Twenty-one years ago, I naively stepped into a school ready to change the world. There I met a classroom full of rambunctious (and hilarious) middle schoolers with alleged special needs who would challenge me beyond my capacities as a first-year teacher, just barely in my twenties. The job was hard.
Since I was the only special education teacher in the building, I did not have a mentor in this tiny, out-in-the-sticks school. I sought the mentorship of professors and the classroom teachers who had mentored me during my field work. I problem-solved, stayed late — sometimes after midnight — and I somehow lived to tell the story.
I survived, but not without drawing a conclusion: You either have to be a martyr or an idiot to teach. I decided I was the former. I still am.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my job. I cannot imagine a life without teaching. It is my life, the air that I breathe. But every moment that I teach is a sacrifice.
In this country, you simply cannot teach well, really well, without losing, without surrendering so many parts of yourself, and so many of your possessions, that when you walk away for summer, or even just a week, you feel the pangs of emptiness. But you also mourn when it’s time to go back because you know what awaits you. Teaching is like being in an abusive relationship with someone you desperately love.
Does it have to be this way? No. Absolutely not. It’s not the children. It’s not their families. It’s not moral decay or the decline of the “traditional” family unit. It’s the system. It’s society’s expectations. It’s misogyny. It’s racism. This whole gig is a setup.
Anyone who truly wants to impact the lives of children in sustainable ways has to overcome so many obstacles, has to fight so many battles, has to slay so many dragons that, at the end of the day, scarcely anything remains for the people we love outside of our schools, ourselves included. In too many schools, teaching hurts (so good?). And in the places where it’s “better,” the likelihood that I’ll look at my students and see a sea of Black and Brown boy joy and Black and Brown girl magic is negligible. If I cannot teach BIPOC children, I cannot teach. Catch-22.
I don’t mean to be dramatic or depressing. I only mean to tell the truth. My truth. I am so tired of being tired. I am demoralized from expending so much energy and spending so much money to become everything that children need me to be, and continue to acquire everything they need to have, only to arrive at this destination more than two decades later and not be professionally respected enough give it to them.
I’m not calling out any particular school system for which I have worked. It is all of them. The American school system is broken, from sea to shining sea. James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” So this is me no longer naive, in my twenty-second year in the profession, facing it.
I have outgrown myself personally and professionally over and over again. I have read. I have studied. I have reflected. I have earned some of the highest honors in the teaching profession. And, still, my job is just as hard in 2019 as it was in 1998. I still seek mentorship. I still stay late. I still problem-solve. These days it’s just a different kind of difficult.
I’m no longer willing to be a martyr. I’m fed up. A change has gotta come!