At the front of the pack

Shelley - Arlington, Washington
Entered on May 12, 2009
Age Group: 30 - 50
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Twenty-two years ago, he leaned across the kitchen island, his elbow propped on the white counter-top, as he said, “You know, I really want you to think about this. As a teacher, you’re not going to make very much money. You might be better off going into technology. That’s where the money is.” At 19, I considered his words seriously. As his son’s wife, it felt like the right thing to do. No one had ever, so lovingly but firmly, offered me advice in my best interest. It seemed.

Yet, 20 years later, I found myself a first-year teacher. During my early months in an urban classroom during student teaching, I questioned my abilities, my motives and myself. I experienced a reckoning that led me to question and doubt myself in ways I never had before. Still, I felt that I could offer something to this type of child, who needed someone just as vulnerable to challenge and encourage her or him.

In my first job, I started working with kids who are at-risk of failing high school. These are your children. They struggle with enablement and permissiveness because it’s far, far easier to concede than it is to hold the feet of one’s own child to the fire of accountability. They struggle with attendance, motivation and engagement. They struggle to see the value in education.

Now, two years into teaching, after long days, countless hours, late nights, persistent efforts and lots of encouragement, I must leave these students who’ve connected with me, challenged me and irked me. It’s the product of an economy in shambles. An economy that wishes to leave no child behind, but forsakes the very best teachers, in the end, to leave millions of children behind.

As teachers of at-risk students, we inspire, challenge and connect. We push these students to think in ways that, in many places, students are challenged to think only in Advanced Placement courses. We teach them how to question, how to support their ideas with evidence from texts, how to problem-solve. We teach them how to live, and we teach them how to live up to their potential.

Despite the sadness, as I sense my RIF notice only feet away from me in the DaKine bag that carries my grading and planning every afternoon, I believe that good things will come. I believe, as I did two years ago beginning my job search, that there is a place for me in teaching. I believe that I will find that place despite the economy, despite the devastation to our schools. I believe that we are learners. I believe that we will recover. I have to believe this. We all do. We have to believe it for our children who need us to help them find a competitive and fulfilling place in this world.

As I write this with tears in my eyes, my students don’t yet know that I won’t be with them next year. Whether they believe it or not, today, I know they will miss the expectations placed upon them; I know they will miss a teacher who believes in their potential despite their pasts. This is where each child should be—at the front of the pack, and not left behind. I believe in them.