Letter from a First Year Public School Teacher
By LESLIE CONTRERAS SCHWARTZ
Dear Principal of Title 1 Elementary School,
Thank you for the opportunity to work in your school with your children, as you have referred to them. Thank you for reminding me to look you in the eye, for reminding me to never “turn my back on students” as I walk them in straight lines down the hall, for telling me that they will forget my name.
I will not make a difference in their lives, you said. Teachers don’t, you said. Thank you for telling me that you must “act like a dictator” at the school because you have to. Most of the teachers toe the line, handing in fake grades, spending their hours at night creating elaborate lesson plans to adhere to standards, spend hours creating bulletin boards to display student products and proof of real learning. Because I did not, and because I spent most of my time as a teacher figuring out how to teach children and reach my students, even if it was in contradiction to what was on the standardized test, you singled me out as an incompetent teacher. I was taken out of my fourth-grade classroom to take on various itinerant teaching positions (that kept me off the grade books and out of standardized testing), the last of which was held in a utility closet with two African-American students considered behavioral issues.
I learned much as a first year public school teacher. My background as a journalist, marketing director, and college instructor had very little insight into my new profession. In my two classes of 23 fourth-grade students, (a number that fluctuated weekly as new students were added constantly), I spent most of my time surveying the room making sure that emotional explosions were kept at bay while keeping the students engaged in real, meaningful work. While the classroom two doors down read a story about a mischievous frog to learn about main idea and summarization, (something I refused to do and was reprimanded after I debated the issue with my team), I invited my students of refugees, English language learners, and barely literate students to the carpet so I could read Kafka, Sherman Alexie, the biography of a world-record female swimmer (“Swimming to Antarctica”). Sometimes during the readings we had to laugh hysterically. Sometimes I did cry, and the students did too. I saw lights in my students’ eyes when I showed them Depression-era photographs of migrant workers.
Two doors down, the reading class was discussing condensed versions of second-grade literature from a basal textbook, with literary devices displayed by cartoons and large dialogue boxes. Eventually I was forced to use the same texts as well, but I kept my own; that was my downfall.
I didn’t have enough student product to show, you said, Dr. Principal. Where were my student-produced charts, diagrams, expository essays? I was spending time throwing a ball around in a circle to students to get them to tell personal narratives with limited vocabularies, which they did: stories about an uncle dying from a car bomb in Iraq, a beloved grandmother that died in her sleep, lots of stories about baking with a mother for the first time. I took the students out to the decrepit, overgrown garden on campus and they came back and wrote essays on the sensory experience. “I see smellee in dark water. Made me sad and want to grow.”
We talked in class, argued, and I lost my voice coming to work with sinus infections and colds, asthma and tired from the 60-plus hours a week I worked, in addition to being a mother and wife. When the pressure of learning to read texts outside of the students reading level became too intense, we danced. (Please note, Dr. Principal, that you are not a part of this “we.” I wish that you were, but often you were the one standing at the window with your arms folded, and speaking to me after school to warn me about the lack of student products. Your final warning, after a mere two months of school, was that my students must pass the district level reading assessment at 85 percent – or else.)
And that was just subject matter. Sometimes I worked all day to move a child off the floor from a fetal position so he could write about “his favorite place,” (so he could be ready for STAAR testing) while reminding another student that she could learn to read and write as she stared at her own backwards letters or destroyed markers, books, and tissues at her desk. I spoke privately to the girl who stole from my desk so she could show me her bruises, tell me her story of being choked. I called parents almost day, called CPS, cried at night after another child told me she wanted to die. When I wrote lesson plans at night on main idea and how to write summarize, this is what I thought about. When I told administrators, including you, I was told “These kids exaggerate.” There was the implication that I cared too much, was too weak and emotional. Not detached enough to be a good teacher. Not in it for the long haul because I didn’t spend the majority of my time studying the intricacies of the STAAR test and how to get my students to pass it.
When I spoke to you, Dr. Principal, about the direction of my instruction, you said don’t forget to differentiate instruction, to make sure there are enough anchor charts displayed on the walls. This, unfortunately, was a point of contention between us. Not how rigorous my instruction was, nor how engaged my students were on a daily basis, but whether I displayed colorful charts all over the empty walls for students to look at and reference. Additionally, I did not give enough handouts, charts, diagrams and worksheets. I argued about this, saying that it was sensory and information overload when most of the students were not functionally literate. That was my mistake because a month later I was fired from my position and slowly forced out of the school. The last day of my class I received notes from students; my cell phone was stolen off my desk; students waited until the principal was out of the building and left messages on the whiteboard: “We are our teacher forever in fourth grade.” “We love you and will miss you and want you back now.”
I did not listen to your directive to not tell my students goodbye. “We have to cut the bond,” you said. “It is better.”
For the boy with homeless, drug-addicted parents, you said, “Just let him be”. Take up his blood-spattered tests, (the ones he sprayed his punctured nose upon in defiance.) I graded it carefully and reported the grade, which you asked me to change to passing. He tried to sleep and cry on the desk, and when I made him stand up to learn and write, you said let him be. “You can’t save students,” you said. “You will have very little impact on them in the long run. You said don’t forget to make those students be silent in the halls, totally silent, and clean up every piece of trash off the floor.”
