In my education classes at Purdue University, a subject that was often discussed was the teacher burnout rate. According to this article published by NPR in 2014, over 500,000 teachers leave the teaching profession each year. And, a more pressing quote, “Nearly 20 percent of teachers at high-poverty schools leave every year, a rate 50 percent higher than at more affluent schools. That’s one of every five teachers, gone by next September.”
This quote directly applies to me. I am in my first year teaching at a high-poverty, Title I school in South Florida.
And to top it off? 50% of educators quit within their first five years.
I’ve (technically) just finished my first year.
So, yeah, the odds aren’t exactly in my favor.
But what is it really like to be a first year high school teacher at a school where poverty is the norm?
It’s exhausting. And frustrating. And demanding. And disheartening. It makes me question who I am as an educator. It makes me question who I am as a person. I question my career path and my life choices. There are days where I want to quit. There are days where I say “I cannot do this anymore.”
But my job is also rewarding. And satisfying. It’s thrilling, and gives me joy, and makes me feel like I’m truly making a difference. When I have a student run in my classroom door with their progress report in hand to show me they’ve finally earned all A’s & B’s…that makes it all the frustration worth it.
But there’s so much more to teaching than “grading papers and having summers off.”
All of my students are 10th graders. That means they are required to pass a standardized test for the state in order to graduate. No big deal, right? Wrong. A majority of my students don’t know how to cite evidence, or correctly use a comma, or even write in cursive.
But before I can even begin to teach any of that, I have my work cut out for me. Earning the respect of 100 teenagers who hate authority figures is challenging. I field all sorts of questions & I get cursed at at least twice a day by students who are frustrated with friends or school or just life in general. When I ask students to write in their journals, their responses range from how tired they are because they had to take care of their siblings all weekend to how depressed they feel because a close family member is in prison.
How am I, a 23 year old female from small-town Indiana, expected to relate to any of this?
I’ve never faced these challenges. I’ve never questioned where my next meal is coming from. I’ve never shown up to class unprepared because I can’t afford school supplies. My parents put me through college, paid for all of my sports equipment & private lessons. They even bought me a car. I was extremely fortunate growing up. I don’t even know a single friend or family member in prison.
But I have to remember…the human beings who walk the halls of my school & act more tough than they actually are…well, they’re just kids. They’re still just children who want someone to make rules and enforce them (I swear this is true), and tell them how proud they are when they achieve something, but also express disappointment when they’ve underachieved.
Do they piss me off? Oh, yes. Do they anger me in ways I didn’t even know I could be angered? Absolutely. But if I show anger, I will get no where. Yelling at them won’t do a thing. I have to let them know I’m disappointed in them because I expected them to be better and do better.
The boys are tough. The girls are even tougher. These sixteen-year-olds are more interested in what DJ Khaled put on his SnapChat story last night than they are in learning how to write a five paragraph essay in order to pass the FSA.
There’s also the race factor. 88% of the students at my school are of minority enrollment. As a white female, I am the minority in this particular setting. I have had students tell me I’m the reason they hate white people. I’ve had students who told me I don’t understand the struggle because I’m not black. And to an extent, they’re right. I don’t know all of their challenges because as a white female, I’ve never had to deal with some of the issues they have. But at the end of the day, race is miniscule. I don’t value my students any less or more because of their skin color. I value them as people for who they are at their core.
The challenges I face as a teacher cannot be squeezed into a small box. The challenges that educators face are recurring, day in and day out.
It took a while, but I finally got them. I got their respect. I’ve made connections with them. Every single one of my students knows how much I care. Not just care about their test scores, but care about them as people. Which is something that, sadly, they may not get at home. These kids live in a completely different world than any of us ever have. Their parents don’t go to their sporting events like mine did. Their parents are working 2 or 3 jobs to make ends meet. Some nights, I’m the only one in the stands cheering my head off for my kids.
So, what is an average day for a first year high school teacher like?
5:30 A.M. – Alarm goes off. Hit snooze until 5:45. Shower & get around.
6:30 A.M. – Walk the dog (The boyfriend & I alternate doing this), pack lunch, make sure I have all of my needed materials.
