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June marks the end of my sixth year teaching. While I’ve spent every one of these years building relationships with children, distributing materials, implementing lesson plans, and tending to a classroom environment, I’ve also been perpetually confounded by the imagery associated with my job title.

Everyone is subject to that dreaded question: “So, what do you do?” When I tell someone that I’m a teacher, I can see the vision unfold behind the inquirer’s eyes. They see me sitting at a desk in a room that I call my own, my name on the door, touting a benefits package and teacher salary. Yet despite the accuracy of all the minutiae – the actual emotional labor and circulation and instruction – I’ve always lacked the life blood of the position. The work space. The established security. The benefits. The salary.

I acquired a job in a charter school almost immediately after I graduated with my teaching certification. I was essentially hired to fill in the gaps regarding student needs in a low socioeconomic urban  environment, my official title being ELA Support Teacher. I both co-taught, pulled students out of class for small group sessions, and taught my own class, as well as extra classes over school breaks, Saturday school, and summer school. Despite the array of vital services I provided for the school, my contract did not place me on the teacher’s pay scale, and they elected to pay me per diem over the course of four years. They once told me it was because I didn’t have my own classroom and I traveled from class to class.

This limitation was not unique to my position. Even the classroom teachers allowed on the pay scale were still subject to annual contracts that required yearly renewal. No one was ever fired at the end of the year – administration just didn’t renew your contract. Fifty year old teachers with two decades of experience were subject to the same conditions as the new faces that popped up fresh out of college. Those on the pay scale were given decent benefits packages, but my options were much more expensive and took serious blows to my paychecks. I elected to go without.

In the face of this lack of job security, the majority of the teachers in the building looked to the public schools with big shining eyes. We sat together in our classrooms and ate up our lunches alongside our aspirations to win that secure, unionized teaching position in a large school district. The administration could sense our dreams of flight, further cementing the annual contracts and per diem work.

I was making enough to get by before the nature of the system shook me up enough that I swore I wouldn’t spend five years in the same position. I would take my youth and plunge back into school-age poverty. My partner went back to school, and I went so far back that I found myself doing something I hadn’t even really done as a teacher post-graduation: substitute teaching.

This was when I discovered that the majority of school districts around me utilized third party businesses to provide them with substitute teachers. In order for me to work at their schools, I needed to take the jobs through a third party system. I took assignments, and they took a finder’s fee. There are many different outsourcing agencies like this out there, though the most popular is likely Kelly Educational Staffing Services.

The language on Kelly’s website is telling of the situation.

We help our employees attain rewarding careers, districts achieve cost savings and operational efficiency, teachers maintain continuity of instruction, and students flourish from quality education.

So are rewarding careers truly attained through this agency, with their finder’s fees? I’ve spent the last two years looking around in the school district in which I work and I do not see Kelly employees moving into open positions. I see a lot of established teachers being shuffled around like chess pieces to optimize district funds, and the offspring of former teachers being hired. Kelly employees are far more likely to disappear from the campus, never to be seen again, than be hired into an opening.

Are these districts achieving “operational efficiency”? Well, most tellingly, the teacher vacancies are not being filled. The office secretaries complain of substitute shortages, and often I find myself in a room full of three different classes without teachers, becoming a true blue legally-required baby sitter. So no, this is clearly not an operationally efficient option for school districts.

As someone who’s been working on this front for a while now, I can assure you the reason for these shortages is that the pay is simply not high enough. When you really break down the per diem pay for these vacancy fills, it comes to about $10 an hour. This is true for what are called “long-term” positions which are ironically not long-term and require you to lesson plan and facilitate classroom instruction for 4 months for the same pay as those who do less work. It doesn’t take long for a person to figure out that they are likely to make $12 to $15 dollars an hour doing secretary or construction work elsewhere. For those with children, the pay from substituting teaching is even less feasible.

To put the cherry on the top of all this, in the past year bills have pushed me to do direct freelance work to supplement my income. I write promotional articles as a freelancing agent, sell my tutoring services, and I have picked up contracts teaching English to children overseas before.

The cringe-worthy fact is that substitute teaching only makes me about $15,000 a year. As time goes by, I am either forced to abandon ship for some career outside of teaching, or doggedly whore out my education and English degree for contracts. You can see which option I’ve chosen thus far.

