Year One: Ready For Lift Off

My first year teaching was the worst.

It wasn’t just your run-of-the mill bad; working all the time, making it up as you go, realizing that not all people can be trusted, not having enough time to learn from your mistakes, trial by fire. My first year teaching was god-awful, gut-wrenching, earth-shaking, vertigo-inducing, twenty-two-years-later-I-still-get-a-migraine-when-I-think- about-it horrible. Just a few weeks into my first year teaching, I had already become so anxious and depressed about work that every morning as I drove my rusty old Subaru to school, my neck so tight that I couldn’t even turn my head to see the side-view mirror, I would secretly hope I’d be in a wreck just bad enough that I wouldn’t have to go back to work. Two decades of teaching later, I’ve learned that hoping for a crash is a pretty good sign that it’s time to quit your job. But just starting into my dream career, there was too much at stake for me to quit and throw away all my hopes and dreams.

I’d always known I wanted to be a teacher. My parents were both teachers; so were most of my aunts and uncles. When I was in junior high, I’d come home from school and invent lesson plans or draw designs of how I would set up my classroom. After high school I went to Wake Forest University, graduated, returned to take a year of teacher training courses in the education department, did my student teaching and loved it. And my students loved it. I was a natural and teaching was a great fit. Everything was on track. I slept well at night.

The year of my teacher training, we read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities in one of my ed classes. Mr. Kozol’s stories of curious kids in horrible schools, eager to learn, desperate for the same education as mine, slapped me in the face and forced me to recognize our nation’s educational apartheid. By the time I finished reading Savage Inequalities, I was on a new trajectory. I dedicated my teaching career to working in the inner city, changing the world one class at a time. Why shouldn’t those kids have a good teacher like me? I thought. Someone who cares, speaks some Spanish, and is not only educated, but also smart. And with a terrible teacher shortage in the nation’s inner city schools, my idealism also seemed like a pretty good career move: It would be easy to get one of the thousands of unwanted and vacant jobs in America’s inner city schools.

I read a story in the paper about the huge teacher shortage in Baltimore and sent in my application thinking I’d be offered my choice of jobs. After all, the Baltimore school district was in the news for offering significant property tax breaks for teachers in a desperate attempt to get enough teachers to fill their classrooms. Five years later, home for Christmas, I got a letter in the mail from the Baltimore Public Schools saying that they had just received my application, which would be kept on file if there were ever any openings.

The other place I really wanted to teach was Texas. My girlfriend had just gotten accepted into Rice University, and it seemed like the perfect fit for us to move to Houston where she could study and I could teach in the neglected inner city schools. Besides, Houston was growing like wildfire and had hundreds and hundreds of teacher openings each fall.

I sent in my application, replete with my beautifully-crafted philosophy of education statement (we are the world) and all my carefully vetted letters of recommendation (this guy is really excited) to the Houston Independent School District. And then I waited and waited and waited. When I finished my student teaching I checked the mailbox for my job offer. When I got back from the beach, checked the mailbox. Returned from a family reunion, I checked the mailbox. Nothing. By the middle of summer I was starting to get desperate enough to consider trying to find a job perpetuating the class system by teaching middle-class white kids (like me), when I got a call from the HISD personnel office. There aren’t any openings teaching high school social studies to Hispanic students, the personnel officer said (lie), but they could put me to work teaching science at middle school. Science? I asked sure he had misspoken. I practically failed science in high school! Science. Did they have any Hispanic students, I asked. No, he replied, and then I remember him actually saying, “there’s no Hispanic students, but we’ll find lots of Hispanic students for you to teach next year, they aren’t going anywhere.” He assured me I’d love the school. The students had lots of energy.

I thought about his offer. Looking back, I know that he was lying. There were vacancies galore. And probably this overworked classroom escapee desperately needed to fill a science job, which is almost impossible, since science teachers can get actual jobs doing science (whereas, history teachers can’t get jobs doing history since there’s no such thing). In fact, the school where I eventually ended teaching Hispanic students who weren’t going anywhere had lots and lots of openings. “Long-term subs” (a euphemism for someone who is a high school graduate without a felony and gets paid minimum wage to be a substitute teacher every day for an entire year) filled the ranks in every grade, and the school had an overall attrition rate of 1/3 of the teachers every single year. In other words, they were desperate for teachers like me. But I didn’t know that. And he needed a science teacher so that’s what he offered.

I wasn’t one to say no yet, but the idea of me teaching science was so laughable that I said I couldn’t do it. After I stopped laughing about being a science teacher, the personnel guy finally relented and gave me an interview for a social studies job at a high school. I drove to Houston, took the interview, got offered a job, and drove straight to Mexico for a month-long celebration.

As soon as we returned to Houston from Mexico, I called the school district to find out when I started at the high school where I had been offered the job. Oh, the man on the phone said, there’s been a slight change in plans. We’ve got a great job for you, but it’s not at the high school. It’s at Stonewall Jackson Middle School. You start in two days. Are there Hispanic kids? I asked. Lots of them, he assured me. And they have lots of energy. I was so excited. It wasn’t high school, but 8th grade was practically 9th grade, so what could go wrong?

Poor students: check. Hispanic students: check. Lots of energy: check. Fighting the Man: check. I was ready for take off. I was so happy to have my first job. And I was going to get paid a whopping 24,000 a year!

But by the end of the first day I knew that this wasn’t what I had bargained for. By the end of the first week I wished that they had never found a spot for me at Jackson Middle. By the end of the first month I wished I had never wished to be a teacher.