I’ve always been a teacher. Even before I received my teaching credentials 34 years ago, I was the one who Mr. Wells asked to help Kim Hull learn how to do his story problems. I always knew I’d become a real teacher some day because Kim told me I was the first one who ever explained it to him in a way he could actually understand.
Now, I wasn’t ever one of “those who can’t, who teach,” and I always knew it. My high-school guidance counselors had advised me not to go into education because I would be “wasting my brain.” They suggested that due to my 98th percentile math scores, I should go into engineering. But I was undaunted, because I knew that in reality I already was a teacher. I just needed to go to school to get a piece of paper to make it official so I could get paid for it. I was very clearly told that I wasn’t making the best financial choice that I could, but that didn’t matter in the least—I was out to change the world—one student at a time.
I finished college in three years, and began teaching third grade in 1976 at the age of 21, and I’ve never looked back. I found what all who become teachers know, that being a teacher is so much more than a job. It’s always been my passion, my mission, even my identity.
Being a great teacher came naturally to me. Now that doesn’t mean it’s ever been an easy job. I’ve always found it exhausting, challenging, frustrating, and very rewarding—in other words, a perfect job for somebody who needs their brain to be challenged in ways they could never imagine. I went from being able to focus on only one or two things at a time, to being able to easily manage twenty or thirty on-going projects or ideas. Over the years I’ve improved my creativity, flexibility, problem solving skills, and sense of humor.
I’ve taught grades three through six, and felt very lucky that I never felt I was in a rut. I knew people who got burned out, but it honestly never happened to me. I knew I was very blessed to find the perfect occupation. I’ve changed how I do things in my classroom many times, incorporating new ideas, trying new things, always learning, always changing, and loving every minute of it. I’ve always been told in every way that I’m a great teacher, but I honestly didn’t need to be told, because I could feel it. That is, until recently.
Things started to change in education in Oregon about ten or fifteen years ago with a number of tax measures that created huge budget cuts. I noticed programs such a band, art, and drug-abuse prevention being cut for lack of funds along with enrichment programs, swimming class, and all kinds of little things that we used to offer that could no longer be afforded. Class sizes began to grow, and my class size averages went from the low to high twenties and then eventually into the thirties.
All these things were sad and annoying, but they didn’t change how I felt about my job in the least. I just worked harder to make my lessons even more creative, and added in as much enrichment as I possibly could on my own to make up for the cuts. I spent thousands of dollars out of my own pocket to buy materials my school could no longer afford to buy. I wasn’t about to let a little thing like budget cuts stop me from my mission. The first time we cut school days in Oregon, and I had to take a several thousand dollar pay cut in the middle of a school year, it was a definite setback, but I never really thought it would become the norm.
As my class sizes increased, so did the needs of my students. Normally when I would teach something, I would have a handful of students who didn’t get it. I rarely had kids I couldn’t get to make progress. But as the classes got bigger, that began to change. More students with special needs were being mainstreamed into my classroom. I was getting kids in class who had been in America less than six months who spoke no English, with very little help or support. I crazily began to take all kinds of classes, do research on how to reach kids with autism, ADD, emotional disturbances, limited English proficiency—you name it, I studied the best ways to overcome disadvantages. I’ve always had a never-say-die attitude, so I worked my butt off to reach everyone in this increasingly diverse classroom with fewer and fewer resources.
I also began to notice that lots of things that never had been my job before were suddenly added to my list of responsibilities. A silly example, but very time consuming, was janitorial work. Due to limited resources and constant budget cuts, I now had to devote my time to things like cleaning my own classroom, doing clerical work that used to be done for me by the front office, planning my curriculum instead of just my lessons, so many things I began to have trouble keeping up. One year I started a list I called “Jobs Other People Gave Me,” but after adding 57 things to my list in less than a single year, I decided that it wasn’t really healthy for me to continue the list.
Now mind you, that through all of this I still actually loved closing my door and teaching. I continued telling myself that I had wanted a challenge, although at times I privately admitted to myself that maybe I would have liked a little less of a challenge. But I still loved my job, I still got glowing reports from principals, parents, and especially kids. That was what sustained me as things began to change.
When No Child Left Behind came into effect, it didn’t affect me that much at first. My class averages were always above where they needed to be, and I was still having good results, so I didn’t really worry about it much. Philosophically, I knew I didn’t agree with focusing so much on test scores, but I could still keep my students’ scores where they needed to be by focusing on what my experience as a teacher had taught me was best. I pretty much just worked on reaching each kid, pushing, encouraging, helping, inspiring, prodding, and let the test scores take care of themselves. I believed that great teaching overcame the over-emphasis on test scores, so I concentrated on great teaching instead.
One thing that did bother me during that time was that it became acceptable to bash teachers, schools, and education in the media. I wasn’t hearing it personally, but I didn’t like the way people were so ready to berate my passion. Maybe because I was hearing good things on a personal level, I didn’t worry too much about it. I just closed my door and taught my kids.
