by Frankie Ursula, high school history and economics teacher
Punching my alarm clock again, for the last snooze around 6:55 a.m., I am dream-thinking. In that weird place between wake and sleep, I slowly recall that I am a high school history teacher. Every day I willingly return to the one place that I once wanted so desperately to flee from that I graduated two semesters early.
For several hours, I will teach street-smart kids how to prove people wrong by knowing where Cambodia is and how to express the gravity of what happened there. We get to talk about things that matter for a few brief moments between the whining and procrastination after I must transition into an obligatory assessment of their skills and knowledge. Teenagers have their voices heard, no matter how profanity-riddled, in my classroom, if nowhere else. I have become an anachronism of every awesome teacher that I’ve ever had. Students with learning disabilities or English Language Learners offer their opinions on controversial topics. Some kid started watching the news for the first time last week and then actually volunteered his hand to ask if North Korea was going to bomb us. I mix in a YouTube video or two along with traditional news sources to widen their avenues of perspective.
Nevertheless, the administration is on my back with a new jargon-peppered list of improbable things they need to immediately see upon entering my class for an observation. All students will be engaged and excited about learning the privileged stories of people who’ve changed the world, but have never been to Brooklyn. At least today, Jane Doe from the DR asked me how anyone knows which religion is really real if there are so, so many all over the world. That seed of doubt in the presumed infallibility of organized religion must count for something somewhere.
On a weekly basis last year, I was very conflicted and angry about my new job. Or I was amused. Or I was already over it, on LinkedIn editing my profile. I had my hands in my hair, begging someone to tell me what a monarchy was for the thirtieth time since September. I high-fived a kid who just finished an in-class essay early after skipping nearly two weeks of my class. I often handed out candy to condition thoughtful responses and this did not work as well as I was led to believe it would. The bell would ring, I’d be ambushed by the next group of students. I would sit at the back of my empty room at the end of the day, crying again after another derailed lesson full of verbal abuse. Harsh words that I was expected to deflect or ignore because there is no such thing as detention anymore. I was shaped from the clay of a new breed of instructors, expected to be an emotionally consistent robot and child behavioral psychologist. I made frequent calls to family, friends, mentors, lovers; anyone who would calm me down and give me some practical advice. They told me to quit or to toughen up. They said, why don’t you go apply at a white school, a private school, a “good” school. They said this without sarcasm or shame and I replied, no, that’s not it. It is just that I don’t feel good like they tell you martyrs are supposed to feel right before dying for what they believe in.
This year going in, I’m a bit more hopeful. I’m a temporary teacher (statistically, this is most likely true) trying to prove my relative effectiveness to the people who pay me. Some think that a daily Skype session could replace me. To society, I am the pathetic failure of “those who can’t do, teach”, or I’m bravely starring in the endless sequel to Dangerous Minds, or I’m the lazy overpaid troublemaker who won’t shut up about The Liberal Agenda. I’m reading another article about some idiot educator who has just abused their power on a profoundly inappropriate level. I’m looking for the articles about my teacher friend who taught an 18-year-old freshman how to finally write a five-paragraph analytical essay. Or my friend who dresses up in wigs and co-stars in the short videos created by her students with emotional behavioral disorders in the film club. Or any positive press about all my colleagues who don’t secretly think that their students are too stupid or too damaged to really give a damn about. I’m sure as hell not going to do this forever, and that’s okay right now.
That’s how this thing works, our education system. Some other fresh blood will soon seep into the broken machine of public schooling. It will be their turn to try to interpret and apply the latest band aid solution to our gaping wound of unequal outcomes. She will ask me for advice and I will tell her something that works on Monday but fails by Wednesday. By Friday, we will both be at separate bars drinking our way through a window of respite from our endless lists of things to do. Or we’ll be at separate gyms trying to work mental stress out through the vehicles of our tired bodies. Pick your poison.
They all expect us to solve every socio-economic problem in this country through teaching the youth of tomorrow how to pass state exams. Our efforts are not the salve they seek. Teachers are not politicians, policy makers, economic advisers, and therapists, though some retired teachers do enter those fields hoping to bring in a privileged perspective. We are overwhelmed, earnest people clinging to the ideals that got us through our first year teaching. And here comes the fall again, licking at the last few rays of summer.
Frankie Ursula is the pseudonym of a second-year high school history and economics teacher in Brooklyn. If you’d like to write an entry for the New Teacher Diaries, email firstname.lastname@example.org.