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Monday January 22nd 2018

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There Aren’t Happy Endings for Teachers in the Trenches

Walking around a high school campus at this time of year you will notice the air floats a little lighter and the sun reflects off smiles a little brighter. Everyone is looking forward to the last day, and the mood can aptly be described as celebratory. Seniors can’t wait for graduation, teachers can’t wait to sleep in, and even the homeboys with straight Fs are showing up again just to tighten up their game for the summer.  One of my homeboys with a 5% F showed up this week, and as I was telling the class about the end of the year he said, “Man, I can’t wait not to be in this class anymore.” I looked at him and said, “What do you mean? I haven’t seen you in a month. You don’t come to this class anyway.”

You also cannot help but notice all of the end-of-year celebrations. Senior Awards Night, Hispanic Awards Night, Grad Night, AVID Banquets, Band and Choir concerts, Dance Shows, Leadership Rallies, and to top it all off Graduation. Everyone is getting awards and being recognized. Students are getting scholarships and teachers and counselors are being lauded for their work with these amazing students. The only people you don’t see celebrating are, well, the students who aren’t amazing and the teachers who teach those kids.

There aren’t any Sheltered Awards Nights at my school. We don’t give out anything to the Juniors who read at a 5th-grade level. And for the kids whose parents don’t make enough to feed them three meals a day, and therefore get free lunch at school, we don’t add cake to the menu at the end of the year. The sad reality is that the only teachers on campus who aren’t being recognized with balloons, and awards, and gift certificates, and thank yous, are the teachers who teach the toughest classes at our public schools.

I think there should be an award for the teacher with the most difficult schedule on campus, and at the end of every year that teacher should get a standing ovation from the staff and an all-expense-paid trip out of whatever damn city they have to teach in. They should get a year off. Instead, no one will say thank you. The homeboys will throw up a peace sign on the way out the door, and the teacher will clean up their room in silence. When they step outside they will see students hugging other teachers, and giving them gift cards to Starbucks, taking pictures, and laughing, and the Sheltered teacher will wonder what they are doing wrong, and spend the next three months wondering why they never have kids say thank you at the end of the year. Here’s the reason:

There aren’t any happy endings for teachers in the trenches.

We always bemoan the fact that teachers with experience have easier schedules. Of course there is the argument that “easier” can be construed in many ways, because when you teach AP students it is much, much harder from a content standpoint. But in this way teaching is like most jobs—we don’t give the most rigorous intellectual workload to newbies, and you also have to PROVE yourself to move up the ladder. I don’t think anyone can argue with that. That said, I still would like to see every teacher, especially the cagey veterans, teach at least one Sheltered class every year. But here’s my little secret—I’m not.

This year is the first year I haven’t taught a Sheltered English class.

I actually want to teach a Sheltered class next year, but being a veteran teacher has almost made that an impossibility. I already have 4 preps, so even though I requested a Sheltered 9 class next year, it won’t fit in my schedule. And because I’ve been here so long and am now in charge of great programs like AVID, I am basically beyond the trenches by virtue of having lasted so long. I should be teaching a Sheltered class next year, but I’m not. So at the end of next year, me, and all the other teachers who teach the great kids, the AP kids, the Leadership kids, the Band and Choir kids, will be treated like the saviors of education.

I’m not sure we deserve all that.

At the end of the year, there is no potluck for the teacher with five 9th-grade classes, three of which are Sheltered. Those kids aren’t making lists at the end of the year for who is going to bring a salad, entrée, or desert, on the last day of class. Those kids are trying to figure out what the word entrée means. Or they ask, “How am I supposed to bring an entrée to class when I ain’t even had one at home for months?” You want to talk about gift cards?

Ninja please.

I’ve been recognized by students at two different banquets this year. I’m signing yearbooks and taking pictures and seeing kids off to college. The kids are amazing, and because I have a couple classes where I teach amazing kids, it seems I am amazing too. But looking back at all the Sheltered classes I’ve taught, I would argue I was just as amazing; it just didn’t seem like it because those students were failing all of their classes, rarely came to school, were suspended all the time, and had home lives that would make you gasp. At the end of those classes, even when I did an amazing job, there wasn’t anything tangible to show for it—certificates, awards. And those kids, for many reasons out of their control, were not the kind of kids to plan celebrations, or even say thank you.

Of course our Sheltered classes are shouldered by the newest teachers. At the precise moment you are trying to figure out how to make lessons work, you are given classes in which lessons NEVER work. We all have to go through this. It is like starting in the mail room and working your way up to VP. New teachers have to prove they can do the job, and you have to figure out the intricacies of teaching the content in your area to kids who really do need differentiation and scaffolding. But it won’t be like that forever, and if you made it through this year, I’m betting next year’s schedule looks a little easier.

