On the Occasion of My Retirement as a Teacher in Urban America

Retired Teacher Speaks Out

There are a million reasons why teachers don’t stay in urban schools.

In fact, I’m sure some of you think anyone who’d do that work voluntarily ought to have her head examined. But I, and many of my colleagues, stayed for decades.

I worked in urban schools for 25 years. On Wednesday, June 13, 2012, I received my final send-off from the school district I worked for for all of those years.

And I was not unique or even remarkable—among the retirees who left with me, more than 200 had served at least 25 years, and one woman had taught for 50 years.

Over the course of my career, I knew many dedicated colleagues who kept going year after year, decade after decade. Now, though, we’re leaving.

Many of my veteran colleagues are retirement age, and few, despite a genuine love of teaching, are opting to stay a little while longer.

Some, like me, are being driven out through harassment campaigns conducted by vindictive and insecure administrators threatened by our vigilant advocacy for our students—and to save money on our salaries by hiring less-experienced teachers.

The rest, cowed by witnessing this intimidation and fearful of becoming the next target, keep their heads down, their classroom doors closed and don’t make waves while they wait out the days until they too can retire.

Meanwhile, few of the new generation of teachers have the stamina or the desire to dedicate their lives to urban schools. And why should they?

Have school facilities gotten substantially more attractive and comfortable? Have the health and safety concerns at each school finally been addressed?

Have administrators and office personnel all over the district become newly graced with warmth, professionalism and courtesy? Have teachers finally been provided with the preparation time and teaching materials necessary to do an adequate job?

Have students miraculously gone from being passive receptacles for information to active participants in their own education? Have new programs sprung up to fill the gaps for families needing help with basic survival or health concerns?

NOPE! NO SIRREE BOB! NO WAY JOSÉ! NOT A CHANCE!

Things not only aren’t BETTER, the “reforms” allegedly intended to improve education have made all of these conditions WORSE! Money that could be spent on making improvements has been diverted to tests and test preparation. Schools and teachers are being asked to do more with less. This test-driven pressure can only make the already inhumane educational climate that exists in urban schools damaging to kids and adults alike. Testing treats kids like widgets in some factory fantasy of education, where human lives—the students’ lives—are something that can be measured objectively.

Teachers stand by studentsTo me, the final nail in the coffin of the unappreciated veteran educator has been caused by the enthusiasm to strip teachers of one of the only perks of the career:

JOB SECURITY

I don’t mean the kind that allows lousy or even cruel teachers to remain in the classroom; no teacher representative or union wants to defend that type of teacher. Good teachers loathe and despise bad teachers. But JOB SECURITY protects good teachers too. And kids deserve a chance to learn from those like us, the battle scarred veterans.

We are the marathoners who’ve had the chance to hone and refine our craft through years of practice—becoming ever more adept at juggling the range of management tasks a teacher must handle simultaneously—yet ready to innovate with new ways to make instruction interesting and lively.

We are the ones who’ve seen a hundred instructional fads come and go and are usually quite willing to predict, based on our previous experience with the same fad the last time it was “NEW”, why it won’t work, even though this makes us seem intractable or even Luddite.

We are the ones who understand how our kids learn and can access a huge repertoire of strategies to make learning happen. We can allow our consciences to dictate how we teach rather than using the latest fad pushed on us by the district because we have JOB SECURITY.

We are the ones who remember why that rule was established, who decided on that policy or where the last Teach for America recruit left her materials before she ran screaming for the door. We know the neighborhood and feel at home there. We see our kids for who they are, so full of potential and promise, struggling to persevere in spite of a society that sends them daily reminders of their contemptible marginalization through the not-so-soft bigotry of dirty schools, stressed-out teachers and inadequate facilities and resources.

We are the ones who stand up to those in power when their agendas and priorities leave kids out in the cold. We can fight for our kids because we have JOB SECURITY which gives us a small measure of protection if we step on toes in our quest to get our kids the conditions and materials they deserve.

We are the ones who bear the full brunt of society’s responsibility by giving these kids the courage to leave the psychological safety of their barrios and ghettos, which, regardless of the disadvantages and hardships, provide them with the security of a world they are comfortable navigating—the world where all their family and friends live.

