Background on My Yearlong Search

In 2007, after twenty years of working as a television writer, I decided on an impulse to become an English teacher.  It was the end of the writer’s strike, and I was making proclamations that I was going to drop everything and do something meaningful.  I’d seen the inspirational movies about idealistic new teachers who marched into a school and shook things up with their no-bullshit awesomeness.  I would never have admitted it to myself, but on some level, I imagined standing on top of a desk reading poetry out loud while my students wept quietly, inspired.

Within a month, I had a job at an excellent charter high school in South Los Angeles with a student body that was 97% Latino and 3% African-American.  96% of the students were eligible for free or reduced lunch, meaning that most of them lived below poverty level.  I would get my teaching credential in an intern program where, instead of student-teaching, I would go straight to my own full-time teaching job, taking the required credential classes at night school.  And so, on a sizzling September day five years ago, with no training in education, I stood for the first time in front of a classroom full of teenagers and realized too late that I had no idea what I was doing.

Obviously, it was a disaster. First of all, unlike in the inspirational movies, our school was sparkling new and already staffed with unbelievably motivated teachers half my age and about five times as competent; it was like being in one of those X-Men movies where everyone had superpowers and I had some tertiary role like somebody’s wacky, frazzled mom.  I couldn’t lead a class of anything without going off-topic.  Within minutes, students would be calling their responses out of turn, gossiping and eventually devolving into side conversations.  Nobody would ever have made a movie about my class, unless it was documentary about yelling.

It was one of the hardest years of my life.  But it was also one of the best. Because I had no idea what to teach, every day we just pulled the chairs into a circle and talked.  We talked about everything: Sex, of course.  Family.  Friends.  Love—my students were in love, it seemed, all day long. A student who hid behind a curtain of hair talked about walking into his house and finding his uncle shot dead on the couch.  A confident, guitar-playing kid had been homeless.  The president of the junior class talked about going to “take your child to work” day with his mother and realizing that she spent twelve hours a day on her feet at a factory where she stripped the thorns off of roses that would be sold by vendors on street corners.  At the end of the day, her hands were bleeding from all the places she’d been cut by thorns. Why do you do this? he asked her.  So that you and your brother won’t ever have to, she said.  We cried together.  We laughed together.  I had no idea what I was doing, but somehow my students seemed to forgive me for it.

The second year was better.  By year three, I was teaching three different English electives.  Every year, like most high school teachers in California, I’d have somewhere between 175 and 190 students across my various classes. (And I was lucky–I heard stories about teachers at traditional public schools with 240 or more students.)

No matter how many years I taught, there was more to learn. Once I could control my classes, I realized that my curriculum sucked.  And when finally I had a solid curriculum for all my classes, a four-level grading system that assessed the learning targets I’d decided were essential and a system of differentiation that, enacted faithfully, could pretty much address the needs of most of the students in my classes most of the time, I realized that if I executed my various systems meticulously every single day, my 175 to 190 students would learn what I wanted them to learn and my classes would be, if not great, then at least relatively educational in the traditional “you know more stuff at the end of the year than you did at the beginning and I have the paperwork to prove it” sense of the term.

Also, I would die.

I couldn’t keep up with it.  Seven hours of high-energy classes followed by three hours of grading, planning, student conferences and the miserable purgatory of photocopying–which means photocopying about half a class’ worth of handouts until the copier jams, then taking the whole copier apart, ripping ink-smeared pieces out of the guts of the machine, slamming the thing shut and praying it would work, a cycle repeated two or three times per day– sometimes left me numb from exhaustion, my brain actually throbbing in a kind of neural shutdown I’d never experienced even after fourteen-hour days as a TV writer.  No matter how hard I worked, there were always students I couldn’t reach.  There was gum under the desks in my classroom, coffee on my shirt, a mountain of essays in my “in” basket.  I was dogged by a pervasive sense of failure.

