, and drowning. Itâ€™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. Itâ€™s also because thereâ€™s only so much I can do in the classroom without support from outside it.
Thereâ€™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. Thereâ€™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. Thereâ€™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.
Thereâ€™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.
Thereâ€™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 doesnâ€™t know what the schoolâ€™s budget is.
Thereâ€™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 canâ€™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 isnâ€™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 donâ€™t want to leave teaching; I love teaching. I can see the small impact Iâ€™m making every day in the classroom, even if itâ€™s draining and difficult. I know that if I werenâ€™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 canâ€™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.