I am exhausted. Like, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. Luckily, my physical energy is in high supply usually, otherwise I’d likely be dead. Yes, yes I know. Melodrama.
Today, I got a big envelope from the State Education Department. I dreaded opening it, fearing it was a reminder that my certification had lapsed, even though I did all the right paperwork, sent all the money to the right places, and all by the right deadlines.
But then there it was, in my hands: a pink and blue piece of paper that read “Public School Teacher Certificate: Professional Level”.
Something inside of me recoiled. On one level, I took great pride in holding such a certificate—I have high ideals about what it means to be a public school teacher, and I take those ideals very seriously. On another level, I felt fractured: the educational system in which I once believed in has been revealed to be deeply corrupt, broken, and very divided. I’m not sure anyone who is in charge of anything actually cares about what is happening in our schools. If they did, it might not be happening.
And I don’t think it’s local. I don’t blame anyone in Rochester, I like our superintendent, and I know a great many teachers and administrators are working their butts off. Lately, though, my question has been: for what?
For the kids that are ready to learn, yes. But. But something’s not quite right about that. Because those kids are suffering as a consequence of the system, too.
Sure, I am a novice teacher. It’s my third year in the city district and my sixth year working as a teacher. But I’m not a fool, and I pay close attention to a great many details, patterns, trends, and behaviors. I will make this clear: I am not claiming to be some kind of an expert here, I’m just sharing what I think, feel, and experience.
I became an art teacher because I believe specials classes, like music, art, and gym, can provide a kind of therapy for kids… urban kids, suburban kids, and rural kids. Kids sit and learn all day long. It’s nice to have classes where you have a little break. Where you’re being creative, physical, or expressive, where you’re using your mind in a different way, where you can feel more, and think less. Art class provided me with that necessary space when I was in high school. I wanted to provide that for kids, too.
But education is changing, and now even art teachers are required to “show growth” and administer assessments. Fuck growth. And fuck assessments. There, I said it. I became an art teacher because I want to nurture a kind of growth that can’t be measured. Nor can it be forced. I want kids to learn a little bit more about themselves, others, and the world at large. I want them to learn those things through creative expression. I teach vocabulary words and specific techniques, and I teach them about artists, but I don’t care if they remember that stuff at the end of the year. I care if they remember what they felt when they completed a project they thought they couldn’t. I care if they remember finding out something new about themselves. I care about those tiny little connections that are made in their minds and hearts when they’re making something with their hands and imaginations.
This is happening less and less in most school districts, as far as I know, thanks to recent education reform. And at times, it feels like an impossible feat for most of my students. Not only is the culture in my school far too violent, divided, and out of control to foster real, widespread learning (and I don’t blame any admins at my school, it’s a complicated issue that’s got no single cause), but I feel that the great majority of my students aren’t ready to learn. And for good reason.
A great many of my students have never had their psycho-social-emotional needs met. A great many of them do not have stable, secure attachments at home. A great many of them have endured serious trauma and loss. A great many of them do not have enough adults in their lives advocating education (or if they do, they have many other peers or role models that go against what their parents believe). A great many of them not come from families where there is not enough money or knowledge to provide nutritious meals. A great many of them are exposed to violence frequently, at home, or in their neighborhood. A great many of them have absent parents, or parents who work so hard for such long hours they aren’t around to provide the structure they need. A great many of them do not have hope—not for themselves, for their community, or the world as a whole. Again, there is not a singular cause, I don’t think, which is what makes this all so complicated.
So what is it then? What’s to blame? I think it’s hard to really identify, because there’s always a counter example. But this is what I think: poverty, generational poverty, is partly to blame, racism is partly to blame, a broken welfare system is partly to blame, corrupt government and education officials are partly to blame, a badly broken education system is partly to blame, corrupt corporations are partly to blame, lack of communication and perspective is partly to blame, lack of resources is partly to blame, ignorance is partly to blame, bad parenting is partly to blame, violence is partly to blame, obsession with capital is partly to blame, and constantly revolving educational plans, schemes, and goals is partly to blame.
But, above all, above all, I believe that our divisive way of thinking, our “me-against-them” attitudes, is mostly to blame. I believe the fact that our culture emphasizes individualism over cohesion is fracturing our families, our communities, our schools, our government, our country, and our world. I believe that for as long as we draw attention what makes me or you or them different, or better or worse, we will suffer immense consequences. As long as we judge others for things we simply do not understand or know enough about, we will suffer immense consequences. As long as we point the finger of blame at one person, one group, or any singular cause, we’ll suffer immense consequences. We won’t be able to really listen to each other, nor see clearly, nor understand people or experiences outside of our immediate friends, family, hobbies, and interests. We will become further divided, isolated, and apprehensive of what’s “different” from us. We’ll make no progress. No movement forward, nor together.
