Friday, September 19, 2014

Washed Up?

I began teaching when I was 22. Bright-eyed and full of self-importance and altruism, I spent my days around people who were much more "experienced." As the youngest member of our staff for the first five years of my career, I listened to their grumblings and complaints with a mixture of curiosity and loathing. Those poor, wretched people had forsaken their principles and succumbed to the pressure to *gasp* settle. They did not try to save every child. They did not spend hours every night grading papers. THEY WENT HOME BEFORE DARK! And to top it all off, they were bitter. They said negative things about the administration, the district, and even the students. It was all very, very disturbing.

Then I had a baby, and I had to learn to *gasp* settle, too! Strangely, my baby did not understand that I needed to grade papers. She did not care one bit about cheer competitions, or community service events, or that another one of my students was homeless. She just needed her mama. And I was the only one she had. So I learned to find TAs to help with grading. I didn't even grade everything! I quit coaching. I, too, was home before dark (most days). But I still loved my job, and I did it to the best of my ability. I loved my kids and my school and the neighborhood where I worked. I pitied the people who left the school, because they always realized in hindsight how much they had loved working there. But they moved on, and kept teaching. I stayed.

My school has undergone many changes in the 22 years I have been there. Some of them have been groundbreaking; some have not. Some have been incredibly positive; many have not. Today, the only two colleagues who were there when I started are administrators, and they are serving out their last couple of years before retirement. Everyone I taught with has left, by choice or by force (including my husband), or retired. Enrollment is dropping. We are the only school that has not undergone facilities improvements that other campuses received a decade ago. And we have a significant number of teachers who are just biding their time until they, too, leave. Of course, there are other teachers who have taught valiantly with me for many years, who have fought for our students with every ounce of their being. They are tired, defeated, and bitter. They are only in their thirties. They are on their way out. Out of the school, or out of education altogether.

And so here I sit, in my mid-forties, wondering what I am supposed to do about this. As an educator, I cannot respect someone who doesn't demand the best of kids. But the people I know who don't settle have left or are leaving. And last year, in one of my classes, I had to settle, too. "Just let them graduate." As a senior English teacher, how can I correct three (or eleven) years of failure to demand quality work from students? No, no. Let them graduate. It's not their fault. ISN'T THAT THE SAME ATTITUDE I'VE FOUGHT MY ENTIRE CAREER??

I know I am at a crossroads. Change is coming, and I don't know what it is or where it will lead me. It's been a very, very difficult beginning of the school year, even though my actual teaching assignment is pretty nice (all honors classes, small class sizes). But right smack in the middle of my identity crisis, one of my graduates came by to say goodbye before she moves in to UCLA this weekend, and left me the sweetest thank you note telling me all the things I helped her with. Another of my current seniors came in with cheesecake to say thank you for writing him a letter of recommendation before running off to football practice. And two kids stayed for 90 minutes after school going over a test on which they performed poorly.

These kids. These beautiful, hard-working, grateful, amazing kids I work with. How could I ever leave them and live with myself? How can I continue to sit by and watch them be undereducated and given less? How could I stop doing everything in my power to change that? How can I live with my inability to change that?

Life was so much simpler when I was 22.