The Post I Never Wanted to Write

I have been navigating majority (or all) white spaces for a very long time. Whether it was the tracked gifted and talented classes or my time at university, I’ve always sort of been an outsider. In a state with 96% of its teaching staff being white, choosing teaching was to be no different. Current wisdom and policy advocates ‘If we just get more Black teachers” as our saving grace, but it’s reductive, particularly when we often say something that administrators don’t want to hear. 

As such, it is easier to hire someone new than to confront the reality of what this Black teacher might be saying. It is easier to say they’re “just not the right fit” when they refuse to pass students that don’t deserve to pass. The reality is that you love Black teachers until we disagree with you. So, If I leave, feel uncomfortable, or excluded , it is not because of my race, but because i’m fundamentally opposed to whatever is being proposed in that setting. This is what being in schools has been like.

Overcoming school culture

I can believe in my students as much as I want, but when I’m ill equipped with the tools to be successful, when administration uses veiled threats about non-contract renewals, when I note that half of my students struggle to read but am answered with “but our graduation rates” we have lost point. Robert Pondiscio wrote that “we nod in earnest agreement that every child must be held to high expectations and deserve to feel safe… but our practices often reveal something less than a warm embrace of those ideals”. This is my experience. When you work with people who think so little of the students you teach, when those students look like and come from the same neighborhood as you, it can almost feel like they might have thought the same were you a student in their class 10 years ago. It’s demoralizing, but I can have standards only to the point that the school culture tolerates my standards. Otherwise I’m the proverbial adversary for administration concerned with graduation rates instead of proficiency and growth, and of students that are used to just getting by. I have felt the crushing weight of mediocrity in a sad and intimate way. 

Despite this, I have tried to swim upstream and be the best that I could be. I set my personal professional goals around applying principles of instruction, measure the efficacy of my work based on my “bubble” students (students below grade level that with support, would grow in proficiency) and then would reflect on how to move forward. And when the pandemic hit, I tried to make myself useful still. I asked my online colleagues what I could do for distance learning. I blogged about what was working and wasn’t working. I had a plan, I was prepared, and I was intending that it would work because I had done something that I thought could overcome the school culture. It didn’t. 

My “bubble” students couldn’t do the work. My english language learners struggled and I can’t help them. There are no turn and talks. No whole group discussions. My checks for understanding go unanswered. All of this on top of the fact that the learning community that I had worked so hard to try to build vanished. Overnight, my professional goals became obsolete.

And here we are 12 months in. 

This isn’t to say that I’m not doing teacher things. Yes, I’m grading assignments and providing feedback as they trickle in. Yes, I’m planning lessons and curriculum. Yes I’m checking in with students. But I can’t teach literature to a sea of silent black boxes. I can’t pretend that what I’m doing is anything more than what it is– I haven’t felt like a teacher for the better part of a year. 

This is Teaching

 We’ve all read the pieces on learning loss, we’ve seen the numbers on failure rates, the kids disappearing into the void, and the teachers for whom their students are little more than white letters arranged in a particular order above a black box. Yet throughout these twelve months , society has continually reinforced the notion that we must. keep. going. because of the lie that our worth is determined by our work. When we ask, “how many of us must die for you to care”, we hear the answer clearly: more. So trapped are we in a whir of doing that can’t even imagine anything other than what we’ve done before. We do not know what it means to rest. And now, we’ve been pitted against one another: teacher against parent, administrator against teacher, student against teacher,  all of us against this immense pressure to perform as we grind ourselves into dust. So we work even though we’re dying, and we work even though we have nothing left to give. And we wear our masks to hide what we struggle to face ourselves. 

When I see teachers and principals in the United Kingdom making zoom cheat sheets, engaging students, I resign myself to my current situation: though I have done all of that in the zoom guidelines and more, it was for nought because my school standards don’t support it. My bottom line is not the same. I don’t pretend to know the answers to any of this. I don’t know what else we might do in this situation, but I reflect on the choices I made this year and last:

  • I endured abuse.
  • I endured the isolation from other staff
  • I endure families calling me useless, insinuating that I targeted their child that never turned in a single piece of work or showed up to class
  • I endured being called ‘inadequate’ or not a real teacher

And yes, as only Black teachers in the department, endured the casual racism of being targeted for “indoctrinating students” or being “politically biased” even though my white colleagues are all doing the same assignments. 

