When I first started working at a city charter school in 2011, it was because the Dean of Academics had called frantically the previous evening.
The Dean was frantic because I was the only substitute teacher she had interviewed and she had been unable to reach me all afternoon. I was working at Walgreens at the time and I had dropped my phone while on my bathroom break. I had very little money and owned a cheap flip phone that shattered when it struck the tiles. When work ended that night, I reassembled my broken phone in the car and listened to her voice mails in the dark parking lot.
A very necessary teacher at the school, the ISS (In-School Suspension) teacher, would be out and her spot needed to be filled the next day. This position was necessary because the school-wide discipline system involved setting aside students with the most serious infractions in a separate room for the day. These sort of infractions included swearing at teachers, skipping classes, bullying other students and racking up enough detention referrals in a single disciplinary category. The same tiered system of discipline would remain in place for the next four years I worked there, the detentions so plentiful that the ISS room was often filled to the brim, proving far too popular to be effective.
On my first day there, I walked briskly into the old brick building crammed in between the much larger buildings downtown. At the time, there was no grass anywhere to speak of, just asphalt and notable architecture in the neighboring run-down office buildings. Eventually the school would put some effort into landscaping alongside the front steps of the school, filling the space with stones and aesthetically placed trees. A block away, there were bars with neon-lights in the windows, and a giant hole in the ground where some building had been demolished, surrounded by wire fencing.
The school itself was an old YMCA building, far too small for a school. All the classrooms were crammed on top of each other.
I was delightfully surprised by the school lobby. There were leather couches and a rug with the school’s logo on it, as well as potted plants and a high ceiling. The secretaries had an enormous counter surrounding their office space, and there were students and parents leaning over the counter-top at all times, waiting or filling out paperwork.
Eventually, I would learn that they put forth a great deal of effort to make this positive first impression.
The lead secretary was a fastidious and shrewd older woman, her hair sparse and gray, just a few longer strands pinned back onto the base of her skull. She would shout at the students during class changes and guard the front desk like a vicious badger. We often saw her snap at the principal (or the Director, as he called himself) and were left with the impression that she ran the school. We would joke with the students that she had been there before the school and the administration had no choice but to employ her, as she wouldn’t leave.
On my first day, the Dean of Academics greeted me in the lobby and led me down into the school basement. There were several classes down there, in an open and well-lit hallway. Though the ISS room would eventually be moved into a room branching off this brighter hall, on my first day it was hidden behind two large double doors that led to a dim and pencil-thin corridor near the maintenance and storage rooms.
The Dean opened the door to the ISS room and I saw several rows of desks crammed into an incredibly small room with a desk, printer, and bookshelf. Five students were already sitting in there. One high schooler had her head down on her desk, and four middle schoolers fidgeted and gawked at me with near-manic anticipation. The Dean of Academics handed me a walkie talkie and told me that if the students talked or didn’t follow my directions, I needed to summon one of the school’s two security guards, or the Dean of the Middle School or the Dean of the High School.
After asking me if I was okay, she then left me there in the room with a computer, a walkie talkie, and five students. I was to spend the entire school day with them, and they were to be completely silent the whole time.
For a while, we all sat in silence in that grimy little room in the basement. But despite my ordained task, in reality I was in a room with several human beings who I had never met before and I was curious to find out more about them.
Their names were Jericho, Royal, Ariana, Torian, and Magic. The four middle-schoolers were in seventh grade, and I would end up seeing them throughout their middle school years and then their high school years, chiding them when they needed it, giving them advice, guiding them through writing tasks, and recommending them books.
After that day, I discovered that nobody really wanted to substitute at this school. The entire building, both high school floors and the middle school wing, only had one building substitute to rely on, and no outside substitutes ever applied for the job — or came back after one day. The Dean of Academics was absolutely delighted with how casually I went about my day down in the ISS room, coming out of it unruffled without any student yelling or picking a fight with another. I hadn’t even really done much at all. The students hadn’t had anything more to do than a worksheet or two over the course of eight hours, I had only chatted with them and shook my head at their adolescent silliness.