Then the past few years a few of the buildings in our district didn’t meet their AYP (adequate yearly progress.) The district began to look for ways to help these building to succeed. The focus on test scores escalated to a crazy level. The teachers in one of the elementary buildings in my district were told they could no longer teach anything besides reading, math, and science because those were the subjects that were tested. Our building wasn’t ever told that specifically, but it was understood that we were to focus on practices that would improve our students’ test-taking skills.
The district decided to implement required core instructional materials that were mandated to everyone. Suddenly, the creativity of the job was being removed. They wanted everybody to teach the same materials, the same way. I’ve never been one to buck the system, so I began to wrack my brain for how to use these new materials and still keep the lessons interesting for my students.
At the same time, class sizes and special needs were growing. The behavior classroom was closed and its students were mainstreamed into the regular classroom. I tried to become an expert on dealing with anger issues. I tried to learn how to help fifth graders with severe disabilities, limited mobility, and cognitive levels of very young children, all in my regular classroom now filled with 30-35 students. My job became an even greater challenge than it had always been before, but still my attitude was to think “bring it on!” I just couldn’t fathom the idea that my natural teaching ability wasn’t exactly what was needed to solve any and all challenges that came my way.
Never once in the past 34 years of teaching did I ever want to quit. I even told my husband that if we won the lottery, I’d keep teaching. My students would just have all their own computers, art supplies galore, and any book we wanted to read as a class.
So now I’m into my 35th year of teaching. Last July my district had offered a $20,000 bonus to any teacher who could retire, in order to save money. It struck me as odd that they’d want to get rid of experienced teachers. I didn’t take it because I felt I’m not ready to retire. It’s been such a big part of me forever, and I’m not ready to give it up yet. Besides I’m only 55, and even though I’ve been teaching so long, I’m just barely old enough to retire.
But then one Thursday, on the eighth day of my 35th year of teaching, I suddenly thought for the very first time ever, “I don’t want to be a teacher anymore.” It’s so weird how it just came over me like that. I don’t know if it’s like the challenges in Survivor where they keep adding water until the bucket finally tips over and the slow leak of problems finally made my bucket tip over. Or maybe this is how it happens for all older teachers.
It wasn’t a single thing that gave me this feeling. I’m hoping it doesn’t last. Maybe it was the severely autistic boy who showed up at my door the first day with no notice, but I don’t really think so. Maybe it was the rigid schedule the principal passed out for everybody to be doing the same subject at the same time of day, or the new basal reader we have to use that we aren’t allowed to call a basal reader. Maybe it’s the look in my student’s eyes when we’re reading the newly required dry textbook when I’m used to wild and crazy discussions about amazing novels.
Maybe it’s that for the first time, our school didn’t meet AYP because two few English Language Developing students in the entire school didn’t pass their reading benchmarks.
When I heard this, I instantly thought of the two English Language Learners in my class who hadn’t passed their reading tests last year and how unfair I thought it was that they even counted on our test scores when they came to our school in January and were absent at least twice a week from that point on. I was wondering how I could possibly have gotten them to benchmark level in three days a week for three months. I was thinking how if only those two students hadn’t counted on our scores, we would’ve met AYP as a school. When I mentioned it to my principal, she just said there are no excuses. We aren’t allowed to have any excuses. We have to get kids to the level they need to be no matter what the circumstances. I thought of the little boy I had with an IQ of 87 who could barely read. I thought of the little girl in a wheelchair who’d had 23 operations on tumors on her body in her eleven years, and the girl who moved from Mexico straight into my class and learned to speak English before my eyes, but couldn’t pass the state test. Somehow it doesn’t feel like making excuses to acknowledge that they had good reason not to pass their benchmarks.
Maybe it was the e-mail I got saying that the department of education in Oregon has raised the cut scores again this year by six or seven points per grade level, even though they just raised them a couple of years ago. I found out that if they would have used these new cut scores last year, over half of the students in grades 3-8 who passed their benchmarks wouldn’t have passed. That led to a realization that as a school we have very little chance of meeting our adequate yearly progress this year, but of course I’m not allowed to say that because there are no excuses. It’s hard not to feel discouraged.
Maybe it was one of the two parents who contacted me in the first few days of school to tell me that their child doesn’t particularly love my program this year. I’m so not used to that. I’ve always had kids achieving highly and loving my class. I’m just not sure how I can use the mandated materials in the required time periods, focusing on the required skills and still get kids to really love it.
Maybe it’s the fact that I lost a third of my retirement when they reformed our Public Employee Retirement System a few years back and now I keep reading about how they want to slash it even more because of the greedy teacher unions and how this is the main reason for the budget problems in our state.
Maybe it’s that I haven’t gotten a real raise in a really really long time, or that we had to cut eight days again this year to solve our state’s budget problems. So I’m taking a big hit again, and nobody seems to notice or care.
Anyway, whatever the reason, for the first time in 34 years it hit me, I don’t want to be a teacher any more. I want to sit on a rocking chair on my porch and drink tea instead. Maybe if they offer $20,000 for me to retire next year, I’ll take it. It’s so weird because never in my wildest imagination did I think I’d feel this way. I wonder if I’ll still feel this way when I close my classroom door tomorrow. I sure hope not because it makes me really sad.