This has been going on for six years, whilst continuing efforts to obtain that secure, unionized, stable classroom job. That carrot that hangs over my head. I am repeatedly hired over and over again into temporary piece-work to pay the bills, while watching others like me do the same – until that dream job opens and all candidates pounce on it with frenzied desperation. One person obtains the job, and hundreds of the rejected lower their heads and try again the following year.

I’ve job hunted in two cities in two different states, and about four to five positions open up in a single certification area every year regionally. And I’m talking full-time, join the union, retirement benefits, and health insurance positions only. Hundreds are looking.

With less and less permanent teaching jobs available on a yearly basis, the education system has been partially overtaken by what is essentially a gig economy. It took me a while to recognize this or understand how this economic model worked. My frustration built over the years, but I find that fellow teachers are bitterly compliant and hesitant to call it what it is. Or maybe they’re just lucky and aren’t exposed to it.

A cursory Google search of gig economy provides this definition: “A labor market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs.” I suppose if there’s an area to nitpick over, it’d be in the definition of “short-term.” Many probably envision the gig economy as singular freelance projects that last from a day, a week, to six months. Substitute teaching is certainly this. But I would like to extend short-term to include annual contracts. Charter school jobs are far more prevalent than positions in other schools, and obtaining a year of guaranteed work is not secure or stable for a family with children, a mortgage, multiple loan payments, or substantial health problems of any kind.

Basically, if you can only account for a year’s worth of work and income, you’re working a gig and the same limitations of the gig economy apply. There is no certainty for future employment, there is never a guarantee.

The limitations I have experienced are frustrating and plentiful. I have been offered benefits packages that are impartial or far more expensive than those offered to secured, full-time employees. I have also been denied insurance of any kind. Currently, despite working for Kelly for two years, they do not offer me anything other than a “supplemental” benefits package which is meant to pad my own individually purchased insurance. With buying my own health insurance being untenable, I receive Medicaid.

Work is unstable and inconsistent. Though I can usually find enough work to scrape together a paycheck due to my non-stop efforts, there are often months at a time where there is no work at a school available – especially during the summer.

Also, pay amounts to much less for the same work completed by those granted long-term, secure jobs. For instance, I taught classes but did not make the same for it as the teachers on the pay scale. In good times, I could do different gigs for the same employer throughout the year – but currently, I find myself working multiple gigs for many different clients every year.

Wrapped up in this system is a lack of accountability on both ends – from the employer and from the workers. No matter the high quality of the work I produce for an employer, they can dismiss me and any concerns I have with a lazy wave of their hand. I can also do the same to them, abandoning a gig to immediately pick up another, similarly low-paying project. There is no reason for either side to care.

Considering that Kelly’s involvement with substitute teaching and the charter school system are hardly new, I imagined I would find some sort of concrete criticism on this gig approach to education somewhere online. However, when I turned to search engines to discover how many other workers have felt frustrations similar to mine, the immediate results were largely in favor of this gig economy expansion. In general, there wasn’t a lot of critical conversation about the topic.

The first search result, from a website that talks about revolutionizing education, refers to the education sector’s regretfully slow adoption of the market. They encourage employers: adapt to this model quickly in order to gain access to a “greater pool of talent.” What they don’t mention is how cheaply that desperate talent can be purchased, as not to scare off the talent.

The site also paints employees in situations such as mine as saved from leaving the education sector forever through the option of gigs. They bemoan that “half of new teachers leave the classroom after five years, and many think that means they have to leave the education sector.” You don’t have to say goodbye to children and lessons forever, they say. You can do the exact same thing for less stable money.

Another site that offers “a bird’s-eye-view of the Education industry” also presents the situation as if it’s a good thing. They describe how “[m]any professors, adjunct and otherwise, have begun seeking outside sources of income as ways to supplement base salaries. These outside tasks have included everything from serving as Ph.D. or grant reviewers to freelance writing for mainstream outlets.” Again, the idea that freedom to work for supplemental income is somehow more worthwhile than a single job that pays a livable wage.

There were also the obligatory articles about preparing students for a gig economy, dismally accepting this system as a reality that faces the young, burgeoning generations – or, perhaps I should call them pools of talent.