We endeavor to introduce our students to the infinite possibilities life has to offer, and try not to get discouraged each time we see those possibilities shrink because of a mother’s death, an unwanted pregnancy, a brush with the law or, worst of all, difficulty obtaining the documentation they will need to pursue higher education.

We do all those things—and more—because we are invested in our students and their communities. We do these things out of love and hope—not for a PAYCHECK. If we can’t take these risks on behalf of our students because we don’t have JOB SECURITY, who will?

We’re not saints—we have no super human abilities—we get sick—we run out of energy—we despair of the obstacles facing our students—we complain (yes, we do) about the struggle to keep going without enough time, teaching materials or inner resources. We work under conditions that jeopardize our health and provide no creature comforts.

In spite of all this, we have given our hearts, minds and bodies to the work of educating urban kids—as Jesus would say, “the least of these”—the most powerless people in our society. We’ve been willing to slink around when faced with a pervasive attitude that sees us as damaged goods; in much the same way that career soldiers or postal workers are viewed—an attitude that assumes that we’re either masochistic freaks who use our work to atone for our sins or burn-outs who might snap at any minute.

This prejudice says that anything we might suggest regarding the policies and practices of education is self-serving.

Masochistic though we may be, we’re certainly not insane enough to think that our careers—our vocation—is ever going to be anything but fraught with dilemmas, crises and conflicts under disagreeable working conditions.

We may dream of clean new desks, shiny floors, reliable modern classroom technology, a cabinet cornucopia filled with all the supplies we’d ever need, white board markers that never mysteriously disappear the moment we put them down (that never happened with chalk).

Teachers love teachingBut the reality is that we’re JUBILANT if we get $100 for supplies we can order ourselves; we’re ECSTATIC at a comfortable chair for our desk even if there are some stains on the upholstery; we’re ELATED when the floor is washed after we’ve gotten stuck in that same sticky patch (spilled soda?) a dozen times.

We veterans understood that was the deal—we might complain but we knew why we were here. We came back day after day, year after year, decade after decade not because we loved our cushy jobs but because we loved our students. The hardships were bearable because we were able to do our jobs with some creativity and autonomy—freedoms made possible by JOB SECURITY.

Nowadays, though, teachers—especially urban teachers–are seen as unable to make any instructional decisions independently. These days scripted programs enforced by administrative fiat are de rigeur. Curriculum guides—formerly brief outlines of the course of study and the instructional objectives—have expanded exponentially in size and detail.

Assessments, established and designed by people with no connection to real classrooms and real kids, have sprung up like mushrooms. These assessments have become the measure of the district, the school, the students.

Now teachers themselves are being judged on how well OTHER PEOPLE perform on a multiple choice test. If the OTHER PEOPLE (i.e. the students) don’t perform well enough on the test, the teacher is PUBLICLY named a failure. All we need now is a shaming ceremony and a visible emblem that the teacher must wear—a scarlet FAIL, perhaps?—to make urban teaching officially the worst job in the US.

So, we’re leaving—we veteran teachers—and it’s up to you, the public, to decide whether teaching should be a sprint–2-3 years out of college, burning the candle at both ends, before leaving the profession for pastures more lucrative, more respected and more suited to creative, intelligent and caring people.

Or do kids deserve marathoners like us—committed and consistent teachers who make teaching their vocation? Because there really aren’t enough people masochistic enough to endure the thicket of thorns—professionally and personally—that teaching has become. And even fewer who can handle it for years or decades.

I used to caution students thinking about making teaching a career that it was a difficult and demanding profession. Then I would share with them the joys and rewards that come from having an important purpose in a child’s life and in improving our society.

Now, I just discourage them. It’s a no-win situation for the urban teacher of today. Enter at your own risk.

Caitlin Casement

Caitlin Casement is a retired teacher. She submitted this essay for publication because she wanted to reach a broader audience. Speaking of her responsibility as a retired teacher, Caitlin said, “I feel strongly that we’ve got to help the public understand what urban schools are like and to take responsibility for making the kinds of changes that will improve urban education.”

