Why I Teach (in Philadelphia)

(This is cross-posted at Cooperative Catalyst.)

One of my most poignant school memories is from fourth grade. I was in Mr. Gross’s class. We were spread out in the field behind the school, with journals and pencils in hand. I was lying on my stomach, propped up on my elbows. My eyes were focused on the tan and yellow grasshopper who became the inspiration for my story, “Searching for a Blade of Grass.” What I wrote was descriptive and silly. Fred, my grasshopper character, was funny but determined.

I remember the powerful feeling of creating something original. I was creating my own story-world and was excited to share it with everyone. It was an amazing feeling for a nine year old. I am similar to so many others who have memories of a time when a teacher changed our conscious reality and our image of self.

I didn’t grow up thinking about the possibility of teaching or spend my undergraduate years studying to become a teacher. Yet, at a certain point, it became impossible for me to ignore the enormous influence that thoughtful, creative educators can have on those around them. I realized that I wanted to be in a situation in which I could create learning experiences that would be transformative and inspirational for others. I wanted to teach in a way that would leave my students with memories of creation, struggle, and success.

I returned to school, studied education, and received my teaching certification. I was fortunate to be able to choose where I wanted to work. I chose to teach in the School District of Philadelphia. I didn’t choose the district because the pay is lower and the conditions worse than comparable suburban jobs, or because class sizes are larger and the challenges facing many students are greater, or because the bureaucracy makes it hard to be hired. I am not a martyr; I was not looking to prove anything beyond success with my students.

I chose to teach in Philadelphia because my Philly students are wise beyond their years. Their varied experiences, though sometimes painful, add to our classroom and allow us to probe issues more deeply and in ways that are rarely theoretical. I don’t have to worry about boring days with nothing doing. Instead I cherish the spunk and spontaneity that are a daily part of my days in the classroom. My students take nothing for granted; they challenge me regularly. But when I prove myself, they stand with me and will take risks beyond what I would have ever done at their age, even as many of them balance life stories that go far beyond what I have dealt with at any age.

I have worked in many jobs but have never experienced one more exhausting and draining than teaching. Because my students’ lives are complex, my job goes well beyond lesson plans and grading: I offer advice to a student trying to remove himself from an abusive family situation; I help an undocumented student navigate college admissions; I mediate a conflict between students before it erupts. All of this work feels necessary, crucial, and incredibly challenging. I rarely have energy to spare at the end of the day.

This is not an easy time to be a teacher. Political speech and media are full of rhetoric about poor teaching and failing schools. It is hard to want to teach in such a negative climate; there is even less to encourage people to teach in struggling school districts like ours in Philadelphia. My experience contradicts these stereotypes that have become an accepted social truth.

Fortunately, the work that really matters to me will begin again in September. And then again next September. And hopefully, as the work continues, more people will realize that teachers aren’t enemies. They are the people working to transform the reality of those around us. They are the people who need all of our support to help more of our children develop into the people they want to be.

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