Dear First Year Teacher in a Title I School

My first three years of teaching were in a Title I school, a school that received grants because of the number of high-needs students it served. During the 2009-2010 school year, 56,000 Title I schools served 21 million students. That’s a lot of schools and a lot of kids. And there will be many teachers starting their careers in these schools this year. According to this article from the National Education Association, “It’s one of the harsh paradoxes of teaching: the schools least prepared to support new teachers—that is, low-income, low-performing facilities—are the ones where most new teachers are sent.”

So like thousands of other new teachers, I started my career in a tough position. The first year was, in a word, awful. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, in fact. Why was it so awful? I started six weeks into the school year replacing a teacher who just disappeared one day. He had enough and just didn’t show up for work; we learned later he had moved about an hour and a half away. The teacher before him lasted one semester – as had the two teachers before her. I was the fourth teacher in this classroom in two years. The kids expected me to leave them. (Many of them wanted me to leave them!) But it was an awful year not because of those circumstances. It was an awful year because I was so poorly prepared for the job. Not in the academic sense; I have a Master’s degree in my subject area and received intensive training and weekly mentoring for classroom management and facilitation of learning. I just had no grid for helping children who didn’t know if there would be food over the weekend. No one taught me how to respond when a student asked if she could come live with me, “I have my own blankets, Miss.” What was I supposed to say when a student said I was almost as old as her grandmother at the ripe old age of 28? I had no skills for dealing with in-your-face defiance from the campus drug dealer – much less from the teenage girls who made running me off a game or point of pride – or in supporting children suffering from untreated mental illness. No one could teach me those things, either. No book or manual or class could bring about what needed to happen: a complete paradigm shift. The children and families I served were not lazy. They were not “working the system.” The vast majority were not drug abusers or child abusers or amoral or gang  members. In fact, most of them worked hard. Most did not relish receiving public assistance and would give what little they had away to help someone else. Most were clean and sober and loved their children fiercely. Most were working hard in legal occupations – certainly harder than my family had ever worked – against much steeper odds to have less and to stay on the same rung of the socioeconomic ladder generation after generation.  My middle-class upbringing left me grossly unequipped for teaching children from extreme, generational poverty, children who were first-generation Americans or children from families affected by inequity in our judicial system. My students and their families changed me for the better. But, man, was I an awful teacher that first year!

Fortunately, my friend starting her teaching career in a Title I school is so much more enlightened than I was; she is not mired in the rhetoric of the privileged class or blinded by buy-in to the bootstrap mythology. But even so, I know the year will be a challenge. I’ve written her a letter, and because I know there are thousands of others out there who find themselves in the same circumstances, I will share it here.

Dear Friend,

I am so proud and excited for your new venture! You are going to be an awesome teacher and your students are going to have a great year with you. I know you are excited and nervous (and all the other feelings), but I just know everything is going to be great. We’ve talked  about it before, but I think it needs saying just one more time before you walk in the classroom tomorrow. All your feelings are okay. All of them.

It’s okay to feel exhausted, physically and emotionally. The emotional roller coaster and the paperwork, the meetings, the planning, the resource gathering, the professional development – plus more – are draining. You will spend hours on bulletin boards and practice packets and lab trays. Since you are just starting out, you will have to make many of your materials – or spend weekends scouring garage sales for treasures you can use or bargain stores for supplies your students can use. You might ask for people’s trash. And you will likely feel so very tired many days. Not as tired as you were during the first six weeks of your babies’ lives, but pretty dang close. Plan now for some rest. Make time to recharge – or you might be that teacher with the nagging cough from October through February. Take care of yourself. No one benefits if you run yourself into the ground.

It’s okay to feel sadness and even despair. There certainly will be children who have suffered neglect, abuse and/or the near-crippling effects of generational poverty who act out those feelings of betrayal and distrust with extreme anger and defiance. There may be children (and colleagues) who are so hateful – to other children, to you, to entire groups of people – that you despair of teaching, of the next generation, of humanity in general. Weep for them and the way things are, the way things have been. Weep for feeling overwhelmed and under-equipped to meet a need so vast and so deep. Cry some big ugly tears. (Just do NOT do it in front of the children. Really.)  Let your heart be broken; you know that light shines more brightly through our cracks.

