My 10 years teaching in the public schools can best be described as a roller coaster of inspiration, innovation and disappointment.
After college, I began working in a pilot year-round middle school program. We had smaller class sizes and a lot of freedom. We set our own schedule, made our own policies and took our students on team-building exercises in the mountains and celebrations of success at nearby attractions. Yes, there were challenges, but being able to use our own creative methods to address those led to a sense of professionalism and accomplishment.
The icing on the cake, not that this is my main measure of my success as a teacher, was that our test scores were higher than any other in the district.
Then, after two years, the district ended the program because it wasn’t “fair” for us to have smaller class sizes than our peers. I was frustrated, and not just because this May announcement meant I was going two months without pay that summer. I loved the freedom and innovation of our small program. I knew things would not be the same in the big pond, and they weren’t.
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The following year brought myriad frustrations, but the year after that I left that school for a new district and the promise of more freedom and innovation. Similarly, things in my second school started off great. I worked with a team of talented educators, was given leadership opportunities and attended a national conference. My teaching partner and I discovered a new approach to literacy and were given instant support to implement it. Once again, my students’ test scores soared.
Then, a new superintendent and new literacy director implemented a new “Curriculum Map” that did not allow for the methods I’d been using in my classroom. I was told that every seventh-grader in my district should be reading the same texts and working on the same pieces of writing at the same time. This standardization did not jibe with my personal philosophy of education, and I found myself on the precipice of leaving teaching for good.
It was at this point that I met some folks in the process of opening a charter school. I wasn’t really interested in working in a charter school. After all, in my mind, charter schools were hotbeds of conservatism that were stealing resources from my beloved public schools. They were part of the problem, not the solution. Still, I was so desperate for change that I decided to attend one of the open houses. I was there 10 minutes, and I was hooked. I knew this was where I wanted to be, and I’ve never looked back.
You see, my school is a school that adheres to the original vision of what a charter school should be. From the onset, we have been an incubator of innovation. Our goal is to use our smaller setting and freedom from bureaucracy to test new educational methods that would be hard to field test in larger districts. Yet again, my students have had stellar test scores. We use a personalized learning model paired with project-based learning to help each individual excel. To make our results valid, we recruit a student population that is representative of other North Carolina schools. We provide lunch, bus passes and computers to students who need them.
But we don’t stop there. Our goal isn’t to make ourselves the best school; our goal is to share what we learn with other schools. We host visitors from across the state and beyond several times a year, frequently present at state and national conferences and have a regular gig at the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching. In the thick of this, I am the busiest but also the happiest I have ever been with my career.
On the whole, I have learned that what drew me to the profession of teaching is what makes me want to continue to teach. Right now, I can have what I find fulfilling as an educator in my charter school, not in a large district public school. My hope is that we can break down the current barriers that exist between large district and charters, learn from each other and help all teachers love their jobs and provide quality education for their students the way I can!
Mamie Hall is a Hope Street Group fellow and teacher at Research Triangle High School. She previously taught for ten years in the Chapel Hill- Carrboro and Orange County Schools.