September 6, 2011

Teacher's Diary: Every September, I Know Why I'm There

Original article in SchoolBook by Laura Klein


Laura Klein began to teach at Intermediate School 217, the Rafael Hernandez School of Performing Arts in the Bronx, in 2008, at first as a Teach for America recruit. This year, she received tenure at the same school. She has been blogging since her first week of teaching, and in the coming months will share her experiences in public education on Schoolbook.

Tenure was a meaningless word to me three years ago. It was a status that I had no desire to achieve. This year, my fourth in the school, I will have tenure, and it still feels insignificant. For me, teaching isn’t about tenure or salary steps.

I don’t teach for the job security that tenure brings, and I certainly am not in it for the salary. Even the lauded insurance plans often leave my pockets empty when I need special contacts for my astigmatism.

While I do care about the big issues — unions, charter schools, seniority, testing — it’s not really about any of that either. Although I do feel passionate about education reform, the outcomes of these battles aren’t actually related to my reasons for teaching.

In truth, the teaching profession is considerably less attractive to me on paper than a lot of other careers, which offer appreciation in place of job security. Professions in which pay-for-performance isn’t a threat, where seniority doesn’t rule, and where your entire year’s success and worth is not determined by the outcome of a single test.

Yet I’m still teaching. I am teaching because every September I get a list of names that belong to me, and the kids with those names on those lists make up for all of the things that teaching lacks.

I have no control over who is on that list. Sometimes you get kids who are angels, and sometimes you get kids named Angel who resemble Lucifer. It doesn’t matter, in the end, because my job is the same with each of them, and inside each of them lies a world of possibility and potential waiting to be unlocked.

I teach at the Rafael Hernandez School of Performing Arts in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, where examples of success are not plentiful. The kids that I teach overcome language barriers and all of the misery that can come from poverty just to make it to school each day.

I love these kids. I love the power that I have as a teacher, not only in teaching them math and English, but in opening their eyes to a world that they hadn’t thought possible. I love that I have the power to change the trajectory of their lives, to show them a path that they have never seen before, that may take them to places they didn’t know that they had any right to think of going.

My first September, I was terrified, unprepared, and underqualified for my job. I had just emerged from Teach For America’s boot camp training, which primarily served to open my eyes about how much I didn’t know, and how little I was able to do.

The first year, I had no idea what I was walking into, or why I was there. My room assignment changed six times before the students arrived, and I was sweaty and dirty from moving tables and desks and chairs into position over and over again.

I blew through my lessons for the first week in the space of one period, and got my first experience at improv in front of 30 impatient 13-year-olds.

This year, I am calm. I can picture the room that I’ll be in, and the rhythm of each day. I crave the new students who will fill my room, but that feeling is outweighed by incredible sadness at the loss of the kids from last year.

I teach eighth grade in a C.T.T. classroom, which stands for collaborative team teaching and means that two teachers — one general education and one special education-certified — teach a class with a population that is half general education students and half special education. The class could include children with an array of challenges. Our classroom will have 30 to 35 students and I will teach this same group English, math and social studies.

The feelings of going back to work are familiar now. There’s the same need to prepare lessons, to buy pens and pencils for the kids, and to invent ingenious methods of engagement. Mostly though, it’s just calm. I know that there are amazing kids each year, who open my eyes in a whole new way. I know that there will be terrible moments, and times when I feel at a loss, and I know that I’ll get through them. I know everything that I didn’t know that first September.

Most of all, I know now why I’m there.

Laura Klein teaches 8th grade at I.S. 217, Rafael Hernandez School of Performing Arts in the Bronx. More of her writing can be found on her blog, Prelife.