My dad grew up dirt-floor poor. My grandfather struggled with alcoholism, which made it hard to hold down a job. My grandmother left school in the 7th grade, most likely illiterate. They were always poor. My grandparents never got onto food stamps or welfare because of pride—but you know, in reality, I’m not sure they could have filled out the paperwork if they’d wanted to.
An upbringing of extreme poverty has an effect on kids. My father struggled in school, but something really good happened to him there—he met the girl who would become my mother. With her help, he graduated from high school and went on to study at Lincoln Tech. My grandparents, however, were not on board. To them, it felt uppity. It felt unfamiliar. But to my father, it felt like the road to opportunity. He graduated with honors, laying the path for the rest of his life and, eventually, mine.
Becoming a teacher felt like an obvious choice to me. Education was so important in my father’s life—hearing the stories of his childhood, I knew education was what brought him out of a cycle of poverty. I wanted to create that opportunity for kids like my dad.
My first year, I actually had an 8th grade boy in a class who looked exactly like my dad when he was a teenager. It was kind of freaky, but it was actually really good for me. When I looked at him, seeing him living a childhood similar to my father’s, I could make the connection that, “This is why I’m here. For kids like this who might otherwise not make it. This is why I teach.”
And being reminded of why I teach turned out to be really important that first year.
I had thought because my first teaching job was in a rural school, and I’d grown up in a rural community, I’d fit right in. Reality had different plans: I hated it. They didn’t teach you in the classroom or in student teaching, “Oh, hey, if a student throws a desk at you, this is what you do.”
They also didn’t quite prepare me for the workload that was going to be coming my way. I was hired to teach high school English, and I had 5 different classes and 6 periods a day. It felt like it didn’t matter how hard I worked: I could not get enough done in a day, or a night, or a weekend, or during my prep period to be ready for the next day. On top of that, we were supposed to have curriculum maps provided for each course, but when I walked in, there were no curriculum maps to be found. No one really knew what happened to them. So for each of my 5 classes, I was responsible to create a curriculum map, which includes detailed plans for skills that should be learned, methods, assessments, any specialized accommodations, and materials needed. There are a lot of state standards to follow in teaching, and the map shows how the lesson plans fulfill the standards.
The situation would be overwhelming for anyone, but especially for a first-year teacher.
When a position opened up at a nearby middle school, I jumped at it.
I was really optimistic for this new venture, but I was also walking into a school where 7th and 8th graders had just lost their study hall. If you remember back to middle school…that’s a big deal. The time slot was now dedicated to “English Enrichment,” the school’s response to new requirements for 90 minutes of English instruction each day for every child. I loved teaching that class, but in that first year there, on top of being a new teacher in the building—and students know when you’re a new teacher in the building—I had to tell kids, “Welcome to the new school year. You’re going to get a grade now in this period you used to sleep in!” It was a battle. We even had parents who were mad.
Parents are great advocates, but when advocacy goes awry and turns into protection of bad behaviors, you have to stand your ground. That’s hard to do as a young teacher. I had one student who refused to bring in his school-provided iPad, which we were using for assignments. Why refuse to bring in this piece of technology that is some kids’ best friend? Because he wasn’t able to use it for games. His parents demanded that I start printing all his assignments since he wouldn’t use the iPad. The administration sided with the parents, because parents have great influence, but I didn’t budge. I couldn’t. I actually told them they’d have to fire me if they needed to, because I was not going to compromise. They didn’t fire me.
I’ve been in my second school for 3 years now—still fairly new—but it doesn’t take long to discover that administration and parent influence goes far beyond things like printing assignments. This past spring, when school ended, two of my parents were mad and wanted their students’ grades changed. Again, the answer was no from a teacher determined to do the right thing. But soon I received an email from the administration saying I needed to contact the parents and talk to them about their students’ grades. “I did,” I told them. “I did talk to them, they know why this grade is the way it is, and I’m not going to change it.” The disappointment from the administration was there. It was unmistakably there, which is not what you want at any point in your teaching career. If the administration doesn’t trust you’re on board with them, or if they plain don’t like you, your already tough job has just gotten that much tougher.
My dad actually encouraged me to take a different job for this new school year. He could tell that even as a relatively new teacher, I was burning out. My school system wasn’t stable, and the administration continued to be intimidating. In fact, a teacher friend was told by her doctor that if she stayed at that school, he was going to prescribe her medication because she was crying at her desk. And money isn’t why you go into teaching, of course, but I was almost finished with my PhD and getting paid what a nearly brand new teacher makes; I couldn’t afford to stay in that system any longer. I still loved the profession, but for so many reasons, I didn’t know if could keep doing it if I stayed there.
So, I took a job in a new system where I’ll be able to pay off my loans. I’ll be able to buy a house. I’ll hopefully feel more supported by administration and more confident in the stability of my job. My father’s experience speaks into this decision as well, as he’s taught me to make sure that my pursuits are sustainable.
The teaching scene in our community is not all doom and gloom. For every disheartening story, there’s a success. But you can’t ignore the struggles. Ignoring the struggles keeps us from learning from them. If my father had ignored his struggles and accepted them as normal, he wouldn’t be where he is today, and I wouldn’t be where I am. No matter where I teach, or what I teach, there will always be students like my father, and that’s why I chose this profession and why I’m still here. I teach for them and their unfolding stories.
This story originally appeared in Facing Teaching, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.