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.
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).
But 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 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.”