Public vs. private: Part II

[This is the second of two posts about my journey from public schools to private school. You can read the first part here.]

There I was, career-less and broken. It was the summer of 2010: vying for teaching jobs was highly competitive, I had a black mark on my record, and I didn’t have the energy to fight for myself anymore. I worked part time for $10 per hour over the summer and was considering trying to make that a full time gig. I had pretty much given up on teaching.

One miserably hot July day, an acquaintance (who is now one of my dearest friends) texted me to say that the 3rd/4th grade teacher had just left the private school where he taught. “Turn in your résumé today,” he said. I had never considered teaching at a private school, and had barely considered some local charter schools. I assumed this was a secular school, because this particular friend didn’t seem the type to teach at a religious school, but we had never really talked about it. I had negative, uninformed opinions about private schools, but at that point they were better than my informed opinions about public schools. He seemed happy with his job and I thought, “Well, maybe he can vouch for me even though I’m not sure I can.” I got a little excited about the prospect. I researched the school via its website, wrote a cover letter, updated my résumé, and readied my interview suit.

The interview process at Camelot Academy was long and consisted of email correspondence, a phone interview, a sample lesson taught to a group of kids, and several meetings with the director. I got the impression that she was hesitating to hire me for some reason, and I agonized over what I could do to tip the scales in my favor. I had no idea who else applied for the job, and while I was careful not to point out that I had been fired from my last teaching job, I couldn’t lie about it. One day, she asked me why I’d left my last school. While giving my carefully prepared spiel, I realized it wasn’t going to be enough. “I notice you didn’t put your principal down as a reference. Why?” I couldn’t lie. I couldn’t come up with anything that didn’t sound like I was hiding something, so I just told her the truth. I burst into tears and told her everything, sure that I had just lost the last opportunity I had to stay in teaching.

I was completely shocked by her response. She understood. She still seemed apprehensive, but I clearly had not ruined my chances. She was honest with me and explained that my lack of experience and the fact that I was young worried her; she wasn’t sure how parents would react. (I was 27 at the time, but even at 30 I still get carded for alcohol and am often mistaken for a high school student. It’s lucky, I suppose, unless you’re trying to be taken seriously.) The teacher who had my position previously had left somewhat suddenly, and she was concerned that parents would be disappointed unless her replacement was someone who seemed able to fill her shoes. In the end, Thelma took a chance on me, and I am eternally grateful to her for that.

Teaching in a private school is completely different from teaching in a public school. Your income is directly related to parent happiness – if the parents aren’t happy, they’ll just remove their kid from the school. Too much of that and then there’s no income with which to pay the teacher. I was also still struggling with a low opinion of my abilities and my previous teacher-principal relationship. It was clear that Thelma was on my side from the beginning, but I was constantly worried that she would decide she had made a mistake and fire me.

Meanwhile, I was trying to learn a new curriculum and create my own lesson plans, something I hadn’t done since I was a student teacher. The freedom to teach things the way I wanted, coupled with the flexibility of class groups, was amazing and overwhelming. I was trusted to do what I had been trained to do. Visits from the director were not punitive – I was given support, praise, and constructive feedback. My opinion, however new, mattered. My talents were appreciated. My entire first year I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, yet nothing happened. By my second year, I had a pretty good idea of what I was doing and how I would improve. I of course had my frustrations, but nothing that I couldn’t talk about with my colleagues, boss, and parents of students. I grew as a teacher and learned more about my strengths in the classroom. Best of all – student happiness was a top priority and standardized testing was a thing we have to do once per year rather than a regular event to be prepared for at all costs.

The way we do things at Camelot is not right for every student. I freely admit that some students would be better served in public school, at different private schools, or at schools that sadly don’t exist (yet). While Camelot has low tuition when compared to other schools, affordability is also an issue. That said, yesterday’s graduation ceremony showed me how wonderful we are for the students we do serve and reminded me how much this school saved me when I had lost all confidence in myself. Each of the nine seniors delivered a speech that explained how Camelot had given them a place to grow, gain confidence, and be themselves. Some came from other schools in which they had been treated badly by other students or teachers, some struggle with mental and emotional disorders for which they found love and support, and all of them praised the dedication and hard work of the teachers and director for helping them reach their academic goals.

I realized that each one of them were echoing my own feelings for a school that became a family for all of us. All schools should have the kind of community that we have; I don’t teach any of those seniors, yet I cried during their heartfelt speeches. I was happy to do my part to make the graduation ceremony special for them, and I am proud of all of them as they begin their college careers.