The Dean asked me to become a second building substitute teacher. I would come to the school every day and she would put me wherever I was needed. Teachers were constantly taking off, and there was such a shortage every day that often classroom teachers were pulled away from their planning periods to cover classes in other rooms. Everyone was overworked, with few breaks. Often, no breaks. I always figured this was why they took off so much. I would later find out how exhausting it was, how the constant screech of stress flayed the immune system.
I had just graduated with my teacher certification. I was more than happy to accept the position and it seemed charming to work in a small charter school compared to a big chaotic public school. The high school and middle school only had about 400 students total and this remained consistent the entire four years I was there.
The students were mostly African American, with perhaps a 20% Hispanic portion of the student body. There were also many students who had recently immigrated from other countries and had only spoken English for a year. Many had gaps in their education — missing a year or two. There were many students from Turkey, some from Somalia, Nepal, Bangladesh, Ukraine, and Iran. The majority of the students came from Christian households, but there were enough Muslims that we provided prayer rooms for the students.
All students were required to wear uniforms and teachers were required to police the uniforms with daily ferocity. One buttoned down shirt with the school’s logo cost the parents around twenty dollars — the average student owned perhaps two of these shirts, then maybe a school sweater. Some only owned one shirt and they wore this shirt every day for the entire school year. Many also only owned one pair of dress pants. Their crumpled blue shirts would obtain bleach stains and grease stains. Often when this was noticed, teachers would pool money for additional uniform items as Christmas presents for the students.
Many times students would arrive to school without their uniform. This resulted in them spending a day down in the ISS room. Sometimes, they didn’t have the correct pants because they were staying with a parent who was at work all the time or who didn’t have a washer and dryer. Our school would have seriously benefited from having a washer and dryer down in the basement –– the students could have gone to class instead of wasting time in punitive isolation.
Within a month of work, I was asked to be a co-teacher in an 8th grade English Language Arts classroom. This meant I would assist the classroom teacher with planning and delivering lessons, and provide extra and small group support to students who were struggling.
At the same time, I was also pulled from the classroom a lot. I was placed in every classroom in the building at least once when there were staff shortages. When the Dean of the Middle School was out on maternity leave, I was placed down in the ISS room for an entire month. Eight hours a day of mostly sustained silence. I would crack most of the time and answer the students’ questions, give in to their prying and speak with them about their lives. They joked with me and it was genuinely funny, I enjoyed that more than staring at the crumbling ceiling. If teachers walked in while I conversed with them, they would shoot me a resentful glare.
Later, in three years, I would be the teacher walking into the ISS room. There were several times, my fourth year there, in which I walked into that room to deliver worksheets to the students and found them laughing about something. I would glare at whatever teacher was behind the desk. I had forgotten.
One day, during that month I was down in the basement in that small room with ten teenagers, a rock from behind a pipe on the ceiling fell down and hit a student on the arm. The student — a seventh grader — made a dramatic show of the event. She screamed and writhed, laughing at the same time, yelling that her mother was going to sue the school. She forgot about it pretty quickly, like adolescents are prone to do, but I knew it was ridiculous that the ceiling was falling on the students.
That year, despite the effort everyone put in, the 8th grade ELA state test scores were abysmal. We had played a lot of catch up but they just didn’t do well on the test. This was the same year the state test had included the passage about the talking pineapple that raced a rabbit.
The hammer from administration came down hard, because the state test results for 8th grade ELA and Math were an important part of the school’s charter. When the state came by to see how the school was doing, in consideration of whether the state was going to renew the school’s charter, after doing a day of observation they always disappeared into the various conference rooms and watched Power Points of the test results — including data from periodic benchmark test results.
When that 8th grade teacher was fired — a move that didn’t look very good, considering at the time she was the only minority on staff — I was passed on to the new 8th grade ELA teacher. It was the previous 7th grade ELA teacher, so she was going to be receiving the same students from her classes the previous year.
