Last year, a friend alerted me to the existence of Penny Kittle’s podcast, Stories From the Teaching Life, & I immediately grabbed my phone to download every available episode. Yes, please, I thought. This is exactly what I need.
I listened to four episodes before I had to stop.
The podcast is the most beautiful & heart-rending experience. Kittle has always won me over with her honesty & authenticity – when she shares these amazing moments from her classrooms, she never lets me think that they are more than moments, that she is some super-teacher who never deals with the students or the days that the rest of us have to slog through. I’ve never found myself rolling my eyes at an idyllic & preachy tale of how she has “saved the children.” Kittle has a knack for sharing a monumental moment without promising or even alluding to a happily ever after. It is nourishing to take in, a reminder of why I love this job & how easily I let these moments slip by without stopping to savor them.
But it was painful, too. I could ignore the gap – one that seemed to widen by the day – between myself & my “paperback mentors,” even between myself & my teaching family. I would listen to & read about them transforming their classrooms & schools, tackling teaching tensions with colleagues, taking risks to bring students what they need, & I wanted to feel inspired & invigorated. & I do. I couldn’t ignore the longing for administrators who trusted me enough to teach, who valued the work I was doing & the growth we were all making.
I’m having one of these years, I told myself, but I realized then that I’ve been having one of “those years” for the past six or seven.
I’ve come a long, long way in how this environment affects me. I don’t lose (as much) sleep, I don’t skip (as many) meals or replace them with junk food (as often). I don’t convince myself that I really am a terrible teacher who has been greatly harming children for the past 10 years. But it hurts, a lot, for what feels like always.
In 10 years of teaching, I think I had 2 years of working with administrators who had confidence in me & who respected my commitment to professional growth as what it was – a desire to improve & learn, not a defiance of the methods prescribed or enforced by the bureaucracy of our education system.Looking back, I think I can remember what it was like to have post-observation conferences that were collaborations rather than punishments, to be allowed to assess my students’ progress in meaningful ways & interact with them as if we were all humans & learners together. Vaguely, I recall it.
Since those first few years of working in one of the last remaining “big” high schools in the Bronx, with a department of veteran English teachers who met weekly to discuss pedagogy & best practices, I haven’t worked in a school that has trusted me to know how to teach my students, or to invest myself in figuring out how.
This, despite the conferences I attended on my own time & dime, despite the thousands of pages of professional reading, despite my memberships & contributions to professional organizations, despite the hours spent at school before & after hours, despite the fact that my teacher family & I volunteered 40+ hours of our time, including our Saturday mornings, to facilitate a teacher book club on revisiting the teaching of reading. Everything I did was suspect, & in this I represented the vast majority of public school teachers in the Bronx. I know this because I know so many of them, and I have spent these past 10 years immersed in networks with other teachers so that instead of running across disgruntled educators at mandated PDs, I connect with teachers like me. There are many, & we are tired, & even knowing that the others are out there, we feel lonely.
There are days when I can savor the moments with my students. & I’m lucky, because there are great moments nearly every day. But there were also so many days when my colleagues & I would shuffle the halls & shelter in our classrooms, too diminished by criticism & doubt to rally together.
I’m writing this in mostly past tense because my most recent school change will take me out of a toxic work environment, but it will also take me out of the Bronx. I am optimistic about my new place of work, for many reasons. I wonder what it will be like to be valued again. A handful of planning conversations with my new colleagues already indicates that my voice is appreciated and desired. I am taken aback by how foreign and delightful this feels.
Over the past 10 years, I have known so many teachers who have become apathetic after so many years of being treated like the problem. We come to believe that this is just what the job is, who administrators are, and how schools work. It is easy for things to become hopeless. And that things might not be this way everywhere is a tough sell. But I’d always rather take a chance on hope. Besides, I really want to be able to listen to that podcast again.