I have been navigating majority (or all) white spaces for a very long time. Whether it was the tracked gifted and talented classes or my time at university, I’ve always sort of been an outsider. In a state with 96% of its teaching staff being white, choosing teaching was to be no different. Current wisdom and policy advocates ‘if we just get more Black teachers” as our saving grace, but it’s reductive, particularly when we often say something that administrators don’t want to hear.
As such, it is easier to hire someone new than to confront the reality of what this Black teacher might be saying. It is easier to say they’re “just not the right fit” when they refuse to pass students who don’t deserve to pass. The reality is that you love Black teachers until we disagree with you. So, If I leave, feel uncomfortable or excluded, it is not because of my race, but because I’m fundamentally opposed to whatever is being proposed in that setting. This is what being in schools has been like.
Overcoming School Culture
I can believe in my students as much as I want, but when I’m ill-equipped with the tools to be successful, when the administration uses veiled threats about non-contract renewals, when I note that half of my students struggle to read but am answered with “but our graduation rates” we have lost the point. Robert Pondiscio wrote that “we nod in earnest agreement that every child must be held to high expectations and deserve to feel safe … but our practices often reveal something less than a warm embrace of those ideals.” This is my experience.
When you work with people who think so little of the students you teach, when those students look like and come from the same neighborhood as you, it can almost feel like they might have thought the same were you a student in their class 10 years ago. It’s demoralizing, but I can have standards only to the point that the school culture tolerates my standards. Otherwise, I’m the proverbial adversary for administration concerned with graduation rates instead of proficiency and growth, and of students that are used to just getting by. I have felt the crushing weight of mediocrity in a sad and intimate way.
Despite this, I have tried to swim upstream and be the best that I could be. I set my personal professional goals around applying principles of instruction, measure the efficacy of my work based on my “bubble” students (students below grade level that with support, would grow in proficiency) and then would reflect on how to move forward. And when the pandemic hit, I tried to make myself useful still. I asked my online colleagues what I could do for distance learning. I blogged about what was working and wasn’t working. I had a plan, I was prepared, and I was intending that it would work because I had done something that I thought could overcome the school culture. It didn’t.
My “bubble” students couldn’t do the work. My English language learners struggled and I couldn’t help them. There are no turn and talks. No whole group discussions. My checks for understanding go unanswered. All of this on top of the fact that the learning community that I had worked so hard to try to build vanished. Overnight, my professional goals became obsolete.
And here we are 12 months in.
This isn’t to say that I’m not doing teacher things. Yes, I’m grading assignments and providing feedback as they trickle in. Yes, I’m planning lessons and curriculum. Yes, I’m checking in with students. But I can’t teach literature to a sea of silent black boxes. I can’t pretend that what I’m doing is anything more than what it is—I haven’t felt like a teacher for the better part of a year.
This is Teaching
We’ve all read the pieces on learning loss, we’ve seen the numbers on failure rates, the kids disappearing into the void, and the teachers for whom their students are little more than white letters arranged in a particular order above a black box. Yet throughout these 12 months, society has continually reinforced the notion that we must. keep. going. because of the lie that our worth is determined by our work.
When we ask, “how many of us must die for you to care,” we hear the answer clearly: more. So trapped are we in a whir of doing that we can’t even imagine anything other than what we’ve done before. We do not know what it means to rest. And now, we’ve been pitted against one another: teacher against parent, administrator against teacher, student against teacher, all of us against this immense pressure to perform as we grind ourselves into dust. So we work even though we’re dying, and we work even though we have nothing left to give. And we wear our masks to hide what we struggle to face ourselves.
When I see teachers and principals in the United Kingdom making Zoom cheat sheets, engaging students, I resign myself to my current situation: though I have done all of that in the Zoom guidelines and more, it was for naught because my school standards don’t support it. My bottom line is not the same. I don’t pretend to know the answers to any of this. I don’t know what else we might do in this situation, but I reflect on the choices I made this year and last:
- I endured abuse.
- I endured isolation from other staff.
- I endure families calling me useless, insinuating that I targeted their child who never turned in a single piece of work or showed up to class.
- I endured being called ‘inadequate’ or not a real teacher.
- And yes, as one of the only Black teachers in the department, I endured the casual racism of being targeted for “indoctrinating students” or being “politically biased,” even though my white colleagues are all doing the same assignments.
But this I know: I can endure abuse from parents and students or I can endure abuse from the school administration team—I cannot do both. It is not worth the weight and tightness in my chest on Sunday-Thursday evenings knowing I have to get up and stare at a silent screen—hoping in vain that someone will talk, wondering which family will criticize me today, which students will yell at me, and whether my administration will support my professional judgment or side with the student (I’m somehow always surprised when they take the student even though this has always been the case).
I realize the immense privilege I have in being able to take this step, but I can’t be an island forever.
So, dear reader: I quit.
I said no more.
And, I guess we’ll see where I end up next year, but hopefully in a school that believes in its students as much as I do.
P.S. Thank you to my friends Natasha Akery, Daniel Bundred, Matt Carton, Eric Kalenze, who listened to me and gave me the courage to make this decision.