She had short hair, a short temper, and a shrewd eye. I knew immediately she had eyed me up and down and decided I was too inexperienced. I was intimidated by her, but I also knew that I was just as short tempered and quick. I decided to prove myself to her, so I dressed in the best clothes I could afford and arrived to our classroom every day with the willpower to pound out task after task, making materials and assisting students and being as useful to everyone around me as possible. After all, this was my second year co-teaching and I understood the rhythm and vibes of it.
It didn’t take long for us to become a formidable teaching pair. She was able to yell with a booming authoritative voice that shook adults, and I had a keen eye that noticed everything that went on within the classroom, appearing by a student’s side and whispering instructions before they fell out of tempo and lost their momentum, giving them that slight push they needed to remember the task at hand and excel. We shared secretive, knowing looks, and communicated wordlessly across the room. We shared jokes and fed off each other’s intelligence, performing a two person play in front of the kids that kept them entertained and involved. Students visited us in between classes, and filled our room in the morning and after school, seeking our advice.
As required for the preparation of transforming my initial teaching certificate into a lasting professional form, I chose her as my mentor. We bore the stress of the job together and left the school for good at the same time as well, an escape we didn’t plan but executed together. I chose to not renew my contract with the school, having decided that I was moving to another state. She was fired after a disagreement with the principal, regarding her coming in on a Saturday and the school refusing to pay her.
The administration were all former teachers, but they were unlikable. They had been awful teachers. We discovered this by talking to older staff members and older students. They were not the teachers that students visited after classes ended, desperate for some tidbits of wisdom. They were awkward and stiff, like an out-of-touch relative at a holiday gathering. They were still attending college to receive their administrative degrees while holding their positions and bringing their instructive incompetency to an administrative level. They were far less qualified than many of the regular teachers on staff.
The principal (sorry—Director) was a tall gangly man with sallow skin and a weird connection with the Board of Trustees. All of the staff kowtowed to the Board of Trustees, they were the final say in any decision, a disembodied, distant ruling head. The Director was not seen very much and the students often didn’t even know he was the principal. The ones that did know him believed he was a vampire. They would speculate about where his coffin was in the building. Whenever he did walk into our classroom, the students would eye him as a curious stranger.
After I left, he was cycled out to be the principal at a different charter school owned by the same people in another state. His underling, a thoroughly unskilled man that stuttered and floundered at every challenge, replaced him despite the fact that all leadership roles had been passed down to him over the years with the ease of someone fumbling over glass plates.
One year the administrative team introduced a new evaluation form for the administrators, sending them to the teachers’ inboxes with an air of solidarity over how much we all were evaluated and torn apart on a monthly basis. I only filled out one evaluation form — it was for the principal’s underling. The Dean of Whatever-It-Was. The future principal. He had thrown many poorly planned schedules and baffling error-ridden emails at me, implored me to come in on breaks and drag “low level” students around the building to small closets that were never unlocked, in which I was supposed to drill them with test prep questions. He made me drag these children around during any available half hour throughout the school day, pulling them from Homerooms and Art and Music classes to fill out multiple choice answer sheets.
I wrote a long bitter paragraph about him and punctuated it with the fact that no one knew what his job in the school building actually was — every email he sent had new job titles in his signature — and we had no evidence of any tasks he performed outside of making confusing Excel spreadsheets.
That following August, the underling took a moment during the beginning-of-the-year Professional Development meetings to show a Power Point that explained his many jobs in the building. The title of the main slide was my question, the one I had written so vehemently: “What do you even do?”
The Board of Trustees cared only about test scores. They cared because the state cared. The principal, therefore, cared about these test scores immensely, and he passed down all the burdens of this care to his underling. And the underling passed them down to the teachers.
And the teachers, we slopped down all these concerns and charts and data sets onto our plates and struggled to hold them up high over our heads without any of it spilling over onto the students. A lot of my time at the charter school was spent struggling to prevent the ridiculous workload and demands from becoming palpable to the students.
