No amount of college could prepare a person for a job like teaching. It’s much like becoming a surgical intern (yes, I watch Grey’s Anatomy when my mind has been fried by a day of teaching—which happens to be every day). You are plopped into the middle of things having read all the articles you could stuff your brain with but left without a clue about how to do what you need to do every day to be the best for your patients—your kids.
I am tired like I’ve never been tired before.
This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It can also be the most devastating and the most rewarding—all in one day, which makes it all the more exhausting.
In one day absolutely every possible thing can go so wrong that you have to do everything you can to keep from exploding into a weeping frenzy. And yet one student—that toughest student you have—can give you a look that let’s you know she’s letting you in, and it can make the whole day—that whole rotten day—magical.
It took me weeks to learn how to sleep. And I don’t mean stop working and get in bed. I mean, it took me weeks to learn how to shut my mind off when I hit that pillow so that I could actually sleep and recharge for tomorrow’s 16-plus hour day. I would drift into the thinnest layer of sleep—the kind of sleep in which you aren’t dreaming, you’re thinking concretely about things you need to do in a dreamlike manner.
I would wake up exhausted and use coffee as a surrogate for sleep.
College spoiled me. Even during the busiest of weeks, when I would look at my agenda and want to run away, I still had time to eat and even time to write in an agenda. Those were the days… the days I actually had time to plan the millions of things I needed to do.
The first month and a half of teaching and I’ve become gaunt because I don’t even have time to remember to eat—or my mind is too occupied with something that seems much more necessary than taking care of myself.
The stress of being the caretaker of 120 lives each day is overwhelming. It sounds melodramatic. But the reality is that the stakes are higher for my kids. Their time with me is critical. They are behind because of America’s failure to uphold the things it claims to value. They’re about to leave for high school—a high school that has been deemed a “dropout factory.” And I only have 9 measly months to plant in them the habits and mindsets they need to be successful when they’re thrown to the wolves. And on top of that, they need the actual skills to fight them off—alone, without support.
I recently drove by a yoga place on Brookside with a sign that says “Do something every day that scares you.” I almost chuckled to myself because every morning when I wake up, I get a strange tinge of fear that springs up from the pit of my stomach and seizes my heart. It lasts a mere moment, but in that moment I am terrified of the day that lies ahead.
What if I mess up? What if they don’t do what I need them to do today? What if they say something I don’t know how to react to? What if they need too much from me?
But then I walk through the doorway of my classroom. I unlock the door, push it to prop it open and read the words I’ve posted on it: “When you step into this classroom, you are global citizens. You are scholars. You are explorers. You are important. You are respected. You’re loved. You are the reason I am here.” And I feel recharged—regardless of the amount of sleep I did not get or the amount of coffee that didn’t work to wake me up. It is 6:15 a.m. and I am ready for the day and the chance to be for my kids—the kids that in such a short time I have learned to adore—the exact thing that they need.
About 90 percent of them, at the corner of everything they turn in to me, write: “I am smart. I am capable. I am important.” They don’t whine about it anymore. I don’t even have to remind them to do it. Every time I get the chance, though, I remind them individually that those words apply to them whether they believe it or not.
They’re starting to believe it.
I can feel it in the atmosphere of my classroom. Some days there are hints of joy in the air. When I bend down at the desk of even my most difficult children, and I tell them how smart they are, how capable they are, how much they mean to me, I can see it in their eyes that they’re starting to believe me. Even the skeptical ones. Even the ones that have been hardened by a life much too heavy for their age.
I can feel the joy in the way my students stand close to me when I’m monitoring the hallways during passing period. The way they ask to eat lunch with me in my room every single day. The way the girls play with my hair. The way the boys put their hearts on their sleeves for just me to see.
Bonds are forming in between the walls of our tiny classroom. Some of them slower than others, but they are surely forming. And no matter how exhausted I am when I leave that classroom each day, I can lie on my bed, mindlessly watching Grey’s Anatomy, knowing that all the energy I’ve spent is for the best cause—and the best humans—in the world.
These kids—every single one of them—they’re my heart. They’re the reason I get up every morning at the crack of dawn. They’re the reason I can wake up without hesitation at 5:15 a.m. and work until 9:30 p.m.
Learning is happening in my classroom. This month, I can feel it. But even more important than that, love is happening in my classroom. And that’s the thing that’s making all the difference. Students that refused to pick up a pen are writing full paragraphs now. I don’t have them all yet, but I’m working—relentlessly—to make sure that I have them all in time.
It’s an arduous process. Some days, I come home and cry for no other reason than because I am overwhelmed. Some days, I can’t stop talking to whoever will listen about the breakthroughs I’ve had. Some days—most days—by the end of it, I’m a zombie.
But every day gets better. And my kids give me so much hope.
It’s no wonder that teaching has one of the highest turnover rates of any profession in the country. I thought my time in college was rigorous while I pursued three majors. But what we call Institute at Teach For America—where we learn how to be a teacher in five weeks and teach summer school to kids in Tulsa Public Schools—college did not prepare me for. It seems like an impossible feat to keep up with all that is necessary to be an excellent teacher.