On the bottom of the second page of search results, I finally found a blog that criticized the negative effects the gig economy had on education. The post decried how  “sequential, comprehensive curriculum is replaced by a series of unrelated, disconnected videos and ‘online modules,’ with no cohesiveness, content area articulation, or spiral curriculum organization.” While I can agree on the effect on curriculum to a certain extent, this criticism doesn’t factor in the effect that participation in such a disconnected workforce has on the individual. This what I find the most problematic.

The idea that incorporating a gig economy structure to education would result in freedom and active employment of previously untapped talents is laughable. The charter school’s yearly contracts did nothing but create a toxic, anxious environment. As the end of every school year loomed, we would whisper in passing around the copy machines, counting off on our fingers all of those we knew were most disliked by the administration. If we were cruel enough to take bets, we would have made off well. It was always obvious whose contracts would not be renewed based on how much shit the administrators had given them throughout the year, structured around pettiness and never issues of individual talent. Even if we hadn’t squared off with an administrator, there were always those who walked out of the office having been told their jobs were reduced to part time the following year. No one was ever safe, secure. Long-term plans were always at risk.

Substitute teaching with a third party contractor has turned me into a ghost. I wander through an established school culture and environment, never fully welcomed or embraced. When I first began, school secretaries wouldn’t even look at me, ticking off my name on a piece of paper to mark a vacancy filled. Even when I took an assignment that left me working at the exact same high school for two years, I was still never accepted into the school environment. Children would cheer when they saw me and treat me as a staple, but the administrators avoid eye contact, still believing I will surely vanish at any moment. I would spend months putting in organizational and emotional labor to build relationships with staff and students without ever being granted access to the school emails, or scheduling systems, or attendance systems, or even given a card that granted me access to the building. No matter my efforts or my talent, I was never anything more than a temporary fixture employed outside the district.

The result of annual contracts and temporary assignments has been a permanent state of job hunting for that stable, secure, unionized, benefit-giving job. The strain on my spirit – the complexes I’ve developed from this system and process – are also clearly not sustainable. The emotional drain and pitiful income compensation are not sustainable. Snatching the carrot on the end of the stick means being poised and ready for the perfect time, the perfect place, for years on end.

I’ve completed six years of this and I could easily see myself subject to an indefinite number of years ahead of me, at the whim of ever-shrinking school budgets and the luck of time and place. Or perhaps I’ll find myself back on annual contracts, or even land myself in a charter school that offers longer contracts – which I’ve heard exist but have never found.

There’s a large, ignored segment of the education sector – a word I will ruefully use, in light of the reality that this is all clearly a business. That segment is composed of people like me, who are raking in between an inconsistent 15k to 30k a year in the hopes of obtaining the carrot. Our numbers fluctuate as we graduate college and drop out of the sector in pursuit of more sustainable and secure jobs. I certainly won’t last much longer before taking the next office job that will help me pay my bills.

Do we want an education system subject to the same limitations and consequences of a gig economy? The reality is that your child, enrolled in elementary school, likely has a number of educated, talented professionals interacting with them throughout the day, applying band aids and praising their work, while in a perpetual state of stress, extracting measly compensation for even their hardest work.

It’s time to recognize this transient, pathetic, ignored portion of the education system and think about what this means for our society as a whole. The gig economy has entered our school buildings, demoralizing its workforce and developing detrimental practices that worsen school cultures, environments, and education as a whole, eroding at a system that relies heavily on the emotional well-being and time of its employees in a fundamental, society-building way.

Be conscious of what you imagine when some says they are a teacher. The odds are likely that they spend their days pushing around a cart to various classrooms, stacking paperwork on its tiers, while struggling to soothe the small crises of adolescence around them in between worries for their next paycheck. Not all teacher positions guarantee the basic benefits of most jobs, or even a stable paycheck the following month.

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My reading goal last year was ridiculous, I admit. I wanted to read 50 books in the year 2016 in a burst of driven enthusiasm. I ended up reading 45. I want to be clear that this was only accomplished by choosing slimmer books with smaller page counts and I’ve gone in the complete opposite direction for this year’s goal, choosing a mere 10 books, in order to allow myself to read longer books at a slower pace.

