The first thing anyone failed to tell me about teaching? It’s hard. It is incredibly hard. Teachers who speak otherwise are either fooling themselves, or are showing off. Every aspect of teaching is hard. Even lunch.
To me, teaching was going to be effortless. Students would listen and care about what I had to teach them. My classroom would be fun and exciting. All of those generalizations the public holds about school teachers, I believed.
I entered Teach for America with this idealistic view and left for Los Angeles, where my first hour of my first day of teaching a group of 15 high school Special-Education students at the age of 21 was, for a lack of a better word, agony. I was told stories of first sexual experiences, sworn at, disrespected. I broke up two fights: one verbal and one physical. My short little lesson about getting to know each other did not even come close to happening.
My delusions of grandeur were crushed. And in one day, my career choice, which had been the easiest decision I had ever made, became the hardest and most challenging three years of my life. And now, I am no longer a teacher.
Teaching isn’t hard because kids can be rude or because it’s a struggle to engage them for a 90-minute class period. It isn’t hard because of paperwork or grading. I became used to these things and all the other things that had made my first day so hard.
Teaching is hard for every reason no one who works outside of a school ever considers: having to call home and tell a student’s mother that he will not graduate; calling Child Protective Services because a female student shows signs of rape and abuse; eating lunch with a student daily so he doesn’t have to eat alone; working with a student after school for hours on end because she literally reads at a first grade level at the age of 17 and wants to apply for work at McDonald’s; going to see a student at his job to show him how proud you are; visiting the hospital for a student who had the stent in her brain replaced.
Teaching is not an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. job; it is a 24-hour commitment. I gave up countless weekends, mornings, lunches and evenings to help students.
But this is not why I quit teaching.
Personal perspective can obscure understanding
Teaching challenges a teacher emotionally, physically, socially, intellectually — ways that the public, policymakers and even our students will never understand because we only understand education through the lenses of our own experiences. We fail to see the other side. This is reflected in our attitudes, public opinions and North Carolina politics. I quit teaching because what is hard about teaching becomes infinitely harder because of these politics.
I quit teaching because no matter what I tried to do to better my students, the state couldn’t measure it through a test score. We must have standards for students, and I do believe all students should have equal opportunity to access the same information and skill sets as their peers. But there is great truth to the statement that because people are different, the way we teach them and measure them must be different. We shouldn’t base a student’s success — nor a teacher’s — solely on numbers that measure a student’s ability to master a multiple-choice test.
I took an AP Environmental Exam in 2004. I did not study. I bubbled in random letters to all the questions in 30 minutes, wrote a haphazard essay, and fell asleep for the remaining few hours. I scored a 3 out of 5. That is above passing. I similarly watched a student who read on a second-grade level complete a standardized exam in biology in 2013. Instead of falling asleep, he paced himself so other students wouldn’t know he could not read. He bubbled random letters and passed an exam without even knowing what he was reading.
What was not measured by the exam was the fact that his reading level had grown from pre-primer (ages 3-5) to a second-grade level in less than nine months. What was not measured was that he could now write a complete sentence using appropriate syntax and spelling. In the eyes of the school, school district and state, this student was a “success!” And I was praised for bringing up the scores of students with special needs.
I did nothing to help these students take tests. And this wasn’t his success. This wasn’t our success. Education is not about what is learned or what is not — it is about cultivating a human to want to learn and to change for the better.
The last straw
But North Carolina wants a tangible number that it can use to measure itself against other states so that we are not last in education. Do you want a tangible number that is putting us last? Try my salary: $30,800.
Teaching became a dead-end. The hours, the work, the commitment, and the exhaustion – I knew I could be paid more somewhere else for equal or less work. $30,800 is what I made — with a masters’ degree.
The hardest three years of my life were followed by the hardest decision of my life to this point: to leave the profession. Many of my friends are teachers and express the same concerns I do. They toy with the same ideas of leaving. We know our skills are valuable and can be valued more elsewhere, both in respect and compensation.
A former colleague from Los Angeles, Robert Jeffers, recently wrote to CNN about “irreplaceable teachers.” He raises the point that young teachers are invaluable. Not just their bodies, but their backgrounds, connections, knowledge and the community they bring to a school. North Carolina isn’t working hard to keep irreplaceable teachers. The opposite is occurring with seemingly great ease.
If public schools are failing, it’s because policymakers refuse to see realities besides their own. That reality being that things are hard, and public policies should not make it harder.
I challenge anyone, anyone, and particularly North Carolina legislators to teach in — or just to visit — a public school for a day and experience the realities our teachers combat every day.
I guarantee it is hard.