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...
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.]