So to all the Sheltered teachers out there with six classes and no prep, below is a certificate. I used this template this year at our Awards Nights. Print it out on one of those certificate papers with a nice border, and put a gold seal on it. I just want to say I see you, and I see what the work you’re putting in. Nobody else might ever say it, but I will. “Thank you.” And now you have to picture me getting out of my chair and giving you a standing ovation.

RealAWARD

Reader Feedback

15 Responses to “There Aren’t Happy Endings for Teachers in the Trenches”

  1. Patricia says:

    Thank you, Matt. I just finished my second year teaching high school math. My first year I taught algebra to what I found out later was the worst crop of freshmen to enroll that year. This year I taught 3 repeater/remedial math courses. Your description of the end of my years was spot on: feeling inadequate, depressed, and watching other teachers get hugs and accolades while I was just proud to not have run screaming from the building at any point during the year.

    Next year I teach Algebra 2 honors and AP Calculus. Quite a change. I look forward to teaching high school math for real, and not on the 5th grade level. But I think I will put your certificate somewhere I can see it to remind myself of working “in the trenches.”

    • There you go Patricia. It is already going to be better next year, way to stick it out. Do me a favor though, no matter how high you rise, keep teaching remedial classes if you can. We need the good teachers who have been there and done that to keep being there and doing it. Good luck.

  2. Diane says:

    Next year I will be teaching five sections of freshman English, two of them CWC or sheltered classes. I’ve been at my school for eleven years, and I am finally teaching the subject for which I trained. It’s what I have always wanted to do. I sat through graduation watching all the recognitions, and I wondering why we don’t recognize the kids walking across the stage despite years of poverty, abuse and neglect. Those are my heroes. Sure, we lose a lot of kids along the way, but a few make it. I don’t need a certificate. I had Emily in her cap and gown hugging me and thanking me that I was there to see her triumph over addiction and bad relationships and get her diploma. I work for the Emily’s and their parents who themselves maybe didn’t make it. Even a little progress is better than none at all.

  3. Karen says:

    Thanks Matt- this was a joy to read. Not because it was puppies and kittens, but because it is the truth. I just finished year 24 most of which were in alternative programs. It is tough- tougher than most would ever realize. It is a nice feeling to know that someone does understand and respect what so many do even if they never get an award. Thank you again.

    Karen

    • RIght on Karen, but I bet you get some recognition, whether it is from a couple of students, or some colleagues who see what is really go on. The truth hurts, in teaching that saying is just as true, if not more so.

  4. teri says:

    Matt…this was my 15th year, and for some reason, they gave me 3 groups of Freshmen…all of whom were way below grade level in both math and English. Class sizes were restricted to 55 (yes, fifty five) students each. I thought I would wind up in a funny farm before the end of the year. And, you know what?? all the discipline problems of the overcrowded classroom were my fault, according to admin. My current mantra is…x number of years to retire…x number of years to retire…I don’t expect to ever get a certificate of recognition. I just hope to be able to get out with my synapses intact!!

    • Do you actually mean 55 students in ONE class? That is insane, and anyone who thinks that is even possible should get their head examined. I’m getting tired of the people above me telling me things I should be doing when I know for a fact they can’t do it. In fact, they never could do it, they can’t do it now, and they won’t ever be able to do it. That is unfair to you and the students both.

  5. Lynn Allan says:

    Thanks Matt,

    There are certain teachers and certain programs that always get the accolades. But If you get the reputation of being successful with the toughest students, instead of recognition they try to give you more of them. I can’t tell you how many e-mail I receive asking if I could take this or that student because they are failing with their other teachers. For the most part, I get a lot of love from my students…successful or not..which is nice. But sometimes….

    • Lynn,
      I most definitely hear you. I’ve heard at my school an actual list exists with the names of the teachers who can handle the tough students. Guess what happens, they funnel the toughest students to those teachers. Too often the accolades are focused on everything but the education taking place–singing, entertainment. Then we wonder why everyone wants to be an actor, singer, or sports superstar. Those are the only people we celebrate at school!

