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My story (Part I)

June 25, 2010

Two of the six throughline questions I used to spark student thought and guide our work in the classroom.

In my introduction, I talked a little bit about myself and discussed how I came to start this blog. Today, I’m writing to share a fuller version of that story. I’ve waited a quite a while to do this, for a lot of reasons: it’s personal, it’s painful, it’s a big professional risk, and so on and so forth. But ultimately, I feel it’s important to speak out, whatever the risk. What happened to me has happened and is happening to a lot of great teachers (and thus, to students) and if we all keep trying to pretend it isn’t, then the forces that keep too many good teachers out of classrooms that need them will persist.

* * *

Like many teachers, I came to teaching with a deep sense of purpose. Growing up, I all too often took for granted the wonderful learning opportunities I had as a result of my parents’ hard work and sacrifices. Both of my parents were able to break the cycle of poverty, thanks in part to a few inspirational teachers and educational experiences they had when they were young. From the time they married, they worked and saved so that they could give their children the kinds of opportunities they didn’t have. When my sister and I reached school age, in 1980s New York City, middle-class parents who wanted an excellent education for their children basically had two choices: pay tuition to send them to expensive private schools, or buy a house in the suburbs with better public schools. Though it meant moving farther away from our extended family, my parents chose to move.

Fast forward 14 years. Thanks to some fantastic teachers, a whole lot of parental involvement, and hard work on my part, I was fortunate enough to attend an amazing college. During a fairly casual attempt to fulfill a distribution requirement, I took an Intro to Educational Studies course. What I learned in that class left me outraged. When confronted with the devastating inequalities so rampant in our public education system, it occurred to me that no parent should have to move, or pay extra money, or have to struggle to ensure that their child gets a quality education. Good schools and teachers should be available to all children, regardless of income, location, or background. At that moment, I decided to become a teacher. I wanted to be part of the solution to that problem, by working in high-need schools and giving those students the same kind of quality education I had.

From then on, I devoted myself to gaining experience in everything I thought could enhance my ability to serve students well. I studied education from multiple perspectives—its history in America, theory, pedagogy, and policy. I studied developmental, cognitive, and social psychology, and engaged in fieldwork in real classrooms and worked on relevant research whenever possible. I worked in, and later launched and ran, after-school and summer programs designed to improve the achievement of low-income and minority students throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania. After graduating with Honors, I spent time student and substitute teaching in independent schools to better understand how teachers educate the children of affluent families. I worked toward becoming the kind of teacher who can help needy students overcome educational hardship, and develop their potential to become thoughtful, powerful people.

So, when my husband was accepted to a Master’s program at UC Boulder and we decided to move to Colorado, I compared school districts and decided that, despite the inconvenient commute, I needed to teach in Denver. I believed in what DPS says it is trying to do for its students, and I wanted to be a part of it.

Bonding with my kiddos. "We don't just wear All-Stars, we ARE All-Stars!"

During my two years teaching in DPS, I worked hard to develop a strong reputation as an instructor. As a member of my school’s CORE Matters team, I regularly opened my classroom doors to other teachers, to help promote best practice in literacy instruction throughout our building. I collaborated with other teachers to help develop and refine our school-wide discipline practices. And I spent many long days (and evenings) in my classroom, planning lessons, poring over our learning environment, working with my teammates, and otherwise preparing to do the hard work of teaching my students (many of whom came to my classroom several years behind). My hard work was repeatedly recognized, and noted as an example for other teachers. I was even commended by a reading expert who observed my small group instruction, during a real-time lesson that was taped and later recommended for use as a professional development tool for the rest of the district.

My first year of teaching was one of the hardest years of my life. I’m naturally something of a workaholic who likes a certain amount of stress, but this was different. Working with children is rewarding and fun, but I find it’s far more energy-intensive than working with adults, especially when you’re working with almost 30 of them–all with different personalities, issues, and needs– at a time. With licensure issues, professional development requirements, and meetings on top of my actual work, I struggled to keep up with all that was being demanded of me. (Being a perfectionist who wants to do everything exceedingly well probably didn’t help.) One morning before the school day started, I actually fainted in my classroom and was rushed to the hospital. I had no work-life balance; I routinely left my classroom well after dark, bought or made “dinner” (a charitable description of what was often a bowl of cereal, or a cup of yogurt and a handful of trail mix), and melted into bed.

The summer afterward, I got married. Catching up with friends, being home with my family, and thinking about the family I’d start with my new husband forced me to re-think how I’d been living, and the terrible care I’d taken of myself and my relationships since I started working at this school. I resolved to strike a better balance the next year.

Looking back, I realize now that that’s when the trouble started.

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