Dr. Principal, we never talked about how 60 percent of what I taught in the classroom was ethics, common sense, and basic human worth. When I showed you how the refugee student was beginning to write English and speak in class, you loudly pushed a chair under a desk that was sitting in the aisle and said “These children need to push their chairs in every time they stand.” I had learned that this student had seen her father murdered and had not spoken in school for a year. This was not important to you. What was important was that the superintendent was visiting that week, and appearances were important rather than the actuality of the students’ growth.
This child, from Africa, wore a hooded jacket in the 90 degree heat. The year before, her first year in the United States, she hardly spoke. I played jump rope at recess with her sometimes with the other children, who often would shun her for her short, Afro-style hair, her worn clothes and too-tight shoes. Eventually she took the hood off, then the jacket, began talking, even cursing. After I left their classroom she would find me in the hall. “When you come back Ms. Schwartz? Tomorrow? Next day? When? I love you.”
I would have stayed, even for the chance to be near my students and to be able to teach their siblings, who I did see in my new, multiple assignments. I have appreciated the opportunity to teach at your school but I am finding reasons to find other employment. If I have not mentioned enough, here is a good one:
On January 21, a mother was shot and killed on her way to pick up her daughter, 100 feet away from our school. It was during dismissal, and a group of students screamed for help as they witnessed the murder in the front yard of someone’s home. Students continued to walk home by themselves and with parents, as the woman’s body lay on the ground. Parents picked up their children in their cars and drove by the body as well.
This is not on national news because it happened in what is considered a “bad” neighborhood, where such things are considered commonplace. The school’s students are refugees from Syria and Iraq and Africa, African-American and Latino. The majority of their parents are low-income. There is no parent-teacher organization. Teachers are afraid to speak up, and parents don’t know or how to speak up themselves.
I was 100 feet away at the front of the school helping dismiss prekindergarten and kindergarten students, even as the staff saw an ambulance, police cars, and a helicopter overhead. I watched as the assistant principal began taking the older students inside the building ten minutes later. I asked a teaching assistant what to do. She asked a supervisor and ten minutes later we also went inside. We didn’t know what had happened until later that night. A teacher told me she was with you in your office when it happened, that someone called you screaming in panic. You simply said, “Call the police” and hung up. You were busy giving a teacher evaluation.
I was given various teaching assignments after you fired me from fourth grade. On one new assignment, which was teaching creative writing, the first graders asked me if I remembered the woman getting shot in the head and how she died. They looked at me as if I was their teacher, that I could provide an answer or a comforting word. When I asked an administrator what I should say, she said, Nothing. The counselors in the library nodded their heads. Those are the facts, they told the children, yes, as the children wept.
Later that day, in the computer lab, which I was asked to babysit, I felt a ball of panic is my chest. Never before had I felt so powerless and controlled. I was a teacher in which students were allowed to walk home around a dead body of a parent. I was a teacher who was encouraged to ignore violence, disability, mental illness, neglect. I was a teacher by name only. I was not a teacher. I began to shake and asked for someone to come cover the lab. You came, Dr. Principal, do you remember? You said, what’s the problem? I told you that I needed to speak to a counselor about the shooting. You raised your eyebrows. Was that disdain or surprise?
Later that day I went to teach two African-American children in a utility closet that teacher assistants used to use as a lunch area. You consider the students to be behavioral problems because of their severe inability to concentrate or pay attention to one thing at a time. One of them had been a former student in my fourth grade class. I called his mother, who said she had mental health issues, and she told me you would not refer her son to get special services.
I can’t work at your school anymore, because I want to be a teacher. I think I am becoming one right now, since I left your building. I was escorted out of the building like a criminal but I felt proud of standing up for I believed in.
Once a child from Iraq asked during a vocabulary lesson, “What does all this matter if someone can just come up to you and break your neck and you die, and then lie in a puddle, dead?”
Without hesitation, I said “It is not about that man that kills you. It is about what you are doing now, every day, as a person, to do your best while you live. We can’t control if that will happen. I want to teach you the word ‘fatigue.’ It is important that you learn it, just for today.”
I did not want to teach them word from the prescribed vocabulary lesson that day. I did not want to teach them a lot of the irrelevant subject matter that had been determined necessary by a set of researchers. I tried anyway, and in turn, I stopped teaching what mattered.
You said that I should change the subject when things about death, murder, violence and are said. I won’t. I don’t want children in straight lines, silent, sitting in chairs, cleaning up trash and filling in bubbles. I want to be their teacher, to accept their notes on my desk asking for help, to hug them back and smile when they say “I love you, Mom, don’t leave.”
I was escorted out of the building so the children could not see me, or say goodbye. You said they will not remember my name years from now. I don’t care. It is not about names or recognition. The children were always my principal, and today, by resigning, I become their teacher.
Leslie Contreras Schwartz
Leslie is collecting stories and information from teachers and staff for an upcoming advocacy online magazine. To share your story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
BIO: Leslie Contreras Schwartz is a writer and teacher. She lives in Houston, Texas with her husband and two daughters.You can contact her at email@example.com.