If you’ve ever known a teacher who cares deeply and gets to make a difference in the lives of the kids they work with, then you know that teaching can be the best job in the world. Except that here in the U.S., with the way we undervalue the education system in general and the labor and well-being of teachers in particular, it’s also often one of the hardest. And here in Baltimore City, from everything I’ve seen, we make it really, really hard. It’s not ok. And it has to change.
I first knew that something was deeply wrong with the teaching profession in Baltimore when I was a couple of years out of college. One of my good friends had become a teacher at a city school, and when I would ask her how she was doing, the answers were getting increasingly, intensely bad. The amount she had to work in the evenings and on the weekends to keep up was taking a huge toll on her, as was the mind-numbing paperwork, the constant testing, the trauma the kids were facing, just all of it.
It became a trend. My friends who started jobs as city school teachers were driven to dark places. I met other city teachers, people I hadn’t known before they started the job, who seemed to be holding it down, but I was haunted by the knowledge of how hard it hit those close to me. Putting aside the terrible injustice of mistreating dedicated people who just want to help young people thrive, how can a system that does that to its workers possibly sustain itself or perform as it should for those it’s meant to be serving?
Change might just be coming. With the amount it’s been in the news lately, you may’ve heard of the Kirwan Commission, but here’s a quick recap. The commission, formed three years ago by the state legislature, was tasked with studying the best school systems in the world and figuring out how to make ours one of them. It rolled out its major recommendations and funding estimates this past winter, and is now wrapping up its final report just in time for the legislature to consider implementation when the 2020 session starts up in January. It’s going to be a big fight, with the Governor lined up squarely against it for reasons of cost.
In trying to understand the whole Kirwan situation better, I reached out to my teacher friends for their perspectives. Almost as an afterthought, I posted on facebook to ask if any other current or former city teachers would like to talk.
The response was overwhelming, which I should have expected. Teachers in Baltimore have a lot to get off their chests!! We’ll start this week where I started with them, by asking what they found were the best things about the job, and what were the hardest things.
So, what’s the best thing about teaching in Baltimore City? While I feel bad not sharing all the individual responses on that point, the truth is it would be real repetitive reading. I can sum up what every single person said in two words: the kids. Seeing them ask good questions and do creative things, helping them, getting to know them, watching them grow up.
The answers about the hardest things varied more widely and tended to be more thorough, and so, while I apologize for focusing on the negative, it’s those I’ve shared below. While a couple of people were willing to use their names, most wanted to be anonymous, so we decided to go that route across the board. These interview excerpts are lightly edited for privacy and clarity.
A first-year middle school science teacher at a city school:
Also the students! Specifically, the conflict between the students’ desires (phones, snacks, taking breaks from class, etc.) and the administration’s expectations of discipline. Obviously, there needs to be some expectation that my students are actually in class, paying attention, etc. But I do feel that there’s too much of an emphasis on consequences, rather than restorative practices.
But also… the students themselves are often resistant to those restorative practices. They haven’t gotten the tools they need to manage their emotions, and they’re not in a social context that enables them to practice those skills. Especially since their school day is dedicated entirely to cramming them full of information that they often don’t even care about. Unfortunately, the system seems wholly uninterested in getting them invested: just controlling them.
A former middle school music teacher at a city charter school that has since closed:
It was one of many charter schools that wasn’t very well run. The administration was basically a family business. Director was the husband of the principal. The principal’s father was on the board, and they had no training or experience in education. There were also many problems in the way that they expected teachers to handle discipline issues independently in the classroom without support. Technology and music teachers would sometimes be taken away from their normal teaching and assigned to different duties, disrupting their curriculum to act as substitute teachers or refocusing on standardized test preparation. I did not feel supported at all, and teacher retention was very low in general.
I also felt that they were conditioning the students for jail, having to be escorted in straight lines between classes and the lunchroom for instance. There were also very rigid guidelines as to how all teachers were expected to manage their classrooms and pedagogic approach, which went against many of the approaches that I felt worked well with my students.
A third-year high school technology instructor at a city charter school:
Ugh, that is a first place with a lot of competition. The job is hard at the best of times. Children, teenagers, are growing up and figuring themselves out and having a hard time in that process, and they are so inwardly focused, and so involved in their emotional development and social lives, that I, as a strange adult who they see maybe an hour out of every weekday, am just not on their radar. I am just not something they think about beyond their grade (if they care about that). So it tends to feel like I am barely a person to them. Which means taking huge amounts of inadvertent disrespect, and feeling dehumanized.