10 Ways to Improve Public Schools

One of the best things about being a homeschooling mom who was and remains a certified public school teacher is that I am in a unique position to say what I really think about the current state of affairs in public education without sounding self- serving. I have a lot to say – don’t get me started unless you want an earful! In summary I believe in free, high-quality public education for all and I will fight for it until my last breath. Period. The End. Many people – even those who homeschool and even those without children or whose children are long grown – share that sentiment. I am proud to call many of these people friends. On a recent Facebook thread for another teacher friend, some of these amazing people asked what they could do to help their local schools, teachers and students, and I was only too happy to share 10 Ways to Improve Public Schools!

1. Buy gift cards to stores that sell school supplies and grocery items (many of us buy food for our students as well as paper/pencils).

2. Join your PTSA and if there isn’t one to join, start one.

3. Volunteer in the classroom or in the school office. If you can’t spare time during the work day, call and ask how you can help at home – cutting out bulletin boards, collating homework packets, prepping lab supplies.

4. Attend school board meetings. Spend the first few times listening, then participate.

5. Send your child’s teachers a note or small something when you feel the school year is dragging along. The teacher probably feels the same way and could use a pick-me-up, too. A handwritten note, a $5 Starbucks card or just some spiffy new post-its work wonders.

6. Ask your school’s principal if there is a teacher/class/child who needs to be adopted. Then adopt that teacher/class/child, either as a family or as a civic/church group.

7. Ask your school’s principal how you can help at-risk kids. Can you start a tutoring group? A parenting mentor group? A backpack feeding program on the weekends? Teachers can’t do everything, but we will kill ourselves trying.

8. When you catch a teacher being awesome, send a letter. An actual, physical letter. Even the good ones need positives in their folder come evaluation time.

9. Stick up for your teacher – with your kids, with other parents, with the community. If you hear groundless teacher-bashing, stop it. If it has grounds, challenge the person to take it to the right person to get the problem solved.

10. Vote. And I’ll be bold – vote Democrat. Right now, those are the people who are looking for common-sense solutions, equitable funding for all children and asking actual boots-on-the-ground folks for their input.

If you can’t do all of these things all at once, pick five and put them on your calendar. Get involved, speak up, be the change. Teachers need you. We absolutely do.

This year, I’m adopting the classroom of a friend who is beginning her first year of teaching in a low-performing school. I have her first care package ready to go and will send more throughout the year. Locally, I am looking for financial supporters to bring Communities in Schools to our district. We have such a high rate of poverty here that nearly all of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch. In fact, the number of non-qualifying students is so low, that our district was easily able to cover the difference so that every child eats free on every campus. Let that sink in for a moment. Communities in Schools is a partnership between the district and CIS to identify and meet needs on campus to improve campus climate, learning, attendance, and graduation rate –  things that schools with high levels of low-SES students typically struggle with. If you want to know more about them, follow this link.

It’s just not enough to sit around and fault-find and complain. We can’t sit around wringing our hands and saying, “Back in my day…” longing for the way things used to be. (Hint: “the way things used to be” is only good for certain groups of people – it wasn’t rainbows and lollipops for everyone.) And it’s really a cop-out to shuttle your children to better schools, private, public, or in the home and say, “Well, MY kid is taken care of – my work here is done!” or “I pay my taxes – that’s my share!” It’s just not enough. We all have to do something to make it better for everyone.

So, what will you do? Be the change.

Where I’ve Been

Before I became a SAHM, I worked part-time and thought it was probably the best of both worlds, if both worlds were to be had. I multi-tasked. I got lots of things done. AND, I got to spend part of my day doing grown-up things, changing the world, yada yada, and part of the day doing mom things, changing the world, yada yada.