That doesn’t even begin to address the numerous problems many of my students are experiencing. But it does, perhaps, begin to explain how the best and worst school districts in the state of New York are a mere 7 miles apart. Every day at school, I withstand a fair amount of verbal abuse—which I understand come from a place of emotional and psychological pain, the inability to control one’s impulses, or not having enough positive influences at home. I can tolerate a lot, I can be understanding and calmly talk through a lot. I can listen a lot, and I can forgive a lot. But I have my limits. And I’m discovering that my limits exist in response to my ability to acknowledge the inherent dysfunction within the system I work. The more I believe in what I’m working for, the more my limits are expanded. But as I begin to see that I do not believe in or agree with the policies I’m forced to abide by, my limits shrink. In short, I could tolerate and understand a pretty endless stream of hostility if I believed in what I was doing.
But I don’t believe in it anymore. Which is why that colorful Public School Teacher Certificate mailed in from Albany was such a slap on the cheek. I used to blush with pride and anticipation when I looked at my old certificate, even though it was just an “initial level”. But I have come to a new understanding: for as long as I am an active and participatory member of of this system, I am also perpetuating its dysfunction. I am perpetuating something in which I want to believe, but don’t. Not anymore, not like this. I believe that it could and should work, but I am not sure how long it’s going to be until that happens, and I am not sure I’d be very happy spending my whole life working within a framework I do not agree with, or feel good about. I also know I can’t change the system. So I want out.
I believe what our children need, more than anything, is psycho-social-emotional support and awareness. So do many of their families. No one can learn, or place much value on 7th grade Social Studies when they are hurting so much on the inside. I know so little, but I do know that most of them have either witnessed or experienced the death of a close friend or family member. I know that it’s treated like it’s no big deal. I know that many of them told me they have no plans for Christmas. I know that many of them think violence is a good way to solve problems. And I also know that many of them fall apart in the presence of a baby reindeer print-out to color, “because it’s sooooo cute!” I know that many of them come to me for hugs every day.
A quick side story—one of the students who comes in and leaves with a hug every day is a very hostile high school student I have. He was indifferent toward me until a verbal fight escalated in my room between him and another girl a couple months ago. They both started making physical threats toward each other and then they were both standing, getting closer. I knew if they fought he would do serious damage to the girl, and that I wouldn’t be able to stop him. Despite his mounting anger, I for some reason trusted in my gut that he wouldn’t hurt me. I got in between them—inches from his face—put my hands on his shoulders, and softly asked him to step into the hallway. When he wouldn’t budge, I gently pushed him toward the door, talking calmly the whole way. And we made it into the hall like that, the young girl still hurling threats behind me. I locked him out, and called a security guard, my heart pounding. The day after that, the hugs started, then the conversations about his thoughts and why he believes the world is a hopeless and terrible place, why he has “given up”. I know I can’t save this kid, but I can be there every day, I can listen to him, validate his thoughts and opinions, I can allow him to feel felt by another human being. I can give him a hug. Maybe these are the things people need in order to save themselves. I don’t know.
I tell you this so you are clear on a few things: I am in this for the kids, I always have been. And I believe in them. And I’m understanding. And I’m good at what I do. Despite the fact that I complain at times, I am not one of those teachers who cannot see her students’ hearts, who has stopped believing in their goodness or their potential. There are very many things I love about teaching, and my students. And I won’t lie here: some students drive me crazy. But I try to start every day new: be gentle, be receptive, don’t let it get to you when she comes in the class screaming, when she insults you.
But, I also know that I cannot continue witnessing and experiencing these realities when I feel paralyzed to do anything about them. When I feel like the system we’re inside of is also the system that is placing limits on the kids, not giving them what they need. When I feel like that system is instead rating them based on tests they’re not ready to take and giving out monetary awards to the teachers who get the highest scores. When I feel like that system is restricting and limiting me, too.
I’m not exactly sure what I’ll do next, but I know my time in the classroom is running out. I know I’ll hang on for at least the rest of the year—for the few kids I’m close with, for those few moments when I know art has allowed a light bulb to turn on, for those moments of brief but pure connection between two students, or between a student and I, or between a student and his or her project.
Sure, I want to be happy. I want to do things that bring me joy—like make art, write, teach yoga, go on hikes, swim in the lake, ride my bike. But I know my life will forever feel incomplete if I am doing nothing to propel us forward, and, perhaps more importantly, towards each other. I’ve witnessed and experienced truths that few people see and experience. To go forward without doing something about it would be selfish, irresponsible, and would do nothing to soften the lines that divide us—those very lines I have come to despise so much.
As a side note–I don’t doubt there are incredible teachers out there who believe in what they’re doing and have the strength and willpower to work and educate kids despite the frustrating education reforms, policies, or problems related to working in an urban district. They are true teachers. The art and craft of good teaching is their greatest passion. I’m not sure any other kind of teacher can survive in the educational climate at present. And certainly not in my school. Sometimes, I wish I was one of them. I am deeply saddened at the idea of leaving these kids. But we have to be who we are.
I don’t know what to do next, or where I’ll go with this, but I’m pretty sure it starts with me. Which means I still have some work to do. I want the world to be a more connected place. I want people to see themselves and others more clearly and openly. I want us to be kinder to each other. Including me. I want to be kinder, too. And I still have to let go of some of my own judgmental ways, I have to become more accepting, and a better listener. Before I can change anything, I must be it. Fully.