Again, this is just the nature of the job in the first place, before you start taking into account the vast amounts of trauma that these kids are bringing to school each day, where school becomes this safe place merely by virtue of giving them a space with peers and the chance for supportive friendships. As a teacher, it makes me feel very insignificant and like I do not make a difference. Even if it is not factual, it is a hard feeling to dodge.
A long-time art teacher who taught for one year at a city elementary/middle school.
Where to begin….!!!
The school building was on its last legs physically, no potable water (it had to be brought in in the form of a water-cooler and would get knocked over, so they took it away). Fights fairly often, traumatized kids (many, more than average), theft of anything of remote value from my desk and drawers, no heat a couple of winter days, unusable sink in the art room from September 1- June. Unmanageable classes (more my fault than theirs).
I had a third grade that was full of traumatized kids. So out of control that at one point it was complete chaos with kids running on top of the desks. 3rd grades seemed to have a good deal of older kids in it — 10 year olds. I was unintentionally hit by a couple of students.
An art teacher who has taught at schools around the city for seven years.
Getting to know the students. Learning my personal limits. I was told when I first started working in schools that “Education is an abyss, and if you pour all of yourself into it, you will lose yourself’.” The hardest part is realizing how little you can actually help a child. After I realized that I alone couldn’t really affect change, my goal became to just try to give a kid a good day. Or at least smile once that day.
A long-time arts teacher at several city elementary schools.
Not having the training, time and support to deal with all of the problems kids bring to the table. Administrators (in my case above the school level) that makes decisions that greatly affect your daily life and have no clue. But mostly the first problem.
A former arts teacher who taught for six years at city schools through various programs.
Discipline was the hardest. The school didn’t have enough resources to help the kids. We had little to no support from admin, almost no follow through in terms of consequences. There was also a sense of no organization. For example, we would be told we would “push in” (art on a cart) for the day at the last min. Testing week we had a pre-k class dropped off with us randomly because the AP didn’t want to watch them. A personal frustration with all these jobs was that I never had enough hours and had to have multiple jobs.
A special education teacher with five years of experience who taught for half a year at a city high school before quitting.
The administration: Completely unprofessional and at odds with the teachers at every step. Special education was clearly an afterthought and an inconvenience; we were in no way adequately equipped to serve the students.
A former teacher who spent seven years at city elementary/middle schools.
The grownups. But seriously, I would say the toxic work environment, lack of professional development around vicarious trauma and caregiver burnout. Also the disproportionate workload classroom teachers carried compared to other school based staff. Also workplace bullying.
What can I add to all of that except: thank you. Thank you to those who participated in the interviews, of course, but thank you from the depths of my heart to ALL of the teachers. Thank you for giving so much of yourselves under such challenging conditions, thank you for your service, whether for half a year or twenty.
The next question I asked was whether people thought that the job had affected their health. Again, I received a unanimous response: yes. So that’s what we’ll look at when One Baltimore returns, how working in Baltimore City schools is affecting staff physically and mentally, and what efforts are being made to help them cope. After that, we’ll finally get down to the details on Kirwan and how it could make an impact on this deeply difficult situation.
To close — Free. Keith. Davis. Goddamn. Jr.
Cultural Event of the Week: This Friday, November 1st, marks the start of Brilliant Baltimore, a ten day combo of Light City and the Baltimore Book Festival. The main action will be at the Inner Harbor, with art installations, concerts, talks, workshops, a comic book pavilion, kids’ events, and more spaced out between the Columbus Center (that building on Pratt next to the Barnes & Noble, with the roof that looks like sails) and the various sides of the harbor promenade. There’ll also be events throughout the city, including, parades, block parties, dance parties, disco dancing and drone-making at public libraries, the Gluegunheim (get it?) exhibition of prop art by the Baltimore Rock Opera Society and Fluid Movement (https://brilliantbaltimore.com/neighborhood-lights/the-gluegunheim-in-bromo), and more. Keeping up with it all would be impossible, but catch what you can!
Green Event of the Week: Did you know that the Baltimore region has some of the worst air quality in the country? I’ve been an environmental professional for a long time, but I was still shocked when I found out (might write a column on it). Because it’s invisible, it’s not something most of us often think about — but luckily, the members of the Clean Air Baltimore Coalition do. This Tuesday afternoon, 10/29, they’re inviting the public to join them in meeting with the Maryland Department of the Environment to demand stronger air protections.
Song of the Week: “What Did You Learn In School Today” by Pete Seeger
What did you learn in school today / Dear little boy of mine? / What did you learn in school today / Dear little boy of mine? / I learned that Washington never told a lie / I learned that soldiers seldom die / I learned that everybody’s free / And that’s what the teacher said to me