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Classroom Mechanics Mon Jan 03 2011

Classroom Mechanics: Annie

classroommechanics.jpgAnnie appears born to teach. A third grade teacher near Bucktown, she bursts with enthusiasm, gesticulating excitedly when talking about her students or a math curriculum she thinks highly of.

The majority of her students are Latino; she is white. Born on the East Coast and educated in Urbana-Champaign, she now lives in the neighborhood, and likes it that way. On the way to the interview, she says, she ran into a student from the past year.

She comes from a family of educators, and has wanted to teach from a young age. Now in her sixth year of teaching, she plans to be an educator for life.

I was lucky to grow up in a town where the public system was phenomenal. I had great teachers. When I go home, I still visit my teachers from as far back as third grade. In my class, we do a project called Flat Stanley, and every year I send a Flat Stanley back to my old third grade teacher's classroom. My third grade teacher now can see me as a third grade teacher.

She tried hard to treat us as human beings, but also treat us like kids. She made us birthday cards with little Scottie dogs, because she loved Scottie dogs. She would give you a pencil on your birthday. She would always make sure that you knew that she knew who you were, that you knew you were an important part of the class. I don't remember what I learned in third grade, but I remember feeling comfortable in her classroom. I try to do that for my kids.

It's hard to balance treating kids like human beings and treating them like kids. Third grade is the first year they're tested on the state level and held accountable for it--it's a benchmark grade. If they don't pass the testing, they don't pass certain grades. I have to encourage my eight and nine year olds to prepare for a test that is important, but also teach them that it's just a test. Their value as a child is not based on testing.

We need some measure to show we're doing our jobs, to hold parents and students and teachers accountable. But we don't need to do testing every month. Every day they're testing is one less day to teach them. It's hard to find that balance between teaching them things that are important for the rest of their lives, versus preparing them for a test so they can continue their life, eventually graduate, and go on and do something great.

The longer I teach, the more I realize the relationship between an administrator and a teacher is like any situation between a boss and a worker. At the first school I taught at, I definitely bumped heads. It didn't fit--our educational philosophies were different. Now, my principal lets us teach, so our strengths come out in our teaching.

In a school system as large as CPS, it's important to have a CEO, because the system's huge. The money needs to be handled by someone with a business background. But we're also a public school system. Our main job is to educate children. If there is no superintendent who powers equal to the CEO's, that shows how the system views educating its children.

We have no one in the top ranks right now to tell us how to actually educate our students. None of them have taught a day in their life. That's a problem. If you haven't taught, you don't understand what teachers and students need.

I like my raise. I'm glad to receive it every year, because I'm paying off my college debt so I can do this job. I would love to get a bonus or some sort of recognition in money form--I'm sure I'd just put it back in my classroom, anyway.

But I'm probably one of the few teachers who will say this: I'm willing to give up my raise as long as they don't increase class size and cut teachers. If my not receiving a raise means one of my coworkers not getting cut, that's fine.

I've witnessed tenured teachers engage in practices that I don't think are appropriate, but because they're tenured, they're difficult to fire. Especially in CPS, the process of firing a tenured teacher is extremely difficult. Which is great on some levels, because maybe you are doing a great job, and they want to fire you and you really don't deserve to be fired. It's great that there's a long process. But a number of teachers across the country are just riding on that tenure. It's unfortunate for the students, because they don't know what they're missing. It's unfortunate for the teachers who are doing a good job who aren't tenured, because they're going to be cut first, even though they're the ones really working for their students. I think it's very unfortunate there are a handful of teachers who are just bad. Sorry, some people just aren't meant to be teachers. You need to recognize at some point that you're doing a disservice to your students.

Teachers do need some sort of stability. Right now, it doesn't matter if you're tenured--you can be cut, which happened at my school. I've been cut every year.

It's terrifying, especially for someone like me, who only wants to teach. I've wanted to be a teacher since 8th grade. I don't know what I would do with my life.

My job is never not there when I'm home. I think about my kids every day. In the middle of the night, I've woken up with a dream that a kid fell on the playground and broke their leg, and felt awful. Sometimes I feel bad for my friends and my family because all I talk about is my students.

I went camping with my brother at a historical site, and when we went into the gift shop, he said, "You are not allowed in the children's book section." Because I'll spend forever in there. Some people buy shoes, I buy children's books. Maybe that's because I can't afford shoes--I spend all my money on children's books.