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Comments

  1. says

    Ms. Casement.  There are homes dotted across the country with retired teachers who still care and are still passionate about learning.  What an amazing resource. And unharnessed one. There needs to be a place for them online to share ideas.  Don’t you think?

  2. Leaengland says

    Thank you for speaking out.  I get so tired being blamed for things I have no control over in the classroom.   I would like to see more teachers speak out and stand up for themselves.  I have to say that I am disappointed by the lack of backbone teachers show by accepting the constant intrusion in their professional lives.   I think it is time for us to create our own unions and represent the real issues we face trying to educate and socialize our society.   

  3. Linda B. says

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you! As an urban educator, I sooooo get it – in a way that those who stand on the outside, looking in never could!

    Thank you for your service, Ms. Casement. May your retirement experience be a remuneration for all that you have contributed to the lives of our children.

    I pray that I persevere as you have.

  4. says

    True for any public school today!!  I retired last year and am finally not stressed out.  God bless those still in the trenches today (that is if they haven’t been laid off))!

  5. Literate says

    Amen, Amen, Ditto, Ditto, and Ditto. I am not retired yet. However I’ve taught in one NYC public school in the Bronx, NY for 29 years. All I can say is ditto, ditto, and ditto, again. Thank you for your timely post and I am going to share with my colleagues. 

  6. RonF says

    “Money that could be spent on making improvements has been diverted to tests and test preparation.”

    Having hard facts about what kids are being taught and how much they have learned IS an improvement.

    “Testing treats kids like widgets in
    some factory fantasy of education, where human lies—the students’
    lives—are something that can be measured objectively.”

    Tests exist to measure what facts and skills they have learned.  It’s not their purpose to measure their lives.
    “I
    don’t mean the kind that allows lousy or even cruel teachers to remain
    in the classroom; no teacher representative or union wants to defend
    that type of teacher.”

    Then why do urban school districts all over the country maintain rooms filled with teachers who have been removed from the classroom for various alleged offenses but stay there for months and years on full pay rather than have their cases evaluated and decisions quickly made?  Because unions want to defend that kind of teacher.

    “Nowadays, though, teachers—especially urban teachers–are seen as unable
    to make any instructional decisions independently. These days scripted
    programs enforced by administrative fiat are de rigeur. Curriculum
    guides—formerly brief outlines of the course of study and the
    instructional objectives—have expanded exponentially in size and detail.”

    Maybe if the teachers had made instructional decisions that were acceptable to the people they are ultimately responsible to that wouldn’t have happened.  But insist on teaching kids leftist politically propaganda while their math, English, history and science scores drop like a rock and that’s what you get.

    I do understand that you shouldn’t have to pay for your own supplies.  I do understand that the schools should be clean and safe for both the students and the teachers.  Where that is not being done I sympathize.  And, frankly, there’s a lot wrong with urban schools that no amount of money can fix – if a kid comes to school with no food in his stomach, the wrong clothes, no glasses and having spent all night playing basketball or video games because there’s no parent that can or will tell him to do his homework, then there’s not a lot that either you or I can do.  This is why there’s little correlation across the country between per-capita money spent and academic achievement.

    • Jay says

      Are you angry much?  Your rant against unions and teachers and your belief in testing as an accurate measure of anything shows me that you are biased and not  pushing your own agenda.

    • Jgrim2 says

       Ron, you have no idea how to measure learning. Standardized tests are being misused and the standard scores fail as indicators of learning. You really shouldn’t be ranting about subjects you know nothing about.

    • Mr. Mendive says

      Wow.  I can tell that you are not an educator, RonF.  However, I don’t disagree with everything you say just almost all of it.  I am a rural school teacher who teaches at a school with similar demographic challenges as are found in urban schools like low English Language proficiency and high poverty.

      Testing is important, but current standardized tests are horrible at measuring the most important things that happen in a classroom.  Yes, they measure facts learned, but any kid can google those facts on their phone anyway.  So, who cares?  Our standardized tests are horrible at testing higher order thinking skills, imagination, creativity (yes, there’s a difference), and ingenuity.  The big problem with standardized tests, however, is that certain people (politicians) want to judge teachers by those scores.  People need to understand that we’re not all working with the same materials.  It is a lot harder for me to get a kid to pass a test when they did not speak English when they first walked in my room or if there front door was kicked in by the cops the night before.  

