More and more I worry about young teachers new to the classroom. Will they simply be data-gatherers and test-givers? Is that how they will define their role as teacher since that seems to be the prevalent, official take on the profession these days? More importantly, will they settle for that definition? Many veteran teachers are giving up, but what about new teachers? “Why One Public School Teacher Has Had Enough” is the last article for the season in the series, “Teachers in Their Own Words.” In it Natalie, a prekindergarten teacher in a New England public school, shares her struggles to hold on to her ideals and her love for her students while trying to be a team player on a team that she’s not sure can work for the best interests of kids.” She writes, “We see a tension faced by teachers who want to teach but realize they are asked to do something quite different.” It’s clear that Natalie feels conflicted and somewhat inadequate to the task, but even more powerfully she feels disloyal to her basic philosophy of education, to her students and to the profession she clearly loves. It’s a clear-eyed, courageous, and poignant piece, leaving you no choice but to cheer her on and wish her well.
Why One Young Public School Teacher Has Had Enough
This season, I’ve read a number of resignation letters from teachers. There was the career teacher whose letter titled “My profession no longer exists” went viral. There was the school principal lamenting that it is “so much harder to be kind to children” these days. Or the the award-winning teacher resigning just four years before full retirement because he “can no longer cooperate with the high stakes testing regime.” In each of these, we see a tension faced by teachers who want to teach but realize they are asked to do something quite different. While reading these letters, I’ve written my own resignation letter. It is a short and sweet note written with some embarrassment after just two years of teaching in an urban public school. I did not participate in Teach for America and considered myself kind of a conscientious objector to that deployment, but there you have it. Two years.
We’re dropping like flies, it seems. Some of my friends, also young teachers in public schools, are courageously soldiering on. In the process of applying for jobs at progressive private schools, I kept using their example to motivate me to instead stay one more year in an urban public school. That’s what they’ve promised themselves. They tell me they’re giving it one more year, or trying to squeeze out two more years before deciding what to do next. I admire them tremendously, but while I have regret and disappointment that public school teaching did not work out for me at this time, I’ve accepted that it’s time to say goodbye for now.
Here’s the puzzle. I’m a few years out of college, and my professional commitment is to democratic and progressive education. I want to treat children with kindness and respect each day, I want to know their hopes and their families’ hopes, and I want most of my interactions with them to focus on learning—“Hmm…pet store. How can we sound out that word?” or “Which container do you think will fit more? How do you know?” or “Why is your friend feeling sad? What could you do to help him?” While I am able to have those kinds of interactions in the public prekindergarten where I teach, it’s usually also while holding a tissue tight around someone’s bloody nose, or wiping a table while simultaneously carrying a cot. It’s a circus, with so many children and not enough hands, not enough space. I’ve tried every possible daily schedule and every possible furniture arrangement and consulted any colleague who made the mistake of looking like they had a free moment, all in order to try to make it work.
Yet, even in this high-functioning public school with fantastic leadership, I’ve found it enormously difficult to provide my students with their basic entitlements. I want to give them the sense that I like them and have time to listen to them, that their ideas matter and will work their way into what we explore as a group, and that they are known well.
Unfortunately, in the midst of this, I am expected to collect and analyze rigorous fine-grained data about student progress in all domains. Even though we know that children develop at an uneven rate, I am expected to lead all students through linear progress. For example, a child who uses scissors to cut lines must be able to cut curves 12 weeks later. We are told there is some wiggle room, but nonetheless these benchmarks feel like marching orders. So we march. I believe that my first principle must be to do no harm, and yet I feel complicit in a system that asks young children to do too much too fast. And I’ve had to figure out how to manage all of these priorities largely on my own.
I know that it takes many years to develop one’s teaching practice, but in talking to colleagues at my school, not a single person has told me “give it time.” I kept waiting for those words. If the problem was me, that I was too much a novice, then the solution would be simple. Stick it out, give it more time. Instead the feedback from administrators has been enormously positive, and I’ve been encouraged not be so hard on myself and to just accept their assurance that I am a great teacher and there isn’t a big problem. This administrative response came at a time when I felt myself beginning to punish students when I meant to support them, and beginning to forgo vigorous lesson planning in favor of accepting that maybe the day would just be one rush of meals, toileting, and behavior management because our large group size, staffing arrangement and cramped room made each of those things so difficult.
So next year, I’ll work at a small, progressive, private school, where I will have a full-time co-teacher, paid planning time, and weekly professional development. There teachers get time and support to pursue collaborative projects to improve their own practice. “Basically, what we provide our students, we want to provide our faculty as well,” I was told again and again when I visited.
It is not lost on me that this wonderful place where progressive education thrives is a boutique. But I have come to a point where I refuse to feel guilty about wanting to use in my teaching what we know about child development and how kids learn best. I refuse to feel guilty about wanting a window, a lunch break, and to know my colleagues’ names. Teaching, wherever one does it, is enormously challenging work, and I will be much better at it there.
My friends have been tremendously supportive. The ones who have stood with me in learning about and pursuing public education, sharing articles, debates, and reflections, have said “I have no talk back” when I told them my career move. Some people, who are not teachers, have said things like “It’s a shame, because it’s in those schools that we need the best teachers.” However, I’ve learned that the best teachers do not exist in isolation. The best teachers, like the best students, are wherever there are people encouraging them to be just that.