This was an impossible task. During visits from the state, the administration and strange men in suits breathed down all of our necks over the test scores. They increased the amount of benchmark exams and practice tests that were given throughout the year, and peppered these long test sessions with diagnostic tests as well. There were many things that were difficult that I had to deal with my four years at the school — students swearing at me, beating the shit out of each other, bleeding all over the place, running around, parents screaming — but nothing was quite as difficult as delivering blocks of testing that could take up to two weeks — four hours a day, every day, for two weeks — multiple times a year — to a small room full of squirrely, dreamy, growing, bewildered adolescents.
The charter school had more tests than the other public schools. More benchmarks, more practice tests. This was because our test scores were not better than the public schools. We weren’t doing better than the public schools.
To say the students were burned out was an understatement. They would writhe in their chairs looking delirious after staring at a booklet with 12-point font for four hours, knowing they needed to do the same thing for the next four days in a row. I would slip them paper and crayons and Jolly Ranchers, something to occupy their minds while they waited for everyone to finish, but often they would just slump forward onto their desks with defeat.
As children, they didn’t even really fully understand what it was they were working so hard for, but they knew it involved new levels they needed to reach. They knew because with so much pressure and content revolving around the state exams, the administration would open the gates so that all the information surrounding the tests reached the students.
I always felt as if the whole affair should have been less pronounced, the students themselves not so embedded in the process. But the administrators needed the scores to go up every year — specifically with the eighth graders — and they didn’t seem to think that lecturing the teachers about it every morning was enough. Their approach involved pep talking the students with complete disclosure about what was going on.
The students knew that the continued existence of the school — the renewal of the charter — depended on the 8th grade Math and ELA state test scores. The same students who would rant and rave about how much they hated the school would keep their mouths shut and fill out their Scantrons, the seriousness in which everyone took the situation registering in their heads.
I always imagined that if I was an adolescent who hated my school, I would break the no. 2 pencils in half on testing days and declare that the whole school could be boarded up for all I cared. But even the most bitter students never did that. The most troublesome students would pinch their peers, throw their papers all over the hallway, but come in and silently test with grave looks on their faces. It’s not exactly that I wanted them to rebel, but the level of conditioning was observable.
Things that involved money and numbers and products were important. The administration would order new t-shirts every year with lame slogans that appealed to the students: “Turn up for the test!” Every student received one.
The administrators fretted on testing days and barked at us to never sit down, to walk the room, watch the children, be encouraging. Without really knowing anything about the students at all, they would prowl and get in the way. One year, a student named Jose was completing his ELA 8 state test with a slow-paced intensity that I knew was characteristic of him. In order to remove all distractions, he lowered his head close to the paper and carefully scanned the lines on the page. I sat in a chair, watching him do this — I had seen him do this many times before. I knew he was struggling to follow the passage, occasionally his head lifting up as he turned the page and then zooming back in on the small font.
The principal walked in and saw him with his head down. He assumed he was sleeping, failing to observe that the boy’s face was hovering over the paper as if he were about to take a plunge. The Director walked over to him and stuck him with a long, gangly finger in his upper arm. The poke startled Jose immensely and he jerked up, yanked out of the complex reading passage he was attempting to follow and staring up at the principal with a wide-eyed, confused stare.
The year after this occurred, I became used to the task of disseminating the data we received from the results of the state tests. What was always very inconvenient about the whole thing was the impractical timing of the whole affair. State tests were in April — we did not receive the results until August. By that time, the students were once again disinterested in their efforts and the data was only good for their upcoming teachers.
The school administration instructed me to analyze the results based on standards and prepare materials for each student based on the areas in which they needed the most work. This involved slapping the students with the labels that were used to determine the students’ “grade” on the state exam.
For the ELA state test, a student could receive one out of four “grades:” Level 4, which is Mastery; Level 3, which is Proficient, or Passing; Level 2, which is Partially Proficient, and then Level 1, or Well Below Proficient. These were divided up even further, where certain scores would be considered “Low Level 2s” or “High Level 2s.”