6:45 A.M. – Out the door (at the latest). If I’m lucky, I’ll grab a coffee from the Starbucks that is literally right beside my apartment complex (which is right beside the school). Luckily, traffic is a non-issue for me. So I can order my coffee from my phone, walk in, and it’s ready. Bam.
7:00 A.M. – Get to school. Sign in at the office, grab my mail.
7:05 A.M. – Get to my room. There’s already 3 kids waiting outside. “Miss, can I eat my breakfast in here?” “Miss, can I leave my bag in here?”
7:10 A.M. – Get the PowerPoint with directions up and running. Make sure the room is organized.
7:15 A.M. – Run to the copy machine. Make extra copies of yesterday’s work for the kids who skipped, lost theirs, or didn’t bring anything to school. Check to see if the office has any extra clothes for the child who was forced to walk in the rain to catch the CityBus to school.
7:24 A.M. – Bell rings. Greet each student at the door by name.
7:30 A.M. – 1st period starts.
9:27 A.M. – 2nd period ends & my planning period begins. Finally have time to eat my breakfast and finish my coffee (which is now cold). Make phone calls home to parents of students who haven’t been at school for two weeks. Number is disconnected. Make a note to talk to their guidance counselor.
9:45 A.M. – Write referrals. One student has cursed me out, and the other is out of dress code every day. Make another note to stop at Goodwill after school & pick up some polo shirts and Khaki pants that oblige with the dress code.
10:00 A.M. – Dept. Head stops in my room to check on my day (truly, I have been blessed with an awesome mentor). Chat about my struggles. Realize it’s now 10:10, and I need to go make extra copies already.
10:30 A.M. – 4th period starts. Student is crying because she’s been fighting with her boyfriend. Try to calm her down while trying to convince two students to stop blaring Chief Keef and start doing their Do-Now activity.
11:21 – Lunch starts. Usually, go home and let the dog out. Eat my sandwich while I walk him.
11:50 A.M. – 1:48 P.M. – 5th & 6th periods. Thank God I have the world’s best co-teacher, as these are my two biggest classes. Half of them are English Language Learners, so I need to be sure to have activities for all of my students, regardless of their skill level (No, I don’t just have one worksheet that fits all of my students. It doesn’t work like that).
2:00 P.M. – 7th period. Finally. I have an additional planning period. Meet with the other 10th grade teachers to discuss testing data, lesson plans, etc.
2:47 P.M. – Bell rings. Students leave. Head to the copy room to make copies. Phone conversation with parent of student who is struggling. 30 minutes long.
3:30 P.M. – Head home. Let the dog out. Start cleaning up the kitchen. There’s laundry to do, the bed needs made.
5:30 P.M. – Errands are done, time to lesson plan…and eat dinner…and spend time with my boyfriend.
9:00 P.M. – Finally done grading papers/writing lesson plans. Time for a snack & maybe some light reading (usually academic articles…and also Cosmo).
9:30 P.M. – Asleep. Exhausted.
Finally. The day is over. But, that was only Monday. Time do to that four more times, and then spend my weekend grading, writing lessons, and if I’m lucky, catching up on the TV shows I missed during the week.
As a teacher, every day is a battle. Two weeks ago, I cried every day at school. I was cursed out, called every terrible name under the sun. But I have 100 students who are counting on me to show up every single day with a smile on my face and a warm hug, letting them know just how happy I am to see them. How happy I am that they’ve shown up to school, even though they’d rather not be there. So no, I can’t just call out sick when I have a bad day. I can’t even call out sick when I’m sick. I’m the consistency in these children, YOUR children’s life, so please, the next time you want to say teaching is easy…come spend a week as my shadow. You probably wouldn’t last a day.
With all of this being said, I love being an educator. I love my kids, no matter how angry or frustrated they can make me. It is the biggest challenge and the biggest reward in my life. So while I have been blessed with an amazing family, amazing K-12 teachers, and kick-ass college professors (talking about you, Prof Shoff!), it’s my turn to be the blessing to 100 sixteen year olds who just want to make it through the day. It’s my turn to help them realize that there is so much more to life than what they’re currently experiencing.