This is hard. This is one of the hardest thing of this academic nature that I have ever done. And this is coming from someone who would rather do homework than go out on a Friday night (I’m one of those). This is coming from someone who has been obsessed about school since the first time I stepped a foot into pre-K at two years old.
It’s hard because you don’t just get a B for falling short of excellent. Mind you, a B was always the end of the world to me back in the day. No, here, if you’re not excellent you’re failing a kid—a child with a real LIFE. You’re failing to give her what she needs to be successful, to be able to reach those big dreams she has of becoming a famous writer, a doctor, a teacher, an engineer. Our kids have those dreams. If we fail them here, we become a barrier for them to get to those dreams.
If we fail these kids now, during summer school—even in this short span of time we’re together—we potentially fail them for the rest of their lives. Because once José and Ashley and Yesmia and Brandon leave me, they’ll be inserted back to the system. And who knows what will happen to those precious children then.
Systemic racism and classism will throw punches at them as often as they have a chance to look up and see where they’re going.
So this is hard. There are deadlines to meet, skills to master in a short amount of time, knowledge to internalize all day, every day. There’s no test or quiz at the end. There’s just the classroom. We are no longer independent college students—because everything we’re doing and learning we don’t have a foundation for. It’s all fresh and it’s all new.
It’s hard, but it’s hard because I’ve hardly ever had to really work to understand something. I’ve never had to put so much thought into what I’m doing for it to come out right. It’s hard, most of all, because the stakes are lives and not grades anymore. A teacher’s work is more serious than brain surgery. We’re molding the future. And we can’t redo what we’ve done once it’s done.
It’s hard. But there are students in my class who go through this kind of challenge—on top of so many others, like poverty, racism and the threat of their parent’s deportation—every day they step into my class, or anyone’s for that matter.
Some of them are reading at a first grade level when they should be going into seventh grade next August.
Miguel* is a student in my class with the sweetest face I have ever seen, who stares at his in class assignments when I pass them out. That’s all he can do. He doesn’t raise his hand—it’s embarrassing for him. He just stares down with a furrowed brow and looks up at me as I make my way past each table of children, like he’s trying to tell me something sad and secret.
I look down at his paper every time to find no a single mark, though all the other children have at least tried to write down something. I kneel down beside Miguel and he looks at me, begging for help because I can see it in his eyes that nothing on that page makes sense.
So I read the directions to him in a whisper. Sometimes they make sense to him, but sometimes they don’t, and I have to reword the question so that he can better understand what its asking. Still his answers are simple sentences because he can’t write. Every word he needs help spelling. While the other kids are writing multiple sentences on their own, Miguel gets through one or two with my help.
If he comes to class every day, the state will push Miguel along to the seventh grade despite the fact that he is basically illiterate. If at every level he is so far behind his peers, will he stay in high school? Will he get too frustrated with himself to push through? Will he slip through the cracks of a big school serving too many kids just like Miguel—kids that don’t have the opportunities to work the system in their favor the way white middle class families can?
Miguel will not leave my class—no matter how hard I work and how hard he works—having grown six grade levels. That would be an impossible task for this short four weeks and this brand new teacher. But I’ve fallen in love with little Miguel in five short days, and he wakes me up in the morning and keeps me up at night planning, planning, planning how to make him learn quickly and effectively.
Still, he’ll leave me soon and I won’t know what the system will do to him—or not do to him.
While I have him and all the other beautiful children in my class, I’ll wage a brutal battle against the system that has held them back. I fight for them because they need to know that someone will. They need to know that they deserve a teacher that loves them and takes their lives and their futures seriously. They need someone to show them their potential and love them enough to push them to fulfill it.
They need someone who will give them a path to their big goals. They still believe they can reach them, and they should always believe that.
The students that stood on that stage in front of the rest of the graduating class, indeed, would be top students during their four-year college careers. We were the ones that would go on to become doctors, engineers, architects, educators, law school students, and dentists, to name a few. Our schooling experience had been specifically designed to put us ahead of everyone else. It had set us up to be leaders and to be far more successful than the average student.
For the fractional top percent of students in high schools around the country, the tracking system can be a saving grace. But, meanwhile, the vast majority of students that are not on the highest academic track are being denied critical educational opportunities. They are asked to meet a standard that falls far short of excellence.
This is not to say that students on lower academic tracks cannot succeed academically in college or in their careers. They absolutely can—and do. But these are exceptional cases. The question is this: Why do we let some faceless bureaucratic institution decide which children are worthy of high investment and which ones are not?
Think like a parent: You have a child that you love and adore with all your heart. He is, after all, a part of you. You have placed him in what you know to be a good public school just outside your neighborhood. You know that your Johnny is a smart, smart boy. He asks questions, he is articulate, and he always says he wants to be a pilot (Johnny has an obsession with airplanes). But Johnny has real difficulty sitting still and focusing on one task, let alone taking long, standardized tests. He also gets into trouble in class pretty often because he’s a talker. He’s probably not the best reader, you know that, but you also know he’s smart enough to become
an excellent reader. His best subject is math, but because he’s not great at taking long tests, he often scores poorly on his math tests. But you know
he understands the material. He just needs practice with his work ethic and focus.