When I first began using this data and splitting up students onto lists, I kept this data hidden in my desk and never spoke of it with the students. I knew they needed work on making inferences, for instance, and that was enough, as I was in charge of providing them with the tools necessary to improve that skill. The idea of telling a student they were a Level 1 seemed abhorrent to me.
As time went on and pressures mounted, the state ticking off a list of things our school was doing wrong, jabbing their finger at the test results and tearing apart our principal, this data became common knowledge. When I was arranged to pull Level 1s from their electives to grill them with test prep questions, they somehow came to know they were Level 1s. This information was communicated freely between the admins to the parents to the students. I was forced to make phone calls home that involved me telling parents, “Your child has scored a high Level 2 on their benchmark exams, and so we would like them to attend extra classes over this Spring break in order to help them achieve Level 3 this April.”
Students sat in front of me with multiple choice questions, telling me, “I’m a high Level 2, but I want to be a Level 3.”
In meetings, the principal’s underling scrolled through Excel spreadsheets and bar graphs, telling us, “Please compile a list of high Level 1s to pull for extra help. Do not bother with low Level 1s who can’t be helped — but we do need to reduce the amount of Level 1s we have. Level 1s make the school look bad.”
The Level 1s were almost always students with IEPs — Individualized Education Plans — who attended Resource Room every day and received the attention of consultant teachers during class. The school’s individualized education department was incredibly small, and the staff were often unable to provide students with the level of support they needed. Over the years, the school cut the special education department — but also bragged about how much money they spent on technology.
The students who were expelled were almost always Level 1s. We expelled a lot of students, with carefree abandon. In order to keep up the attendance numbers, new students would be brought in, with parents who knew the administrators. The new students all scored 3s.
Level 1s were also largely English Language Learners, or ELLs, and our situation in that regard was even worse — we had one ELL teacher on staff, a poor, overworked, abused-looking woman who could hardly catch up with her students’ needs or provide them with the resources they needed. Her room was a tiny, squished room in the corner of the building without any windows. We had a number of ELL students, perhaps making up 15% of the school’s population. Some students had only been in the United States for a year and did not have parents who spoke English that I could speak with.
While on the topic of short-handed departments, the most egregious example at this charter school involved the counselors. We were constantly short counselors, and our school social worker — we only had one — doubled as both a school counselor and an administrative assistant. I found that the roles of social workers and counselors in the school were absolutely necessary and that they were an invaluable resource for teachers and students, so only having one at any given time was incredibly frustrating. Students would have problems, serious problems, and I would have a dozen things to do at any given moment. I couldn’t help them. Helping them meant shirking my duties and I would be in trouble. Often, no one could help.
Often, they were sent to the ISS room.
The administration would often talk about how it was okay to make the students feel uncomfortable. We didn’t need to baby them. They would excel when they were uncomfortable. It all just seemed so literal — the poking during testing, the desperation of the students trapped at their desks — and then the temperature. The old building had ridiculous temperature regulation problems.
During the winter, the building was absolutely freezing. I would tremble and sometimes even wear my coat. The students would curl up in their desks and pull their arms inside their shirts, their teeth chattering. At first, the Director would not allow them to wear their coats. Sometimes we would tell the students to go get their coats anyway. We told the Director they needed it, they were freezing! Our insistence led to an announcement that any student who wanted to get their coats could do so. Every year we spent several weeks wearing coats inside the classroom.
This was not helped by the fact that in our classroom we had a broken window, boarded up. We spent weeks heckling the admins that cold air was seeping in through the cracks. This led them to fix it — by putting a black garbage bag over the window. The window wasn’t actually fixed until they replaced every single window in the entire school.
This problem was not reserved to Winter. The heaters would not turn off in the Spring in our first classroom. We emailed the admins, the secretaries, maintenance, but they ignored us. Our classroom was so small that some of our desk were up against the heaters and one day a student complained to us that his seat was hot. I walked over and touched the desktop, yelping and drawing my fingers away. It was scorching. We had no other place for those kids to sit, so we took out some folding chairs and moved the students away from the blazing heater. The admins narrowed their eyes at us and told us we had one of the biggest rooms in the building. We should be grateful.
