Voting With My Feet

Five years ago, I was fresh out of the Boston Teacher Residency and ready to begin a career in teaching.  I was deliberate in choosing my school:  I wanted one of those seemingly-intractable urban public schools that I had studied both at BTR and at Harvard.   I found just the place and went in with my eyes wide open.

My first year, I was busy, exhausted, and strangely content in the struggle.  And, I had a strong footing in what teaching was supposed to be all about:  I felt successful with my students. I had a desire to innovate; Some of my colleagues said I was a “breath of fresh air.” My passion for the potential I saw in our students – even the ones who were not in my classroom – buoyed me as I began a long and arduous swim against the tide in my school building.

Fast forward to now.

This past June, on a steamy hot Friday afternoon, I packed up the last relics of my classroom and turned off the light in Room 10 for the last time.  It was an emotional moment; the memories of the 87 children I taught in that classroom formed a tangible lump in my throat.  An unfamiliar sensation of failure and guilt washed over me.  So, what happened?

The best way I can describe what happened over the course of four years is a gradual wearing down of my spirit.  Am I being dramatic?  Yes, because it was dramatic.  I had never experienced anything like that before.   I. Just. Couldn’t. Do. It. Any. More.  It was not a question of effort.  It was certainly not a question of efficacy.  It was, however, a perfect storm: change-resistant colleagues, a principal unable or unwilling to motivate and lead them.

Having success within the walls of my classroom left me wanting more.  Last year, I quietly struggled through the most difficult year I have faced as a teacher.  Solitary and cold mornings prepping for the day’s lessons were lonelier and colder than in past years.  The most shocking thing to admit – even to myself- was that my own intrinsic motivation was not enough.  I did not have the energy, the passion, or the self-discipline to truly carry out the work of an excellent teacher each and every day.  That was a crushing realization.

It is from an intensely personal place that I helped to draft our Ready for the Next Challenge proposal.  Our work so closely mirrored my daily reality – the importance of being part of a team of like-minded colleagues echoed through the empty hallways of my school building each and every day.  It was the people – the grown up ones – that would have made the difference for me.

My newfound teacher friends who described different work environments convinced me that I could find a school with excellent peer teachers and outstanding leadership.  I found one and that’s where I’ll be next year.

But, back to the lump in my throat from the last day of school.  It’s still there.  What will happen to my students?  What will happen to the handful of teachers in my school who are excellent?  Will the woman who replaces me soon become a shadow of her former teacher self? My new school is literally around the corner from the old one – you can glimpse one from the other on the top floor.  We serve the same neighborhood, but in dramatically different ways.

I can find solace in the fact that I was able to make changes in my old building.  I am not leaving the profession entirely.  I am not even moving out to the suburbs.  But, I am doing what so many of us Gen Y-ers will do:  I am voting with my feet.

-Guestblogger Maria Fenwick, Teacher, Boston Public Schools

9 Replies to “Voting With My Feet”

  1. Great post.

    What are the components of the “excellent peer teachers” that lured you to your new school?

    I.e., is it that you’ve seen them teach, and you think they’re unusually skillful? Or that you share a similar belief set?

  2. I have not seen them teach, per se, but the school has an excellent reputation (and reputations matter a lot among teachers). I was at that school during my year at the Boston Teacher Residency and I experienced the school’s culture firsthand.

    I would say that a school’s culture (or belief set) matters tremendously. We’ve not come to a real definition of what excellent teaching looks like, but I think we’re a lot closer on what the underlying core beliefs are that excellent teachers share.

  3. I was one of those teachers who voted with my feet way back in 1993 after six years of teaching in an urban high school. Worse, I recall leaving the school my last day, having been replaced by a man who would not only teach English but be an assistant coach for the football team. My last vision of the school was watching him carry in his arms through the lobby and into my old room a stack of the deadliest grammar books I had ever laid eyes on and would never use with my kids. That was the most humbling moment of my life and put six years into a clear perspective. That’s why I pesevere and you will too.

  4. NA. Na. Na. In two weeks I’ll be going back to my old classroom and your not.

    Just kidding!

