Philadelphia Student Union president and high school senior, Candace Carter, explained in a recent newsletter the harm of teachers leaving “hard to staff schools” like hers. “If there is a high rate of teacher turnover, and too many first-year teachers, students get discouraged, start cutting class, and eventually drop out,” she writes.
I know this, yet I won’t be teaching this year.
I won’t be going back because I’m exhausted. I rarely knew what to expect each morning when I shuffled up the cement stairs to my classroom, greeted by the smell of the rotting milk that had crusted to the crates lining the stairwell. On any given day, I didn’t know how many students I would be teaching. I had no idea whether I would have a lunch break and a free period, or have five students in detention and a seventh grade science class to substitute. My day could end with a student’s parent hugging me or yelling at me.
My school’s hallways and classrooms are loud, chaotic, grim places. The patchwork of school administrators, for-profit consultants, district middle managers, and volunteer “co-principals” who governed my school did little to help besides recommend I teach more test preparation strategies.
Many teachers overcome these challenges, and serve the children of our city for decades.
I won’t be.
Teaching is hard, and at my best I wasn’t great at it. I didn’t get excited about high test scores and reading level improvement. I didn’t connect with the kids. I rarely made learning fun.
But I never intended to be a career teacher, and the program that recruited me, Teach for America (TFA), told me that two years is enough. It’s not, but it’s all I’ve got.
So I’m deserting the system, and thus my students. After just two years teaching at a Germantown K-8 school, I will no longer be celebrating with students who mastered decimal multiplication or grading essays on “The Most Important Day In My Life.”
This will hurt some students.
Last June, toward the end of my second year teaching, a third grader came screeching into the room as only an 8-year-old can, and excitedly declared, “Mr. Beck, I’ll be in your class next year!”
“Oh,” I replied guiltily, “you’ll be in this room, but you won’t have me. I’m not going to be teaching here next year.”
The boy cast his eyes to the floor. “Oh, I won’t be here, either,” he said, contradicting his earlier statement. “I’m going to a better school.” He was expressing a sentiment I’d heard many times before: The desire not to be left behind at a school that so many teachers and students were leaving.
I got into teaching to promote social justice, mad at the Jim Crow-sized injustice that gives our nation’s poorest students an education much inferior to their suburban peers. I hoped to listen to and learn from people who endured the poverty I’d read so much about in college.
And I needed a paycheck.
According to Torch Lytle, Practice Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and the former Superintendent of Trenton Public Schools, “There is pretty good evidence that if students have inexperienced teachers for three successive years, they never recover,” he says.
Two months before I led a classroom, I had no teacher training. In college, I’d studied sociology, environmental policy, and radical social movements, but little of education. After graduation in 2007, I joined TFA, an organization that turns recent college graduates into teachers in high-needs schools.
The chance to go somewhere I’d never been, almost as a tourist, pulled me to Philadelphia. I grew up in a suburb of Denver, surrounded by privileged white people like me, and went to a college that was much the same.
After five weeks of TFA’s intense boot camp, called “institute,” the state of Pennsylvania considered me and the 160 other TFA members “highly qualified” teachers. Two weeks after school had begun, I had my own sixth grade class at a Germantown school. I was to be my students’ “self-contained” teacher for math, reading, writing, social studies, and science.