Seven Years Treading Water

I just* finished my seventh year of teaching.

I’ve gotten in the habit of taking time each summer to to reflect on the school year. It’s been valuable to look back and see growth in myself. I would encourage any new teacher to journal through their first year (at the very least) just so that later on, when things feel particularly crazy, you can look back on the craziest times to see just how far you’ve come. (That’s also why Educating Esme was an important read during my first years of teaching.)

*Normally I do this before the end of August, but not this year. Still… it’s important to look back, even as I am already looking forward and planning for the coming year.

I’ve been at four different schools now, including my one year in Spain, and the longest I was at one school was three years, so my experience of teaching has been a string of fresh starts. Even within those short stints at each school, being a Specials teacher has also has been an endless cycle of fresh starts and a fair amount of flailing.

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Here’s to more than just survival.

This year brought yet another new school, yet another fresh start, and new lessons to learn:

Working with a new and diverse student population. In still-segregated Detroit I was working with very homogenous populations. Here in San Diego, our school population is much more diverse, both racially and socioeconomically. (One downfall is that not being in a Title 1 school means that I have lost access to loan forgiveness… but teaching was never going to be financially wise, right?)

Teaching Spanish to native speakers. This newly diverse student population has also included a fair number of Spanish speakers. Our percentage of Spanish speakers is lower than some neighborhood schools, but higher than my former teaching experience. (In my five years in Detroit, I taught exactly one student who spoke Spanish at home.) Most classes had 2 to 5 Spanish speakers, and the graduating 8th grade class had 10. I have had to adjust lessons for a wider range of language levels, and find ways to challenge and teach native speakers with various literacy levels. (I just got a big addition to my class library funded through Donors Choose, which is very exciting!)

Facilitating communication with Spanish-speaking families. Having a more diverse population has also added a piece to my job description that was not necessary at my schools in Detroit – being a link between the school and Spanish-speaking families. This past year I called home for behavior issues, translated IEP meetings and parent conferences, and worked with other Spanish-speaking staff to include our growing community of Spanish-speaking families.

Fewer stuffed animals and significantly less urine. After years of teaching K-8th, this year I taught 3rd-8th grade, with mostly middle school classes. I already miss the antics of the little ones, and how easy it was to keep them engaged, enthused, and entertained. (Funny voices! Songs! An easy audience for my jokes!) However, this is the first year that nobody has peed (or worse) during one of my classes, which isn’t bad.

Teaching Spanish as an academic subject. In Michigan, Spanish was pretty solidly just an extra or “special” class. (An extra that is rapidly being cut across the state, since it is not on the all-powerful Test.) Art, Music, PE/Health, and Technology classes were shoehorned in around “core” classes, once a week or 4 days a week for one quarter. At my new school, I teach younger grades once a week, but I have the middle schoolers for 2 hours per week all year – frequency and consistency that allows me to build proficiency. More importantly, I have family and administrative support for Spanish as an academic subject, perhaps in part because here in Southern California it is a more obvious part of the community. This coming year I’ll even have a curriculum for middle school (a first for me!) which will hopefully allow students to complete Spanish 1 material over the course of their middle school studies.

Collaborating and growing with a new school. My new-to-me school is also a fairly new school in general – it’s the same age as my teaching career, in fact. We are moving into a new building this summer, and we have a fair amount of growing pains. I’ve appreciated the opportunity to work with the growing middle school team and with the accreditation committee to see the inner workings of a charter school, and also have a voice in the directions we grow in. I got to be involved in hiring a 2nd Spanish teacher to expand our primary program, and in choosing a curriculum. This coming year will bring more changes, but these are productive challenges – working with new populations, building relationships, and growing with a school are all different then the challenges of working impossible hours, commuting endless hours in Michigan weather, or teaching 9 different levels with limited supplies, curriculum, or behavior support.