There were many noteworthy books that I read in this challenge and I would like to share them and hopefully inspire a few people to pick up a title or two. I purchase the majority of my books on Amazon, seeking out used copies that cost between $1.00-7.00, meaning that with delivery the books tended to cost me between $5.00-15.00. It was very workable and I hope you can also locate these books for similarly cheap prices.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson 

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer and founder and executive director of the Eqjustmercyual Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization that provides legal representation to individuals who have been wrongly convicted of crimes, those who cannot afford representation, and those who have been denied a fair trial. He is especially focused on individuals who face the death penalty and young people with long, harsh sentences. In this book, he talks about his experiences working in the criminal justice system as a lawyer who takes these kinds of cases. Even more specifically, he looks at racial bias in the justice system and how it disproportionately harms the poor. The humane and empathetic look at criminals who suffer enormously in our current system makes this is a necessary read. Also, his overarching message is very important for those worrying about the upcoming four years: he acknowledges how defeated he has felt, working on a never-ending mountain of tough cases that appear hopeless, but states that rather than give up, he has found it essential to maintain hope — how useful hope is, that it must be nurtured, and that great good can be done if one can hold onto it.

Chronicles of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquezchronicles

This novel has the rich and vivid language found in Marquez’s other novels (other than his journalistic News of a Kidnapping) coupled with a narrative that is essentially a mystery story: how did a young man’s murder unfold? Or, more importantly, if everyone knew the murder was going to take place, why did no one stop it from happening? The narrative is fun, looking at the events of that day from numerous perspectives, an atmosphere of absurdity and whimsy surrounding the entire affair. Your mileage may vary, but this has become one of my favorite Marquez novels, and I’ve nearly read them all at this point. It’s also a rather quick read.

Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids by Nicholson Baker

This book was not largely well-received. This is reflected in its Goodsubstitutereads rating. I can understand where this comes from: to start, teachers are an ornery group, often talked over by people who don’t know anything about education, often pressed underneath the system’s feet. Also, this book has an older white man who is a writer and not a teacher documenting his every day while substitute teaching for a month in a school district. There’s a lot to disagree with in this set-up. However, speaking as someone who was a classroom teacher and has stepped back into a substitute teacher role after moving to a different state, his observations are often relevant and worth reading. Many times, they were not dissimilar to things I have thought. Although he is largely ignorant of the dynamics within education, I enjoyed reading this book and I think his perspective as an outsider is not without value. You may want to couple this book with a Jonathan Kozol book, however, or at least some book written by an actual educator.

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemiquantumthief

This science-fiction novel is the first of three and I admit that I’ve only read this first part and have yet to make time for the other two. However, even without continuing with the storyline in the next installments, the society-building in Rajaniemi’s novel is fascinating. The plot might seem a little cheesy at first, with a Puss-in-Boots style thief that naturally outsmarts nearly everyone around him, but Rajaniemi makes it work well and the society he envisions on Mars, in the Moving City of Oubliette, is an amazing concoction of futuristic technology, complex government control, subcommunities and their function, and privacy and social engineering — it’s really unique. If you’re a fan of world building and science fiction, this is worth checking out.

The Art of Communicating by Thich Nhat Hanhhanh

Hanh is a Zen Master and this book is a quick and easy read thanks to his succinct and brief writing style. Hanh has many books on zen and compassion and this one focuses specifically on how to listen with compassion in order to communicate effectively. His message is simple and repetitive, but I found the simplicity of the message extremely applicable to my every day interactions with other people. He talks of writing, speaking and listening as a form of consumption, and as consuming unhealthy food inevitably harms us, consuming toxic speech also harms us. He presents compassion as a useful tool. He gives examples of how practicing compassionate speech (and compassionate listening) can work in different kinds of environments. I found myself re-reading certain useful passages months after completing it.

The Plague by Albert Camusplague

I picked up this book in the oppressive heat of last summer. My god, the environment in which I read this book made its contents weigh even more heavily upon my imagination. This book takes place in the African coastal city of Oran, which Camus also wrote about in his essay The Minotaur, during a period of plague that sweeps through the urban center. The story follows several characters, one a doctor, as they pass through the rise and fall of the plague, quarantined from their loved ones, experiencing profound suffering, ennui, entrapment, compassion, death and self-deceit. Camus tends to explore the same themes of death and ultimate meaning and absurdism in all his work, so those themes are present here as well.

 

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?