    Excellent post. And I want to supplement it, not disagree. Many times I would have voted with my feet and left the NEIGHBORHOOD school that I loved but for two, perhaps three reasons. Firstly, I came to the neighborhood at the age of forty with years of experience working with juvenile felons and with years of successes – and more importantly, defeats. I didn’t have biological kids of my own, and if I’d left I’d had returned to higher ed or other professions. There I would have been surrounded by equally qualified people. The urban classroom was the only place where I knew it was extremely unlikely that I could be replaced.

    The solution, as you write, includes the recruiting of enough teaching talent that a dynamic learning culture can be created. I do not begrudge you a class size of 87 students over four years. When I left last spring I reread the 107 names on my Inactive Roll. Most of the 106 who are still alive have suffered extreme trauma. They shuttled in and out between a variety of households, homeless shelters, jails, etc. NCLB and other reforms are completely irrelevant to their situations.

    And do the math. On the average, I said hello to a new arrival or goodbye to a transfer every day of the year, while teaching 140 students.

    Nobody needs test scores to identify the best teachers. They are being constantly recruited to charters, magnets, and lower poverty schools where they would be “allowed to teach.” Think of that recurrent phrase. The way that selective schools recruit top teachers is not by promising money. The lure is a culture and a capacity that allows teachers to teach. When I think of great young teachers we lost, every single one that I can remember went through the same cycle. They cried, they couldn’t sleep, they repeatedly turned down offers. Then in May or June, always exhausted, they agreed to transfer to a less challenging school.

    I gave in once and promised my wife that I’d take a prestigious offer. But that week at the funeral of a former student I realized that I wasn’t emotionally ready to leave. More precisely, the deceased had been repeatedly told by his parents that he had no future. And when I saw his father walk out during the middle of the services, I knew I couldn’t leave yet.

    The publishing of two outstanding pieces this week by great young teachers leaving their former classes is a great opportunity. I hope people will check out the vicious comments printed in the Washington Post about the article by Sara Fine. The “reforms” encouraged by NCLB-type accountability have unleashed an incredible amount of venom that ends up in the classrooms of our most vulnerable children. When I stayed in my NEIGHBORHOOD school, I knew that I would still have access to the political process, and I believed I could be more effective speaking from the classroom.

    In the political process, I search for a balance. I don’t want to copy the “anti” approach of the most strident of the data-driven “reformers,” but neither do I believe that teachers can continue to allow themselves to be punked.

    So, I congratulate you. And I thank you for not joining the teacher-bashing. I wish the best for you and your students around the corner from your old school. Please to not forget, however, the great distance between the realities of neighborhood and choice schools. Please don’t forget the complicated histories that created the horrible conditions in so many neighborhood schools.

  5. Hello Maria et. al.

    I was really struck by this post. I was a teacher for 12 years and now work at Search Institute in Minneapolis. I also wrote a book titled “How Was Your Day at School? Improving Dialogue About Teacher Job Satisfaction.”

    What strikes me about this essay is how easily you could have become one of the “50% of educators who leave the profession within the first five years of your career” – a stat so overused I’m afraid it’s starting to lose its impact. What saddens me to no end is the amount of teachers we’re losing due to fundamental break downs in the relationships amongst staff. It’s not salary or class size. In fact, it tends to be predominantly a dissatisfaction with the workplace climate that drives educators from the profession. How sad, idiotic, avoidable, and tragic.

    I’m so happy you’ve found a new school and I hope it brings life back to your teaching and energy around education. And I hope your old school can somehow transform itself so that you wouldn’t have had to leave in the first place.

    Thanks for writing this post Maria. It was excellent.

    (I blogged about you!

  6. Maria, As one of the teachers that still work at the school that you left last June I am increasingly becoming saddened and dismayed by your very public opinions. I wonder what you hope your end result will be. Is it to destroy the things that might be working in a school that has an incredibly different population and challenges than the one you have chosen to work at? Is it to to get back at someone? Since there are still many dedicated teachers in your old school, maybe they need to be embraced rather than crucified with your writings. I hope you end up where you want to be, which I believe is not in a classroom, but please don’t do it by slamming other colleagues so openly. I stay and persevere because I feel that I can make the difference in the students’ lives and not for any greater glory.

  7. I think this last comment illustrates the whole point of this teacher’s decision – As long as it’s about the kids (“incredibly different population”) and not the adults, things will never change.

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