When presented with the option of whether you’d like to place your son on the lower or higher academic track, what do you choose? Do you choose to lower the standards so that he does well with ease? Or do you choose to raise the standards so that he is challenged and forced to learn more?
Unfortunately, it isn’t your choice. And most likely, Johnny will be placed on a lower academic track. For those persistent parents that do know how the system works, there may be a chance that they have more of a say. But ultimately the decision that will dictate your child’s future is made by that faceless bureaucratic institution. The fact of the matter is that “there is overwhelming research evidence that tracking students by ability has no educational benefit for students and in fact is deleterious to academic achievement, extracurricular participation, self-concept, peer relationships, career aspirations and motivation”
(Black Students and School Failure
, Irvine, p. 10
Despite all the evidence against its benefit, tracking still functions as a means of differentiating education in our public schools. There is no doubt, and empirical evidence proves, that all people are endowed with different strengths and weaknesses. The tracking system, however, does not differentiate on this basis. If this were the case, schools would group students by these strengths and weaknesses so that they were in classes that catered to them.
Instead of differentiating the means and methods of educating students based on their strengths and weaknesses, schools differentiate based on the standards applied to those students. The end result is that the graduating class comprises students on the stage, who are starting college with a college-level educational background; and students on the floor, who barely made it through high school or just breezed by, and lack critical skills they’ll need if
they even go to college. And that’s not to mention those students—about 100 out of my initial class of around 800—that drop out entirely and never graduate.
I can’t help but think that our education system in America is built to perpetuate and worsen the widening gap between rich and poor, white and people of color.
This is the reality—that the increasing achievement gaps in education reflect the growing disparity in our nation as a whole. The statistics, the data, the evidence are all there, but absolutely nothing that addresses the root of the issue is being done.
I’m convinced there is a lack of action for a reason.
When we moved into a real house for the first time, my mother was determined that we should live in the district of the best public school around. And so we did.
For two years, I went to public school before my mother became dissatisfied and sent me, once again, to a private school. I stayed there for a year and a half before money got really tight and I was forced to go back to my public school in the middle of my sophomore year. But having come from all the best schools, and having a mother who was very much involved in my school experience, I was unquestionably placed on the advanced track.
While my other peers were learning how to get by, I was learning how to write college-level essays. While they were bored in class, my teachers constantly challenged me. While they were locked in a classroom culture that devalued achievement, I was surrounded by students with ambition and motivation. While my other peers were expected to pass, I was expected to excel.
I graduated in the top two percent of my class of over 700 students. On the stage of my high school graduation, where all the top students sat, were the same students that had been plucked by the system and placed on the advanced track.
One of the most fundamental problems with the tracking system in primary and secondary education is that it systematically creates and maintains our stratified society. This system deems some students worthy of the best education and some students worthy of the worst. It challenges some students to exceed what is expected of them, and it limits other students to achieve the bare minimum.
The immediate implications of this tracking system are that only a fraction of the students that graduate are ready for college. The medium-term implications are that the standard in colleges, specifically state universities, becomes lowered because so great a percentage of the students don’t have the basic skills necessary for college-level success.
To compound the problem, people of color and the poor tend to be placed on the lowest academic tracks. For example, black students, “particularly black male students, are three times as likely to be in class for the educable mentally retarded as are white students, but only one-half as likely to be in class for the gifted or talented
” (Black Students and School Failure, Irvine, p. 11
). Researchers have concluded that “two-thirds or more of high-ability, high [socioeconomic status] students were in the academic track, but only one-half of the high-ability, low [socioeconomic status] students were enrolled in the academic track
This is an example of the re-segregation taking place in schools today, in which students of color are placed on different academic tracks because of pervasive, conscious and/or subconscious racist beliefs of their inferiority.
The immediate impact of the tracking system in primary and secondary education is displayed in college enrollment and dropout rates. In 2010, 60.5 percent of white students enrolled in college, compared to a mere 14.5 percent of black students, 13 percent of Hispanic students, 6.1 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander students, and .9 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native students
Moreover, many of those students of color that do make it to college find that they are not prepared—academically, financially or socially—for college. Only 20.4 percent of black students, 27.9 percent of Hispanic students, and 21.8 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native students graduated from college in 2008
. The graduation rates for Asian/Pacific Islander and white students were 45 percent and 41.1 percent, respectively.
Programs with a mission to equalize education are not enough. They are a painkiller rather than an antibiotic. The problem is much deeper, much more complex and far too multi-faceted for certain ingredients in the prescription to make any real, lasting difference
. Our schools need holistic reformation. It is more than just misallocation or unfair distribution of resources in the education system. There is something else going on—something far more intentional than we’d like to believe.
We must realize our education system is actively
promoting hierarchies based on racial and ethnic discrimination while hiding behind the glossy shield of programs with “good intentions.”