 

 

I sat at a desk in a small instructional resource room at the end of a long school basement hallway, gutted from construction. I was subbing for a math teacher who oversaw students with individualized education plans. So, of course, we were hidden in the back of the building, underneath the ground, in a hallway with bare drywall and netting while there existed a beautiful commons with decorations made of stained glass over on the brighter end of the hall. Where I was with the kids, the students who had already decided for themselves (or maybe someone told them?) that they can’t learn, the panels were missing from the ceiling, thick pipes showing through. Construction had been delayed. The floors and walls were stripped.

The students preoccupied themselves with their own devices. They didn’t want my help, so I had nothing to do really but occasionally speak with them and stare around the room. They tested their abilities to be cruel, as the moment was opportune, and took subtle jabs at me. I didn’t respond, continued to sit at my desk, asking if they needed help. They dropped the game when they realized I wasn’t a willing participant.

One student disagreed with everything that I said, or asked, but this wasn’t new so I didn’t pursue those derailments either. He fell into silence in the corner on his tablet. At the same table, a sixteen year old girl silently colored a picture that another teacher had given her. This was a block schedule, so she worked on this for an hour and a half.

At the other table was a rowdier crew. There was a senior wearing a black hoodie, showing off pictures of his truck while another abrasive, mean-spirited student randomly parroted in a cartoon voice, “My truck, my truck!” Beside them was a student wearing a gold chain, obsessing over the new Snap Chat features—he told me people knew his name, he had a following on YouTube, he was somebody and I didn’t know—but if I did know. If I did know, I wouldn’t question how long it took him to walk to his locker and back. While he told me this, the other two at the table pounded their fists down, “Yeah man, he’s known, he’s got a business.” 

I didn’t say anything to this. This was a suburb, surrounded by beautiful trees with bright red and orange leaves and a sparkling creek running by parallel to the school. There was nothing but suburbs for miles and miles. I could see them trying, hard. There was something they wanted to be, and I certainly had nothing to say about it—not today. After all, there were things I wanted to be, and here I was sitting uselessly, a placeholder in a strange environment. I let them lose interest in me, I diffused any arguments, as I had only slept a few hours and there was no Dead Poets Society moment ready to happen. There was just reality, drywall, this kid’s YouTube channel, and busy work the actual teacher assigned. And the measly paycheck come Friday.

After an hour of listening to them bicker about Snap Chat and girls doing too much, I found myself staring at some wall decal across from the desk. It was most likely purchased at Target, deemed perfect for this instructional resource room:

rmk2082scs_dream_believe_discover_wall_decals_roomset_a

Noise droned around me and I read this over and over and over again. Dream. Believe. Discover. Each time getting more pissed. What bullshit is this, on this classroom wall? In this setting? As if three words could truly inspire someone, or illustrate the struggle—or what it means to discover. The delirium from lack of sleep and tedium of the job made my head reel and emotions, thoughts and connections came tumbling out. Dream, dream big, follow your dreams. I had done this, and here I was sitting with these children who were bigger defeatists than I was and scowled at anyone who told them to do anything, who had more than I ever had back then. I was told what I could be, once upon a time, and I had nodded eagerly and walked myself into debt and into these classrooms that were already set up poorly by someone else before me, my brief presence having zero effect on the effectiveness of the neglected book shelf and the laptop cart the students used to do math problem after math problem after math problem on a website.

Multiple choice. Click a button. Next question.

Was this what I dreamed about?

Believe. Believe in what? Myself? Jesus, that was difficult. I told the kids I believed in them, but they looked at me and clearly didn’t believe me. I never believed anyone when I was a teenager, unless they were that right, special person that had passed through my filters and defenses. And I had just now shown up. I had the credibility of anybody with a GUEST badge, and I was so tired from work and doing work and seeking work and worrying about work that all I had left was the truth, which isn’t very inspirational sounding without the time to spruce up the language to get rid of the cynicism.

And discover. Oh, discovery! All the things I’ve discovered. And what have these students discovered so far? I discovered a lot after each brick wall I hit. I discovered after climbing so many steps that there are an infinite number of steps and I’m not sure if they lead anywhere. I’ve discovered how fucking hard everything is, and how much everyone around me is hurting. And these kids sat at their tables, pretending to do geometry multiple choice problems on a laptop and dropping drug references they thought I was oblivious to, certainly aware of some horrifying truth they had discovered in the past year but not quite developmentally ready to acknowledge the harsh discoveries happening behind the eyes of every other teenager in the room.