But when we decided to have  a second child and I looked at the costs of quality childcare and my paychecks, it was a no-brainer for me to stay home. Sure, we would have to forgo the yard guy and the cleaning lady, but I would be home to do the yard and the cleaning. I wouldn’t be able to drop a few hundred dollars every season on a new wardrobe, but I could just wear mom clothes – you know, jeans and tee shirts and comfy cardigans with a cute pair of shoes. And forget about the trendy hair cuts and nails, because who needs those when you’re cleaning toilets and sculpting play dough, right?

But the main reason I became a SAHM was because, for me, having “the best” of both worlds meant both worlds were rather mediocre. I received great reviews and my classes were thriving – but I knew that I could have been doing so much more for my students if I wasn’t also feeling the tug of hearth and home. My house was mostly clean and we ate many home-cooked meals, but I could be doing so much more if I wasn’t also feeling the weight of responsibilities at work.

I was convinced that things could be excellent instead of just acceptable if only I did one thing full-time. I chose motherhood. Sucker.*

Reality is that things are still fairly mediocre. The house is clean(ish), the laundry gets done (but not put away) and meals are usually at home (though they are often gross kid-friendly things like pizza and spaghetti). My kids certainly see more of me – a LOT more of me since we ended up homeschooling – but I can’t say that being home with my kids almost all the time has made me a better mother. Sacrilege.**

The fact is, I was better at the Hallmark-greeting-card motherhood stuff when I didn’t have to get to do it all the time. The thought process went something like, “I only get to see him three waking hours a day, so let’s make a memory!” Now I think, “Three more hours until bedtime?! You have got to be kidding me!!!”

So, in January, I decided maybe I should pursue some things for just me: exercise, creative writing, curriculum development. And those things were going well. I ran my first 5K in 10+ years, I got an offer for my first book, and people were requesting my curriculum creations. But, you know what wasn’t going well? The motherhood part of the equation. Not well at all.

Scooter started having more frequent temper tantrums. He lashed out at Cheech. He reverted in some key skills like sharing and falling asleep alone at night. But the final straw for this mama was when he started calling the stinkbugs at the park his best friends. Stinkbugs, y’all.

I’m sure it isn’t all due to me taking time for myself. I’m sure it has more to do with moving away from all of our friends and family, the trauma of a terrible school experience, so few activities in this neck of the woods, etc. But whatever the causes, the only thing I can really change is how I spend my own time.***

So, instead of working out/writing/developing curriculum, I’ve been doing anything and everything I can to get my son on solid ground and to make some friends other than Katie, the stinkbug. (They are all named Katie and he thinks he’s finding the same one every day. I’m not going to tell him otherwise.) I’ve been driving him all over kingdom come to camps and play dates. I’ve been making friends with moms who have children his age. We’ve put Cheech in a three-mornings-per-week daycare so that they both can have a break from each other. During that time, Scooter and I do stuff one-on-one.We have a lot of conversations about dinosaurs, animal habitats, and hypothetical situations involving tornadoes and flash floods.

And it’s helping I think. He’s doing better. And that has to be more important to me than that half I wanted to run or the book I wanted to publish. I think it would be to any parent. Do I wish it didn’t require so much of my time? Absolutely. It’s exhausting – especially those conversations about dinosaurs. Shoot me.

Someday, I can write a novel and run a half marathon and even go back to classroom teaching. But not today. And probably not tomorrow, either. But, I personally can’t be the mom my kids need AND write the next great American novel. But the blog will be here when I get back, right? I’ll just be hanging out with Scooter and the stinkbugs for awhile.2015-07-05 11.22.38

*I know, many will say, “Motherhood is your greatest work!” I hope not. Because I am just not very good at it, y’all. If this is my best, that’s just terribly sad.
**It’s just me I’m sure. All the other mommies in the Interwebz have got it all figured out and cherish every little moment with their precious snowflakes. I don’t deserve children. Yada yada.

***”Put him in school!” the people cry. The people don’t live here. The people don’t understand all the factors. Next year, people. Next year.