      Unions do sometimes protect crappy teachers, and I do think that is a problem.  Unions follow rules that were set and made sense in one situation, but some jerk finds a way to use those rules for their advantage.  I think the answer lies not in limiting unions or eliminating them but in unions becoming more sensible organizations that make decisions based upon the situation.  By the way, I also think that the main reason we have bad teachers is because we have bad principals.  I am just finishing my masters in Ed. Admin. and I have learned a lot about leadership in education.  American schools have a history of hiring old coaches and crappy teachers as principals to get them out of the classroom.  Current thinking is that the best teacher should become the principal to help teachers develop as professionals.  

      As for teaching “leftist political propaganda,”  I think that you are out to lunch.  In my program I have watched a lot of teaching, and I don’t think teachers are teaching leftist anything.  In fact, teachers tend to be pretty conservative folk.  Now if you are referring to evolution, give me a break.  That isn’t leftist; its science.  

      You did hit on the biggest reason schools are failing in America though.  Parents. Not all parents, but parents have more to do with what happens in the classroom than most people understand.  In my experience (in a tough school) most parents are good.  Lets just say 80% (which is an overestimate in my opinion).  That means 6 of my 30 kids have crappy parents.  Lets say half of those kids are good anyway just for the sake of being good.  That means I have 3 trouble makers who divert attention from the rest of the class.  Believe me, the administration has their hands tied as far as discipline.  So, what is the teacher to do?  Kids are smart, and no amount of separating, positive reinforcement, etc. will prevent those 3 kids from raising hell in the classroom.  We need a system where parents are equally culpable for student success along with the school and the teacher.

      • says

        ” By the way, I also think that the main reason we have bad teachers is
        because we have bad principals.  I am just finishing my masters in Ed.
        Admin. and I have learned a lot about leadership in education.  American
        schools have a history of hiring old coaches and crappy teachers as
        principals to get them out of the classroom.  Current thinking is that
        the best teacher should become the principal to help teachers develop as
        professionals.”

        I took a couple of adminstrative courses, just to see for myself what they learned.  You are exactly right–the people becoming administrators are not good teachers with a lifetime of experience to inform their decisions.  Many of my classmates were young women, who had taught 5 years at the most (one had only taught for two years!), who wanted to make more money by becoming administrators.  Almost none of the course content had anything to do with education principles or theories–though leadership and management skills were emphasized (Franklin Covey!).  The whole program was little more than a diploma mill–although I dropped out a friend told me that every one of those young women earned her degree and is now qualified to evaluate teachers.  That’s an important aspect of why things are so difficult to change–prinicipals must be focused on learning in order to make decisions that will improve the siituation.  But how can they know what to do without real experience?

  7. says

    Thank you ! .

    And a big THANK YOU to all the dedicated teachers who stood behind my Son who was raised up in The Barrio then The Ghetto and in spite of terrible administration , managed to keep him interested in learning , he graduated with Honors and is now a useful Citizen in America .

    SHAME on the worthless administrators who don’t understand the importance of The Three R’s . -Nate

  8. Jay says

    Thank you for your honesty.  I understand what you have listed and do not have an answer.  I think that education and subject matter needs to be updated similar to Finland, Asia, and other approaches.  But I have seen that professors on the university level who will not change their 1980′s syllabus.  So again, I do not know where to start, but we need to do something noteworthy.  Good luck.

  9. jmacmurray says

    Can I put an AMEN to this? Administrators on all levels, insecure in their incompetence, harass and bully teachers who do actually know what they are doing. Such actions as interrupting a teacher’s classroom lesson to give her the pink slip, rearranging Special Ed classes with no thought of consequence, spouting the Ed Fad du jour and mistaking it for wisdom…and when it all blows up, blaming the teachers.

    I recently retired after 20 years teaching junior high and loving it. Many teachers, as I did, come into the profession from other professions and have seen how good managers do things; a good administrator is a treasure. A bad one ruins kids lives.

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