And then that moment when you discover that you were wrong, for a very long time. And you still have a lot to learn. But you had no idea. And now you’ve wasted some years of your life or scarred yourself in some way.

The reality compared to these three big stupid decal words was a joke. The wall would have been better off blank. I didn’t want to sling these cheesy words at kids, drape them over this lame, ineffective, time-wasting and exclusionary education system. I didn’t want them to think that discovery was some corny cursive word slapped onto a textbook over a picture of a galleon, but that it was something a lot more brutal, and deeper, and that there was something to the experience of discovering that tied us all together in this horrible but awesome way. That everything was actually horrible and awesome, and swearing and being a rebel wasn’t really that atrocious, and hating every inspirational poster in a room was okay, and normal.

As if I was that articulate then—or ever.

So the students left after an hour and a half, I wrote a referral for Kevin, and shut off the lights and left. Possibly to never even see any of these people ever again.

One of the things expected of me at the job I’m about to finish is running of a study hall at the school day’s end. I help the middle schoolers with their homework in the cafeteria before the cheese buses arrive and everyone goes home. After the bell rings, marking the beginning of study hall, bursts of children come through the cafeteria doors and wander around in rogue bands until they either decide to go to their destination or I manage to round them up into my class. This wrangling is incredibly hectic. I’m bombarded by a dozen requests and have to visually track the movements of over a hundred young people in motion.

The time is ripe for trouble.

One day, as usual, the students burst through the doors. I ran from one end of the cafeteria to the other. I yelled at Steve, I wrote a pass for Angelica. Out of the corner of my vision, I saw a student named Eli approaching. He ambled toward me and I dismissed him as in need of an easy inquiry. I would deal with him when he reached me. It would be a two-second interaction.

“Miss?” He stood off to my side and I didn’t look at him, still occupied with something that was happening on the other side of the room.

“Yes, Eli?” Still not looking at him.

“Can I go to the nurse?”

My automatic reaction to this is to always ask, “Why?” More often than not, a student will delicately hold out their hand and there will be a little teeny tiny speck of skin sticking up on their knuckles that can’t even qualify as a scrape. While they whine for a band-aid, I will need to convince them that they’re not going to die and that band-aids will do nothing for them. I also knew that at this point, the nurse had gone home for the day.

“This.” Eli stuck his finger out at me. Inspection time. I look away from my attendance list and down at his hand.

Squirts of blood fly at my face. Eli points this finger at me and the tip is red, blood bubbling out and shooting out into the air. The stream made an impressive arc.

I drop all my things. I look around me and there’s globules of blood all over the floor. Eli is looking up at me with a completely serene expression on his face, even a slight smile at the corner of his lips, as if he found the whole situation awkward as he bled in the direction of the teacher. Suddenly every other thought and responsibility dropped from my mind and I was on an island with myself and a child spritzing blood from the end of his hand.

I hovered around him, flitting back and forth frantically. Apparently some boys had been pushing each other while they came up the stairs to the cafeteria and Eli fell into the door, his finger poking into the space between the door hinges just as someone opened it. The force of this completely chomped off the tip of his finger. Somehow all of the other kids are oblivious to what is going on and they’re running around me, arguing with each other while I try to figure out what to do with Bleedy McBleedsalot. A teacher happened to enter the room in these few panicked seconds and I ushered the child in her direction, commanding her to take him downstairs to the front office, where there was a first aid kit. I couldn’t leave the band of thirty children alone in the cafeteria to start a coup.

I called for the janitor to come clean up the little puddles of blood, but no one ever came. I ended up helping students with their homework with blood on the ground around us. An administrator ended up coming up and cleaning the floor with paper towels, but she wasn’t completely efficient and several weeks later during lunch duty I noticed a dried circle of blood on the ground. It probably looked like ketchup to everybody else.

The next day, the principal came out of his cave and looked around the stairwell area. He found the bloody fingertip on the ground, black and dusty. No one told Eli this, but I was told.

The next time I saw Eli, he had a blocky bandage on his finger. I praised him for being so calm while his own blood sprayed in front of his face. I would have been screaming my head off, but his calmness made it pretty easy to handle the situation. I asked him why he had been so chill and he told me he really didn’t know.

I told him the principal had found his fingertip in the stairwell. He grinned from ear to ear. “Cool, miss.”

Knowing how much and how thoroughly this school cleans, his blood will forever be on the cafeteria floor.

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