  6. Teach4Real-er says:

    Matt,

    I teach in your district. I’m not going to say where because…well…you know. What you wrote here is extremely important. In fact, I think you are one of the only people in this district that I have ever heard acknowledge this reality. This past year, my first year in the district, I taught 5 “college prep” English classes. I found myself wishing that someone would acknowledge that these classes were remedial because the majority of my students were below basic, if not far below basic. These classes were often referred to as “waiting rooms” for the continuation school because so many students were credit deficient, and by credit deficient I mean never having passed a high school class. Needless to say, it was a tough year, but I made it through and am coming back. As challenging as the kids were, one of the hardest things about the year was the feeling of inferiority I experienced when the academy kids were paraded around like paragons of The Power of High Expectations. Why was I not having this kind of impact on the gang member whose dad is in jail and mother was dead? Sometimes I wanted to scream about these differences in the middle of staff meetings. It was as if no one there understood the meaning of self-selection. Then I started reading some really great books on urban education and found that there was a word for what programs like the academies at our schools do: “creaming.” As in the cream of the crop. Those awards ceremonies for teachers are BS because only the leadership students vote! It is often depressing for me to attend school events (plays, concerts, etc…) because my kids don’t participate in them. None of this is to detract from what the teachers of advanced classes do. However, I think it would make a HUGE difference if veteran teachers and, more importantly, administrators acknowledged the incredible challenges that teachers of remedial classes face.

    • Here’s the reason veteran teachers don’t teach these classes: No one on earth can make them work. Period. I don’t care who you are, if you are given a class full of sophomores who have yet to pass a class in high school (yes, PE included), that is remedial or sheltered, it is not going to work. You are not going to make some sort of crazy test score turn-around, the kids are not going to grab life and go. I don’t care who you are. That doesn’t mean you can’t have success in other areas- buy-in, a respectful climate, teaching them something more than you or they expected, raising a few scores. But in the end it isn’t going to work not because of who you are or how you teach, but because of all the other things going on in the students’ lives. That is the brutal answer, and a reason many people leave teaching and move on to district positions or administration. They don’t like the feeling of things not working. I think the trick is understanding that, but also continuing to fight and believing that every day they come into your room and see a positive role model, feel safe, and maybe take an interest in writing, or science, even for a few minutes, is putting them on an elevated path they might not have had had they not had you as a teacher. I feel like my sheltered kids always benefited from my class, they usually told me the same, and even if they still went on to continuation school, they went knowing how to write a hell of a lot better than they did before. And they saw a man who showed up to work every day and did things right, was respectful, tough, intellectual, and caring. I continue to believe that is worth staying in the profession for. But again, you won’t get any awards for that.

  7. Teach4Real-er says:

    Well, again, thanks for acknowledging how difficult our (new teachers) classes are. I learned almost immediately to shut my door, do what I thought was right by the kids, and define success on my own terms. Many moments of minor triumph take place behind those doors, but they are not moments that are going to help anyone meet AYP or get out of program improvement or whatever. Once I figured out how I needed to teach the kids (lots of culturally relevant pedagogy, throw the twenty pound text book out the window, do as much hands-on and interactive stuff as possible, incorporate art, film and music; accept their roughness and not draw attention to myself with referrals for things like bad language or other urban teen realities ), I felt fairly satisfied and teaching this way allowed me to like the kids and enjoy their presence, rather than feel like I was walking into a battle zone everyday (though I often was, and often felt it). So, in the end, my problem was not predominantly with the kids, but with the fact that I had to do what I considered good teaching UNDER THE RADAR. I was not using the pacing guide. I was not doing a lot of the test prep. My kids wrote seven essays, but they were on issues like “do boys need male role models?” rather than whatever the pacing guide said about comparing Thoreau and Whitman. Then comes the meeting where my colleagues teaching AP are talking about their kids’ essays comparing Thoreau and Walden. Then comes the suggestion that I visit “so-and-so’s” class, who teaches kids who are demographically different than mine. Who might be a great teacher. But those are not my kids. So, if there are no or few veteran teachers teaching the toughest kids for the new teachers to observe, and if the REAL strategies for teaching those kids have to take place under the radar, then it is not surprising that there is high turnover among new teachers. It is sad if what we are supposed to do is pay or dues, wait our turn to get the better classes, then pity the poor new teachers who are thrown to the wolves each year.

  8. artologies says:

    Thank you so much for this comment right here. And thanks teach4real, for this website. I am a first year teacher in an urban district, and thankfully I am completely dependent on this job for income or I would have left several times over. It’s often felt like I am meant to be here, but usually I am fed up, depressed and feel completely inadequate. I am also learning about those “behind closed doors” moments, when you can really do what is right for your students. This blog is helping me mentally prepare for the next few months.

  9. jt says:

    Thanks for remembering the teachers in the trenches. However,it is not always the new teachers that get the standard classes. My school goes a different direction. I have taught since 2001. When I started teaching at my school I got the Honors classes for three or four years. Then they hired on an older lady and they gave her the honors classes to her. The administration at the time told me he didn’t want to run her off and basically since I was a young male I could handle the standard classes. Since then I have had standard classes. Right now, one of my students is rapping in class and complaining because administration is kicking him out of school;but, they still sent him back to class until they get his expulsion finalized. Oh, Lord. Thanks.

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