Bonus: Mental health! Teaching probably builds character (thanks, Calvin’s dad) but it’s not always great for mental health. Especially during the worst commutes, I spent endless hours driving – hours broken by naps in parking lots. Summers offered a small space for other identities to emerge – friend, sister, daughter, wife, graduate student – but during the year I often disappeared and was just a teacher. I often survived on coffee and baked goods from a sympathetic officemate (thanks, Nancy.) I lived paycheck to paycheck, I overdrew my bank account, I deferred my looming student loans. I cried in my car and in my office. (Sorry, Nancy.) This past year, I acquired dozens of small luxuries that felt monumental. I had a fifteen minute drive to work. I had a lunch break and a prep period every day. I only brought home grading during the weekends. I had time to eat breakfast, exercise, read, and have a life outside of school. (Unfortunately I left most of my relationships back in Michigan. That’s another story.) As it turns out, mental health is pretty important for work performance – especially something like teaching that requires a lot of emotional investment. This year I was a better teacher because I could be a human as well as a teacher. (Well, most of the year. During conferences and report cards I reverted to a caffeine-fueled, crazy-eyed TeacherBot. Some things will probably never change.)

Navigating survivor’s guilt. This new taste of mental health comes along with what I can only describe as survivor’s guilt. There’s a reason why Michigan schools – especially Detroit schools – are loaded with new teachers, and why their enthusiasm and idealism are not a lasting replacement for experience and adequate training. There’s a reason why so many teachers burn out and leave the profession. I burned out, and I left Detroit, carrying with me my strong belief that every kid deserves to be taught by knowledgeable, experienced, prepared and caring professionals – along with the heavy reality that poor kids often have to settle for a revolving selection of caring but unprepared young teachers. I survived what I could, and I ultimately gave up. It’s hard to talk myself out of the guilt for self-preservation. (Blame my childhood diet of Catholic martyrs and bloody halos.)

Teaching in Detroit was hard, and it’s easy to reduce it to the craziest parts – being punched in the face or having chairs thrown at me, having tires and car parts stolen in school parking lots, broken furnaces or fires or apocalyptic landscapes. It’s not that simple and it wasn’t all chaos. I worked with some amazing and inspiring teachers, administrators, families, and students. I have lost students to suicide, house fires, amber alerts, and impossible home lives but I have also watched them smile in the newspaper, give graduation speeches, and go on to prestigious schools. My students communicated with students across the globe, learned fart jokes despite me, and gaped at Rivera’s mural in the DIA. Even though I left, I don’t regret any of it.

Teaching in Detroit developed my appetite for altruism. Advocating for students and building personal relationships is so important for any teaching job, and in my experience of working with mainly “disadvantaged” populations, those individual relationships are sometimes the only place to see any impact. I had too many students and not enough time, too many classes and not enough money, too many behavior incidents and not enough support. I had to believe that doing my best and caring about my students could make a difference. Now, I have to accept that I can make a difference without losing myself in the process. I have to believe that I can do even more when I have the support and resources I need.

All of this is just to say: This year I’ve been growing instead of just surviving. I’ve been teaching instead of just desperately trying to pull teachable moments from the chaos.

I have high hopes for this coming year, and for this new chapter I’ve entered. Maybe I’m done treading water.

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3 Responses to Seven Years Treading Water

  1. Dawn Barr says:

    Sara, this is such an inspiring post! I love the idea of journaling throughout the year and reflecting at the end. It’s a necessary practice that I’ll begin this year. I particularly identify with the whole human/teacher balance and have already set it as my goal this year, as last year I was a bitter, angry shadow of myself and that’s good for no one. I look forward to reading more posts!

  2. Saracita says:

    Thanks, Dawn! I think work/life balance is always tough if you are lucky enough to be passionate about your job… but it’s so important! I set it as a goal every year.

  3. scribon says:

    You are in a good place. The chaos of your years teaching in Detroit formed you into the teacher you are today. I am proud of you! (and did you know… you have already reached the terminal point of my own years as a public school teacher? I taught 7 1/2 years to a fragile lot in a “poor school” in Monroe. While I didn’t “give up” (I left to welcome YOU in my life, which was more of a leap into pure joy!) I understand the feeling of surviver guilt. When I tossed in the towel after 20 years of home schooling, and watched your younger sibs sink into the morass of institutiional “education” in this test-driven system… well, I still feel guilty that I didn’t have the strength to finish. I just wore out. You are right- you can’t do this for the long run & remain human without support.

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