Even when school isn't in session, I'm at school. This summer, I wrote a grant. Even when I'm off, I'm still working. I'll read a book or watch a movie and think, "That would be a great idea for the classroom." And I write it down, and come back to it later. It's always with me.

Her first job out of college was at a charter school on the South Side.

I decided to work there because I agreed with its vision. I was young and didn't understand the purpose of charter schools--[whispers] which is to privatize them.

When I got the position, I was really excited: we were going to do all these great things for kids in Englewood, who could really benefit from having a great school in their neighborhood. It wasn't going to be testing-based--anybody could go. I fell in love with that. They hired me before I even graduated, so I thought I was all set.

When the summer ended, I quit my job and started planning for the new school. For three weeks, things were up in the air. We petitioned to the school board, went to a hearing, delivered letters to people like Oprah, Senator Meeks, anyone we could think of to help keep the school open.

But two weeks before school was supposed to start, they decided to close the school and cancel the charter. There were about 20 of us teachers without jobs, some of whom had given up positions at other schools. We had to redirect 300 students and re-enroll them in their neighborhood schools.

That really made me question becoming a teacher. I was unemployed for two months. I called over 100 schools and there were no positions available. It was terrifying. I had well over $100,000 in student loans that I was paying off by myself. I don't have any family here, so I couldn't move home. I was applying for anything on Craigslist.

I thought to myself, "I don't know how I'm going to survive if this is going to happen every year. I'm not going to be able to feed myself."

Halfway through my second year of teaching, it was rough. I went to school every day ready to cry, thinking I had no idea what I was doing. I had a room full of first graders and just did not know what to do. I felt like I was doing everything wrong, like I wasn't teaching them, like they weren't reading at the right level. I felt like I wasn't doing my job.

I remember coming home one day and started sobbing. I told my boyfriend, "I can't do this anymore!" It was like that for a week.

And last year, I received my test scores and the news that I was being cut on the same day--my first year a testing teacher. The initial scores came in, and I now know they were pretty good. But at that time, I was told I need to do better, that the scores were not acceptable. Those two things combined at the same time left me again sobbing. I was convinced that I shouldn't be teaching third grade, that the scores were terrible, that I was going to be fired.

I was in that funk for three days, but eventually came to tell myself, "You did a great job." Since then, I haven't had any moments like that. One year without that moment is great.

You have to wait a long time to reap the benefits of teaching. That's one reason I go back to the schools I grew up in when I have the chance, because I want my teachers from elementary through high school to know: "You're the reason I am a teacher." Now, as a teacher, I have even more respect for them, because I understand why they did what they did.

A few years ago, I ran into the parent of a student I had when I was a student teacher. At the end of my student teaching, I had written every student in the classroom a long note, including one to a student who was a particularly challenging child who had struggled academically and socially. I had taken a particular liking to her to try to help her along. I don't even remember what I wrote, but in the note, I told her she had made progress, and I knew she could do it--something like that.

Two years later, I saw her mom on a bus. She immediately came up and hugged me, and said, "When I read that note, I started crying. Thank you so much." This is two years after the fact!

I felt I did something right.

One kid e-mailed me, I had her two years ago in first grade. She sent me an e-mail that said, "Remember how you taught us the United States song? Well, I found a version on YouTube, and I'm practicing it!"

That's why teachers teach. For those moments.

Still, I don't know if I'm succeeding or not. We'll find out twenty years from now--if kids come back and tell me.

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

Classroom Mechanics is an oral history project aimed at giving voice to teachers around Chicago. For more information, see this post.

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Kirstie / August 24, 2011 10:04 AM

This article is interesting but I'll point out that there are as many new teachers who don't have a clue and proper mentors now as there are tenured teachers riding on their tenure. In the last few years, principals have become really adept at slightly changing job descriptions to remove tenured teachers from their positions. In addition, state legislature has now made it incredibly easy for principals to remove tenured teachers who are unsatisfactory without independent observers. In many senses, tenured teachers have lost what seniority once provided: job stability. I've seen both sides of the coin, to be honest. The practice of being able to lay off teachers within four years for NO reason is just ridiculous and leads into all sorts of possible discrimination based on things like race and sexual orientation I might add. As long as the principal refuses to give the reason, she/he could not be held accountable for this discrimination so they have ultimate power and control.

At the same time,it is again not uncommon for principals to change job descriptions on tenured teachers or make those teachers' lives miserable for penalizing them for their lesson plans being on the wrong side of their desk or in the wrong folder. These things happen. I found your article very interesting but let's keep the whole perspective in mind always about this issue.

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