But this I know: I can endure abuse from parents and students or I can endure abuse from the school administration team– I cannot do both. It is not worth the weight and tightness in my chest on sunday-thursday evenings knowing I have to get up and stare at a silent screen hoping in vain that someone will talk, wondering which family will criticize me today, which students will yell at me, and whether administration will support my professional judgement or side with the student (I’m somehow always surprised when they take the student even though this has always been the case).

I realize the immense privilege I have in being able to take this step, but I can’t be an island forever.

So, dear Reader: I quit. 

I said no more. 

And, I guess we’ll see where I end up next year, but hopefully in a school that believes in its students as much as I do…

P.S. Thank you to my friends Natasha Akery, Daniel Bundred, and Matt Carton, who listened to me and gave me the courage to make this decision. 

24 comments

  1. Bravo Jasmine! I have followed your blog and Twitter for a while and you are clearly a devoted and diligent teacher with a love for your subject and your students. Being treated like shit shouldn’t be accepted and I salute your decision to say enough is enough. I know it won’t have been an easy decision at all. Wishing you peace and success in your next steps.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There is a school and a student body out there that needs you (they all do, actually, they just don’t realize it), deserves you, and will respond to your energy and knowledge.

    Like

  3. It’s a mixed up system of education and too often unhealthy and unhelpful for everyone. I hope you can imagine yourself an important visionary and surround yourself with others who want what you want and want what you have. As you know, we appreciate you like crazy at our house:)

    Like

  4. Thank you for your work and your voice. I’ve learned a lot from your blog & wish you the best in whatever you do next.

    Like

  5. I’m sorry you had that experience. I’m sure you will find a school that appreciates your passion and expertise. There are certainly many students who need your help.

    Like

  6. There’s only so long a person can beat her head against a brick wall. If you want to try freelance writing — it won’t be lucrative, but it might be fun — email me. I’ll share contacts.

    Like

  7. I’ve taught in schools that were Toxic. In one of the schools, The administrator, who many of us believed was mentally ill, screamed at me when I refused to report on teachers I was supposed to co-teach with. She eventually got fired, but she created such a negative atmosphere in the school, it was hard to erase.

    I hope you find a school where you can feel comfortable being yourself and and where you can reach your full potential. Don’t give up! However, maybe writing is your gig. Follow up on the offer to get the contacts for writing jobs. Remember the saying, “When a door shuts, a window opens.”

    Like

  8. Thank you so much for this. People need to hear from courageous teachers like you, teachers who care deeply about their individual students, respect those students as individual human beings, and are committed to doing no harm to those individuals. Increasingly teachers are being asked to do harm if only in that they are being asked to ignore truths that are staring them in the face, every hour, of every day.

    I would give anything to interview you for my YouTube channel. I can sit there in each video and *tell* people how low expectations hurt students, and how disrespectful (bordering on abusive) that is TO those individuals, but it means a LOT more coming from a teacher who has been in the trenches recently. Your perspective is invaluable. The channel is The Reason We Learn, if you want to see what it’s about. My number one priority is to alert parents who care, but may not be that aware of what’s going on behind the scenes. I will tell you, like you, I’m not thinking of reforming from within the system. I don’t see how that could happen. Instead, I think parents can and should look outside the system for a better education, a self-directed education, seeking, and finding teachers like yourself, who can mentor and facilitate their learning.

    To THAT end, I want to suggest (hope?) you consider starting something on your own? I homeschool my three daughters, and when I was putting their middle and high school schedules together, I could NOT find a literature program taught by a live instructor that suited their needs. I found a wonderful program that has a lit component at the Lukeion Project, but I wanted something a little broader, not exclusively classics or AP (though they are fantastic for those). I ended up with something called Excellence in Literature, which was great, but for the fact that my daughters really need and want a human mentor, and I was unable to be that person for them b/c I work full time. I know I was doing the best thing for them to have them home, and with higher expectations, but they still deserved to have a passionate, PRESENT, educator. You could start your own course, either independently (I bet you’d be full in NO time), or you could start a whole school!

    You probably just want to focus on yourself for a while, and I totally get that — you deserve it! But I want you to know the demand for talented, caring people like you is HUGE, higher than ever. I hope you’ll consider it. I would love to have found you when I was setting up my girls homeschool courses, and I know I’m not alone!

    As for an interview, my goal would be to open the floor with a question or two, and let you have the platform to say whatever you want to say. People who may have missed this wonderful post need to hear it, and hear it from YOU personally. I’ll cover this on my channel, you can count on that, but people have questions, I am SURE of that!

    Thank you. Your integrity and courage are an inspiration.
    Deb

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s