Eventually, Tim the maintenance man showed up. He was the only maintenance staff in the entire building. He was a massive man, bloated to the point that he looked like he would pop. He looked unwell, constantly waddling from one end of the building to the other, doing every single thing that needed to be done in the building in silence while the staff of the financial office barked at him. He had a room in the basement, where he showered and often slept.
It’s difficult to tell all the stories I built up over the years. There’s too much to tell, it’s overwhelming. We worked long hours, teachers and students alike. Teachers were required to go to work early for meetings and leave late for mandatory activities. We all came in on Saturdays and we worked during holiday breaks, holding academic boot camps for students. I taught summer school. It felt like so many of us, students included, just didn’t get a break. Teachers often lost our planning periods, our lunches. We united as a team to give each other breaks, sparing moments to allow each other to eat, to go the bathroom.
Sometimes, we gave each other crying breaks.
The teaching staff was wonderful, we all formed a formidable team and we looked out for one another. I loved them. We bonded as a family and we enveloped the students into this family. We were all incredibly overworked, dispirited. We needed to be social workers, parents, therapists for the students, and we needed to teach so much. We needed to work harder to compensate for the mistakes the admins made, we kept the school together by working harder. As much as we wanted to scream, “FUCK THIS SCHOOL!” and run far away from the building, we knew we left the kids behind. So we put on poker faces and bit our lips and worked hard for them.
The turn-over rate was ridiculous. Teachers were fired every year, their contracts not renewed, almost always because they had a disagreement with the admins, who were unprofessional and held grudges. Teachers quit, or found better jobs, usually outside of teaching.
Eventually, I quit. After four years, I told the Director I would not be returning for a fifth school year.
I am still ashamed of this. I chose to turn away from the endearing, lovely adolescents because the environment was too poisonous to me. I was someone who could help the students and I turned away from them. I was sick all the time, I was angry every day, I came home and spent hours destressing, I thought about work all the time, even when I slept. I was exhausted, both physically and spiritually, and there was never any reprieve from this. Every day was a trial, with a tidal wave of problems that swept us all away, teachers and students alike.
I wanted less stress, I wanted better resources, I wanted less work, I wanted better benefits and support. I wanted to stop working so damn hard to compensate for the school’s shortcomings only to have the school not even register as being as good as the public schools. I wanted that blame to not fall onto me. I wanted to be thanked. I wanted to be appreciated, rather than having my outstanding work ignored.
So I left. So many of my teammates left. I cried on my last day of work, slipping on my sunglasses to hide my grief and standing outside the school with my mentor. We leaned on our cars and looked at the old building. I would miss almost everything: my team, the students, the familiar classrooms. She burned with anger. Eventually she would homeschool her children, to do a better job than all existing school systems.
I keep in touch with many of my old co-workers. Only one of them still remains at the school and she just texted me to tell me that they were expanding to include fifth and sixth grade. They asked her to teach fifth grade, expecting her to get certified to do this while she taught without her elementary certification, expecting her to compensate for their shortcomings as usual without actually paying her to go back to school. Typical.
Where are they putting the fifth and sixth graders? I asked. Did they purchase a new building?
No, they’re cramming them in the basement. The basement, a single hallway, such small classrooms. No windows.
When I fled to another state and began substituting in the public schools, I was shocked. The teachers seemed so independent. So carefree. They complained about trials that seemed so easy and miniscule to me. The admins weren’t hanging around to criticize them every single day. I found myself nervously following routines out of fear, only to find there was no one breathing down my neck. No one was criticizing me.
I was… respected as a professional. People believed I was doing the right thing. And I was, but I was shocked to find myself in an environment where I was doing so little work and people still had faith in me. I was so accustomed to going above and beyond only to face doubt and scrutiny.
There’s still so much I haven’t recounted. More flaws, more joys. I can recall so many memories, but they all slip in and out of each other, weaving and unweaving, it’s hard to pin one down. This experience wasn’t unique. It wasn’t typical of every charter school, but many of them. Most of them.
Is this a real solution?