II. “We have to be the psychologist, the social worker, the nutritionist.”
When I’m talking to new teachers, my advice is, don’t get involved in after-school things—don’t join any clubs, don’t join the committees—your first two years. Don’t do anything but teach, because that’s hard enough.
You have to realize that it’s OK to look stupid. You just approach it with confidence. You don’t mind if you mess up. You don’t mind if you’re totally out of touch with their music or their dancing. You just own it and be a goofy adult. And they love it because it gives them more freedom to be goofy and more freedom to mess up. And you want that from them.
Teaching is just hard. I had so many difficult days. My first year, I would drive from Rogers Park down to North Lawndale, and it was like, Wouldn’t it be great if I just got into a small car crash so I wouldn’t have to go to work today?
What I struggle with is, executive assistants make more money than I do.
There are very few male teachers, and a lot of single female parents, and I’ve had a few of them say, “Oh, what’s your favorite pie? Sweet potato pie? OK, I’m gonna make you a sweet potato pie.” But the way they’re saying it is like, “Hey, I’m getting feelings for you because you’re really showing an interest in my kid.” That’s when you have to professionally draw the line.
The reality of being a teacher is, the first year you fucking suck.
If you’re going to teach middle schoolers, you need a good sense of humor and a very short memory. They’re trying out a new personality every other day. They’re volatile. And you just have to respect that. One day they want to be treated like adults, the next day they want to be treated like kids, the next day they don’t want you to talk to them at all.
At the hard schools, you get two types of teachers: It’s either the brand-new, bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed, I’m-going-to-change-the-world ones who burn out after four or five years, or it’s the old and the apathetic.
Students want structure. They may moan and groan about being in school, but that’s where they want to be.
Being in CPS for this long, you see these new programs come and go every couple of years. And you start to get cynical about them. The latest one was Think Through Math. They’re all pet projects, probably from somebody’s friend’s company. They’ll say, “We have this new computer program or this new tech program. It’s going to make math really fun for your students and boost their math scores.” It typically lasts about two years, and your students’ scores are basically the same. Then they move on to something else.
The kid throwing the chair at you may be the best critical thinker in the room.
Teachers work 12 months in nine months.
Kids can only be held back in third, sixth, and eighth grade—they’re called benchmark grades. If you fail second grade, you move right on up to third. There’s no pressure on teachers to identify if you have learning issues or to actually make a judgment on that until third grade. That’s because they wouldn’t have the capacity to handle everybody who really failed. That’s messed up. By then you’ve set those students back horribly. All the research says that those early years are so critical.
There are a lot of teachers who are really nonproficient in the content. It’s almost terrifying. And I’m not being holier-than-thou. I taught astronomy my first year, and looking back on it—the things I taught those kids? Oh my God.
We’ve got a lot of kids who are in the bilingual program six, seven, eight years. No one should stay in the program that long. And it’s because what they really needed was learning support.
One of the parents was like, “I don’t want my kid to have a black teacher.” And I was like, “Really? In the year 2017? That’s where we’re going?”
To get fired in CPS after your fourth year [when tenure kicks in], you really have to mess up.
In other professions, you can take a half hour and go into your office and not talk to anybody. Teachers don’t have that luxury. Our students are our clients, and we have to constantly be on. That first week off in June, I’m always still going to the bathroom at exactly 11:45.
We have to be the psychologist, the social worker, the recreational leader, the nutritionist.
Teachers don’t leave schools. They leave principals.
If my students don’t have their homework, I have them write a note with the date on it: “I didn’t do my homework because …” And then they write an excuse. A couple of times, one student had written, “I couldn’t do my homework because my mother made me clean the house.” And at the parent conference, the mother’s reading this and she goes, “When have I ever made you clean the house? That has never happened.” I tell the students that’s my favorite day of the year.
Flu season is terrible. They’ve at least learned to sneeze into their elbows, but then they don’t think about their hands sometimes. They’re putting the pencils in their mouth and then touching things. I’m like, “Ugh, go get some hand sanitizer please.”
My first year, I’d spend the evenings crying and drinking wine just to deal with the idea of going back to work the next day.
When I was in school, we had a science teacher we called Jumpin’ Jerry. He was a big guy, and he was known to jump up on top of the counter and slide across. Kids would say, “Oh, you’re going to have Jumpin’ Jerry this year.” Now you talk to the older teachers, and the Jumpin’ Jerrys of the world were the ones that taught them how to run a classroom. But it’s just not like that anymore.
I would volunteer to do things [such as after-school music or drama], and other teachers would get mad at me because I was not getting paid to do them: If you start doing that, then they’re going to expect everybody to do it.
I’ve got parents coming in whose kids are C-, D-average students, and they’re like, “How do my kids get into Northside Prep?” I’m like, “Oh, honey. That ship sailed in, like, fifth grade.”
A lot of Teach for America teachers get really pissed off: “I went to Georgetown, and I got straight As, and this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I have a third grader making me feel like I’m the biggest idiot in the world.” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s how it works. In their eyes, you’re fresh meat.”
We tried to get one student staffed [with a special education aide], and the parent refused. Just wasn’t interested. A lot of parents don’t want their students labeled. Instead of seeing it as a good thing, as extra support, it’s seen as a stigma.
I was an adaptive PE teacher, and I had a kid that came in with severe and profound autism, completely nonverbal. He would always hide under this ladder. I said, “You know what? I’m going to change that.” So I had my assistants help me put this barrel under the ladder so the kid couldn’t go under there anymore. He fussed a little bit, but I knew he liked music, so when he came in the next time, I put him in the circle with me as we were doing our exercises, and we just rocked to the music. I had the paraprofessionals work with him about the type of movement I wanted him to do. And before the end of the school year, he was in that circle by himself, and he was moving, and he was making sounds. Words were starting to come. Anytime we didn’t follow the routine, there was hell to pay, but at the end, when he had to leave, he was able to do something that general-ed kids could do: be a part of physical education. His life changed. That’s when I knew that teaching special ed is where I need to be.
Find a teacher of color and watch how they teach, because white people don’t know how to teach students of color.
I had this one student who was repeating his freshman year. I kept asking him questions and found out he wanted to be an auto mechanic. So I found a book on Amazon about auto mechanics, a $7 book written for kids. I gave it to him for Christmas. After that, he was never a problem in my class. Another teacher asked me, “What did you do?” I just told her that I’d figured out what made him tick.
If you’re a kid that starts off not doing well on standardized tests, you kind of get used to not doing well on them. That’s one of my biggest problems with these tests. And the students who do bad on them become so used to failing that they start to think of themselves as failures.
They’ve been tested so much their entire lives, at this point they’re like, “It’s just another test.”
Parents should know that the teacher running to get that job at the selective enrollment school or in the suburbs, or who wants to become a principal as soon as possible, is the last person you want teaching your kid.
Standardized tests do a much better job measuring how much money students have than what their academic level is.