I don’t know how to fix public education; a balance between variety of school environments and standardization of curricula would be a good start. Either way, after three years in this private school I can’t imagine teaching anywhere else.

Public vs. private: Part I

My entire education (including college) came from public schools. I volunteered in public schools from my junior year in high school until I graduated college in 2008. I’m even a North Carolina Teaching Fellow. I always imagined that I would teach in public schools and I still strongly believe in free and accessible education for all people. (I’m a big ol’ socialist – also, dumb people are not so good at running things.)

It's got what plants crave...
It's got what plants crave...

Then I taught two years in Durham Public Schools at Lakewood Elementary School. Initially, I thought it was great. Sure, they were bogged down by Reading First, but everything else seemed perfect for me. The student population was overwhelmingly low-income, which was exactly the kind of school I wanted. In my interview I got the impression that the principal, Cornelius Redfearn, was enthusiastic and liked my background in science. He hired me right away and let me choose the grade level I would teach. It was his first year, too, so I also expected some sympathy and understanding regarding the challenges I would face as a new teacher.

It was the worst job I have ever had. Redfearn didn’t understand children, specifically the children who attended the school he was supposed to be running. He didn’t understand teachers, either. What did he understand? Office politics. He understood how to make himself look good to his bosses, and that was all that mattered. He refused to suspend children from school, even when they threatened or fought with each other repeatedly, such that we were celebrated for having a low suspension rate. He and the assistant principal were inconsistent with behavior management and showed no appreciation to the students, parents, teachers, or staff.

Our theme for my second year there was “No Excuses” – a reference to student test scores and how there are no excuses for low scores. Half of your class has documented learning disabilities for which they receive inconsistent, minimal support? That’s an excuse. Some of your students have only studied English for one or two years? Excuse. You should have tried harder, stayed later, managed behavior better – all while administering daily, weekly, quarterly, and semesterly assessments. I didn’t even have control over my lesson plans – everything, down to the page number of the math book, was assigned to the teachers from the district. I argued that it wouldn’t work; some of my students needed extra time on a concept. Excuse! I should have taught it better the first time. We effectively deleted the Social Studies from the curriculum, as well, to make room for a two-and-a-half-hour block of language arts time. This infuriated me, and I said so. I was the one who always asked for sources when we were presented with “data” on why this method of language arts instructions works. I questioned our testing methods. I suggested we have some flexibility with our lesson plans to tailor them to our students. I was a squeaky wheel – I dared to challenge the way things were done. I cared more about whether my students were eating, safe, and loved than the score they achieved on a single test in April. I kept work samples to show student growth in the inevitable event that a kid failed the End of Grade test and I needed to prove that they had actually learned something that year. Nobody trusted the teachers to actually determine if their students were learning.

Caring about your students was unappreciated – sometimes punished. You could not advocate for your students, have an opinion, or question authority. I was absolutely miserable, and there was nothing I could do about it. The economy was shit, so I couldn’t even quit and go elsewhere. Teachers in North Carolina lost their yearly pay increase my first year, and no new positions were opening up anywhere. Many schools were losing teachers and struggling with larger classes. At the end of my first year I considered applying elsewhere to see if I could find something better, but I decided to stick it out.

If I hadn’t been fired, I would still be there. I said the wrong thing to the wrong person who was buddies with so-and-so and didn’t like me, which resulted in me hearing the dreaded, “I’m going to recommend you for non-renewal of contract.” Non-renewal of contract. Fired. I was fired, for the first time in my life, from the job for which I had trained in college and planned to have since I was a middle school student tutoring my best friend in math. I couldn’t believe it. I fought it, but there was nothing to be done: I was a second-year teacher with a yearly contract that could be canceled for any reason. I refused to sign my final evaluation and wrote a rebuttal that I submitted explaining my unfair treatment. I cried in the hallways and cursed Redfearn’s name at every opportunity. Students of parents offered to go to bat for me, some of whom even went downtown to make my case. It didn’t matter, the result was the same. I was jobless in the midst of a recession and had no idea what I was going to do about it.

The saddest part? I actually started to believe that maybe I was the problem. I thought maybe I had screwed up. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a teacher. I considered being a secretary so that I could file papers and answer phones. I couldn’t screw that up. I felt like a failure; I deserved to be fired. The summer after I lost that job I barely even looked for another teaching job because I didn’t think anyone would want me. I wasn’t sure I could sell myself to a principal even if I got an interview. I was depressed and I felt completely worthless.

And then I found Camelot…

[This is the first of two posts about my journey from public schools to private schools. The second post can be found here.]