On the last day of school I was talking to a colleague of mine. I was telling her how even now, at the end of the year, I’m really looking forward to next year. She was delighted. She thought we should all be looking at every year in that light. Then she said something that made me think.
She has taught high school for twenty years, and is now teaching at the University level. She teaches in a credential program, teaching the newest crop of teachers coming into the profession. My colleague said this to me. “They all think they are coming into teaching hoping to change something. But I tell them that’s not going to happen. These kids are always going to be poor, and in these high schools things are always going to be crazy. That is what they need to come to terms with.”
So as I watched our seniors graduate, and posed with them for pictures with their families, I kept thinking about what she had said – and I realized I couldn’t agree with her more.
I think a lot of the frustrations we have as teachers, especially first-year teachers, stem from the fact that we are frustrated that nothing is changing. We want scores to go up, we want policies that make sense to go into effect, and we want everyone’s life to improve. We want change. So as the weeks and months go by and we don’t see it, we get frustrated and down on ourselves, our students, and our profession.
My colleague is right, as pessimistic as it might sound. Things are never going to change, so we need to stop stressing ourselves out about it.
95% of the wealth in this country is controlled by 5% of the people. Those numbers aren’t going anywhere. If anything, the gap between the rich and the poor is widening. There are always going to be poor people. I don’t know what some of us think about this – whether we think some day everyone will have the same amount of money or something – but at some point we need to be honest with ourselves. If you think that is ever going to happen, then you might be a bit delusional.
Our low-income schools will never have money. In case you haven’t noticed, Education is the first thing to get cut with every budget, and that will NEVER CHANGE. And in all REALNESS, the last thing any government wants to do is educate its populace – because then they start asking questions. Come to grips with this fact. Please.
The reason I bring all this up is this: It will make your job a hell of a lot easier.
Quit worrying about things that are out of control. Your school is never going to change. The only way it might is if the surrounding area becomes more affluent. Home prices start rising, maybe your city experiences some sort of boom. Then all the poor people can’t afford to live there and all of a sudden your students are rich and well-behaved. That’s the only way anything at your school is going to change (at which point I would switch schools back to a poor one, to tell you the truth). As long as you decide to teach in a low-income public school, you need to accept this fact.
Notice I said decide.
My colleague also talked about the importance of wanting to do it. You have to decide to do this work. It’s just what Professor Jeff Andrade says in his article here on Teach4Real.com. Remember, you signed up for this job. You went through a credential program and chose the school you work at. You chose to fight the good fight, even though you knew it was a fight. So don’t be frustrated when you aren’t seeing much headway. You won’t. Things there aren’t going to change. This year at my school things were worse. That happens a lot too. Things don’t get better, and sometimes they actually get worse.
So stop thinking you’re going to change the system. And please don’t come into the profession wanting to be a trailblazer in this respect. If you want to change things at that level, you need to go into administration or politics. You’re a teacher. On the first and last day of every school year, you are going to have students living below the poverty line. 1 in 5 kids live in poverty in this country. THAT IS NEVER GOING TO CHANGE.
I guess I’m really looking forward to next year because I’ve come to terms with this fact. I know I’m going to have a couple kids walk in on the first day and call me an asshole. One of them might try and fight me. I know I’m going to talk to some parents who can hardly take care of themselves, let alone a needy teenager. There are going to be gang fights. The riot police are going to come onto campus a few times. And every day things are going to be crazy, out of control, and a little bit dangerous. Hey, it’s what I signed up for.
Okay, Matt, then what is the good news?
The beauty in all of this, like always, has to do with the students. What I do is focus on the students. Teachers create change on the individual level. Teachers change people’s lives personally. I don’t mean to be pessimistic. I realize that accepting the fact that things will never change sounds pretty bad. But I’m not writing this out of bitterness. Quite the opposite. I’ve never been happier. I don’t look at this as a bad thing, because my job is the same as always. I get to see the change I create. At graduation last week, I got so many hugs my ribs started hurting. Just because I know next year at my school is going to be just as crazy as this year, and its never going to get much better, doesn’t change anything about the profession to me. It actually takes a load off my mind.
So here at the end of the year, I want you to think back to all the frustrations you had this year, and I want to be the first one to tell you they will be there again in September. Accept it, close your door, and teach. You can’t change society. You can’t change policy. If you’re anything like me, you can hardly get the maintenance crew to get rid of the Black Widow spider-webs in your doorway. Focus on the kids, that is where you’ve chosen to take your stand. Change their lives by looking them in the eye, and at the end of each year you’ll see exactly what you’ve accomplished.