To Be, or Not To Be a Lifer
What do you do for the third act of your career?
Will you keep the promise of service to a challenged community that you made in your early career? (to drunk colleagues at a Margarita Jones?) ”We’re Lifers,” we all agreed, after our third round of margaritas.
Do you give yourself one final challenge and give yourself to other kids who need you just as much but in different ways?
What will you do when you only have 10 years of teaching left? (ish)
These are the questions that have left the Sensei in an existential funk for the last year or so.
Never bright eyed and bushy tailed, work at my last school (a middle school) was every bit the challenge I knew it would be. Questionable leadership, racial politics, and the massive effects of poverty on students made the teaching conditions there…unique. Yet, still, there were incredibly talented teachers who were making a dent in the system. A system where the odds were against these students and teachers, and little was done at an institutional level to bring about real progress.
There was the Iraq war vet who’s no nonsense persona filled the kids with terror—and love. They knew he cared. And if they ever blew off a district test, he’d have them marching in the rain promising never to score “below basic” again. He’d be in teacher jail today for doing that.
There was the Asian crew of teachers who gave the students a brutal talking to if they dared to call them “pinche Chinos;” it worked. Those hard-headed students learned to respect teachers of all races and treat the women with respect. But, they too would be in jail today (or sued) for having such frank conversations.
There was the funny teacher who would shoot down any and all attempts by ill-intentioned students who were trying to get the class off track. Now you must understand, he was born and raised in the same neighborhood as the students, near 69th and Broadway. He was from the community. He knew the way these kids’ minds worked and what was needed to maintain order in the classroom. When a poor student decided to humiliate the teacher, his speedy and unfiltered responses would elicit major props by students, who knew not to mess with him in a battle of wits. He too would be in teacher jail.
I mention these cases, and a few of my own, to indicate that times have changed. The tools we had to counter the misbehavior of students have been taken from teachers. The system that is L.A. Unified has reacted to their own mishandling of many issues by establishing policies that compensate for their own shortcomings.
In the case of sexual abuse, one would think that structural changes would be made to how teachers are supervised. I don’t know, maybe additional visits to all teachers’ classrooms whether they are evaluated or not? Strolls through the hallways at lunch to ensure no students are alone with teachers?
Instead, entire faculties have been removed from schools, teachers are quickly thrown in teacher jail for the most insignificant allegations, and administrators have their pensions threatened if they don’t walk the straight and narrow path of district policy. You are 10 minutes tardy to my class? Give me 10 jumping jacks. “No, you can’t do that, Ms. Infante, it is corporal punishment.” You want to vandalize my desks with permanent markers? Pick up a bag full of trash from the campus at lunch. “No, Ms. Infante, you are hurting their self-esteem.”
And here’s the kicker. You can say “Fuck you,” “you’re a bitch”, and kick my door as if you are going to tear it down, and per district rules, you cannot be suspended. And all the while, those far removed from schools, those making policy, pat themselves on the back and boast about thelow suspension numbers. As if they are working. As if it is not taking years off of teachers’ lives with the stress of being unable to truly discipline kids in a manner which we know is best. As if the other 39 kids aren’t looking at you with fear of the disruptors, frustration at lack of teaching and learning due to the interruptions, or worse, a gleam in their eye when it strikes them that they too can “turn up” with no consequences.
No suspension is a gift from god to parents who cannot handle their own children; they tell us as much at parent conferences. Or they tell us not to bother them with so many phone calls. My favorite recent one was the parent who was a no show at a parent conference that I only went to work for while seriously ill. When I called to ask where she was, and told her that I made an extra effort to be there for her, she yells “Well no one told you to do that! Why would you do that?” “I was honoring my commitment to your child, who is my student.” “Well you need to take care of yourself and stop asking me questions.” The student returned to class, wreaking more havoc, interrupting learning. Victorious and emboldened. Now I am experienced enough to know that a parent raising a child in poverty is at their wits end. I know they may not have the emotional and economic resources to help their child (and themselves) in the way they need. Which is why economics is such a pervasive factor in how students perform in school. Want to fix schools? Fix poverty. Or give us the right resources.
Sadly, all summer wasn’t enough to recover from my 19thyear of teaching. My friends at more stable schools were worried. Friends and family begged me to move. Job offers arrive in my inbox from friends and colleagues who sensed I would for once consider moving to their schools. Yoga, jogging, and clean eating wasn’t enough. My twitter PLC wasn’t enough.
Heroically, my school is doing what it can while its hands are tied by district policy. We are asked to do miracles by the sadly misinformed (or contemptuously indifferent). It’s an existential crisis because you realize the whole system is stacked against success. Yours and your students. Money that can be spent on counselors, health access, and a robust curriculum is going to the billion dollar testing industry. And even well intentioned peers fighting for social justice still focus on helping that one lost kid but forget the 39 other ones impatient to learn.
You walk a fine line when you write a post like this; you might give ammo to those who will say,” I told you those black and brown kids can’t be educated.” Yet it is more obvious than ever that it’s not about black and brown; it’s about green. Those who can move to a better neighborhood can and will. Those who are mired in poverty and cannot escape its wide effects, stay in local schools where they are not expected to volunteer 40 hours and their students won’t be suspended for cursing the teacher. Black and brown kids of more green do just fine in other places. The greener, the finer.
Affluent schools don’t do annual standardized testing, but offer bountiful programs in the arts and sciences, have libraries full of books, and offer all kinds of sports. Our kids get “restorative justice”, but most classrooms are yet to experience the wonders of that program.
BTW where is the justice for the 39 other kids in the class who are playing by the rules?
I recently ran across an old friend who said he was “scared to tell me” he had moved on to an affluent private school. I looked him square in the eye and said “you gave these kids more than a decade of your life. You changed lives. Walk with your head held high.” Because the majority of teachers would never willingly work in schools like mine if they didn’t have to (some side eye there.)
I used to think I’d be a Lifer. But now I just don’t know. How can you look your charges in the eye when you see that no one really expects them to succeed, and slowly, but surely, all your secret weapons for countering the odds are being taken from you (thou shalt not lie?) Even the greatest of teachers can’t impart knowledge when the interrupter, the shouter, the ADHD, the willfully defiant, and the angry student have decided that no learning will take place today, and the district is on their side.
Is 26 years of service enough?
Any thoughts, comments, or questions would be welcome on this post.