I knew teaching in an urban city would be very different than teaching in a posh, private school in Chile. I knew it would be more difficult and the challenges I would face would dramatically contrast the elite private school bubble I felt comfortable teaching in. I went from teaching at the 2nd best school in the entire country to teaching at the 503rd out of 522 in the entire state.
What I did not know was the extent to which these challenges would go. I didn’t know that taking this teaching gig as my “place-holder” job until I landed another job abroad would drain me to my very core. I can say with 100% certainty that this teaching job has been the single-most hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life. Including moving to a different continent where I didn’t know a soul or speak the language.
The problems that populate the Hartford public education system are so vast and dynamic that I truly don’t know where to begin. I’ll start by saying the problems are so much bigger than me, my class and even my school. But because of the issues that we’re up against, teaching these kids, who are worthy and deserving of an education, becomes extremely difficult. Hartford is a large urban district. In Hartford alone, there are 41 public schools. The fact of the matter is, urban populations tend to see more poverty than suburban and rural towns. Just that in itself, has a million factors that automatically come in to play. We have large percentages of students in broken homes, facing domestic violence, with very little money and with PTSD to name a few. These factors directly correlate to their behavior and school performance.
Because of the reality many of our students face at home, the day-to-day behavior at school is a huge challenge. In my kindergarten class alone, I have students that throw chairs, walk on desks, run out the door, draw on the walls, punch, hit, bite … to name just a few. While all of this is going on, I’m expected to still meet my learning objectives of the day. Most students with special needs in Kindergarten have not been identified yet, so they don’t have any support. I’m literally alone in a classroom of twenty-one 4 and 5 year-olds. Now let’s consider the behaviors that other teachers might be facing in upper grades for a moment. There are kids swearing, punching each other in the face, defecating on the bathroom floors, cyber-bullying and the list goes on. We’ve already had to send two staff members to the hospital as a result of students being violent towards them. Every school and every class has students with challenging behaviors, but Hartford is another animal altogether.
To help manage some of these challenging behaviors, there are “behavior technicians”. These saints among us are called when a child is putting himself and/or others at risk. Behavior technicians make the world go round in Hartford. The only issue is, there’s not enough. In our school, we have two behavior technicians. So hire more right? This is where we run into another major issue facing not only Hartford, but the country. There aren’t people to hire! Let’s pretend we did have the funding to hire more BT’s, you can’t hire someone if there isn’t anyone to hire! This goes for paras as well. There is a massive shortage in the education world right now, and I can’t really blame those who decide to go a different route.
Kindergarten is a beast of a grade. It’s such a challenging grade-level that Connecticut is not even certifying elementary teachers in it anymore. New teachers are now being certified grades 1-6. Since I got my cert before this change, I was like a unicorn to the school that hired me. Most kids in Hartford don’t attend pre-school. Their first experience at school is in kindergarten. Think about that for a second. Think about all of the routines and structure that goes in to being at school. My students didn’t know how to sit in a chair, how to sit crisscross on the rug, how to stay in one place on the rug, how to walk in a line, how to hold a lunch tray, how to wait their turn, how to drink from a water-fountain, how to hang up a backpack, how to raise their hand, how to not talk when the teacher is talking, how to put a folder in their backpack, how to hold it when someone is in the bathroom etc. All of these things don’t come naturally, they need to be taught and most students learn these skills in preschool. So what happens when the kids don’t attend preschool? It becomes my job. ON TOP of my other job. The job where I have to follow a scripted curriculum that leaves me no room for creativity. A curriculum that has no time for play or fun. Did you know that kids aren’t allowed to play in Kindergarten anymore? My kids can’t play with playdough unless its academically tied to text. My students don’t get to play dress-up because it’s not The Common Core way.
The things that are expected of me and of the teachers are enough to make your head spin. There is not one person in the entire world that could accomplish all of the things that are expected of us and remain sane. I go to work at 6:45am and come home around 7:00pm. On top of teaching an impossible curriculum that leaves no space for dealing with students throwing chairs, or peeing their pants, I’m also a secretary, a psychologist, a special ed. teacher, a babysitter, a mother, a custodian and a nurse. I've probably spent close to $1,000 of my own money for the class. I’m also not allowed to make mistakes. If my students perform poorly on standardized tests, which may be a direct result from the domestic violence they’re encountering at home, it falls back on me in my state teacher evaluation. If I’m absent and a child gets sent home without her pink pom-pom hat, expect a nasty e-mail from her parents reprimanding you. If you ask a strange man walking the halls by himself peering into classrooms if he needs help, expect him to call you “a bitch-ass teacher” in front of your 4 and 5 year-old students. It’s an impossible, thankless job.
I started this job on August 21st and I’ve lost count how many times I’ve cried at school, on the way home from school, or after I’ve walked in the door. I’ve cried more in the past 2 months in this job than I did teaching for 3.5 years at Santiago College. Last week, I had a panic attack during my lunch break to the point of hyperventilation. The amount of pressure on my shoulders is immense. Myself and all of my co-workers feel like we are quite literally drowning. If I don’t have a breakdown one day, someone else does. We joke about creating a graph and keeping track of how many times we cry each week.
So why don’t I quit? I actually did quit, 13 days in and failed. The principal asked me not to make a decision that day. After that, things improved microscopically. They made sure I had adult support in my classroom because it is impossible to teach without at least one other adult in there doing crowd control. Impossible. They’ve actually taken the two behavior technicians from the school and put them in mine and another kindergarten classroom full-time. This unfortunately has had a ripple affect on the entire school as you can imagine.
Another reason why I haven’t quit is the money. Urban districts generally pay more than suburban school districts, although I'd consider it combat pay. My particular position is a long-term substitute teacher for someone out on maternity leave. The principal however, hired me as a “temporary teacher” instead, which gives me a tier-2 salary and benefits. A long-term-sub position would be a fixed daily-rate and would not include benefits. This is the best temporary gig I’ll ever get financially. My plan as of right now is to survive and save. I’m saving my money and will move to Barcelona in June to see if I can find a teaching position on the ground. Like Chile, Spain is a very bureaucratic country and you have to interview in person most of the time.
Like I said, the problems we’re facing in Hartford and this country are so above me. I get really down on myself because I’m not able to change it. How can I fix such a broken system? By teaching and participating in this mangled education system, am I somehow conforming and supporting it? My soul's purpose is to make a positive impact on the world, however working in this city has deflated and bruised my being to it’s very core. What's the point? It's so frustrating to see how hard I'm working and it doesn't seem to be making any difference or reaching far enough. After seeing the madness behind the emerald green curtain, how can I leave my country in this state? How can I fix this? Sometimes I feel guilty for dreaming of teaching in another country when I should be helping to repair my own.
I was told the other day that I care too much. I’m too invested in this job and it’s taking a toll on my mental health. I’d have to agree with that, however, I’d rather be the teacher that cares too much than the teacher that doesn’t care at all. As hard as it is, and as under-appreciated and under-supported as I am, I love my students. I love them like they’re my own. They come to school every day with a huge smile on their faces and give me a running hug. They tell me they have dreams about me. They tell me they miss me when it's Saturday. And if that’s the only difference I’m making right now, well then that’s going to have to be okay for me.