At the same time, people across the nation were demanding accountability from an educational system that had failed entire generations of low-income African-American and Latino students.  Teaching, once regarded as an art, began to be defined as something whose results could be measured in data.  The term “effective” as opposed to “good” or “great” arose as a benchmark to describe teaching that worked.  In my third year of teaching, the LA Times began publishing the California State test scores of teachers in Los Angeles, reflecting a public demand for accountability: tax-paying parents had the right to know whether their child would be taught by an effective teacher.

But what was an “effective” teacher?  What was the “effect” exactly that a humanities and arts teacher like myself was supposed to have?   I missed the warmth of my classes that first year, even with the craziness.  Now I was too busy grading and planning at the end of the day to listen to my students’ hopes and dreams.  I no longer sat at lunch with them talking about poetry.  Was this just a realistic accommodation to the job?  If so, why did it feel like loss?

I couldn’t continue before I understood more.  And so, at the end of my fifth year of teaching, I left my job, not because I wanted to stop teaching but because I wanted to start over.  Somewhere along the line, I’d fallen in love with teaching.  It was the most rewarding job I’d ever had.   As a teacher, you have a chance to change lives–and to have your own life changed by your students.  There is no more meaningful work that I can imagine.  And I don’t want to become an administrator.  Teaching the next generation feels like an honor.  I can’t explain why.  But it’s true.

But I need to get better at it.  The only way I learned how to write was by reading the work of writers who were better than I was.  The only way I’m going to get better at teaching is to watch real teachers in action–not to mock bad teachers, but to closely observe good ones and learn from them.

This blog is a record of my year of learning from 2013-2014.  I visited classrooms and talk to teachers across the socioeconomic spectrum in L.A., from the lowest-income neighborhood to the most elite private school, to see what education looks like in a variety of contexts and to tell the stories of real teachers on the ground.  I have two main questions:

1.  What is great teaching?  Is it true, as people say these days, that great teaching always looks the same regardless of subject matter, socioeconomic background or proficiency level  of the students?  If so, how can that even be possible?  If not, what is the meaning of educational equality?

2.  What is the purpose of education?  Before we’re holding people accountable for something, it seems to me we need to know why we’re holding them accountable.  Insisting that teachers raise test scores only makes sense if the sole purpose of education is to produce a measurable accumulation of skills and knowledge.  But is this really all that we want an education to be?   If not, if education also means non-measurable things like community, cultural heritage, lifelong learning, development of an individual identity and relationships with caring adults, what do we mean when we say “accountability?”

I’m writing this as a blog because I think I’ll learn the most this way.  From my years of teaching, I discovered that jumping into the deep end with no idea what I was doing was the best way to learn.  If you think I’m crazy or wrong about stuff, please tell me–I actually do want to know (just don’t YELL at me or others.)

Most of this blog will be the stories of teachers and their students.  I love data as much as the next person (not) but in the end, to me, education is what happens when a small group of people comes together to understand something new.  What I want to do is tell the stories of these real people over the course of a year.  Several teachers have graciously agreed to let me follow them and their class for a year.  I’ll be posting these stories, and interviews with students and others in education, as I go.

I dedicate this blog to all my former students but especially to my students from that first year, who taught me so much that I still can’t express.  In some ways, this blog is an attempt to understand what I learned from them.

Thank you for coming along.  I promise that my posts won’t always be this long.  I can’t wait to get started.

7 thoughts on “Background on My Yearlong Search”

    1. No, I actually just left at the end of the school year. Even with layoffs, there seem always to be jobs in teaching in underserved communities here. Rightly or wrongly, I figured I’d find a job at the end of my year off.

  1. Hi Ellie,

    What an amazing journey you’ve been on! I appreciate the honest insight you’ve shared about education, the politics involved, and your experience as a teacher overall. It’s an inspiration.

    I wanted to let you know that I’ve nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. It is well deserved. Check out more details here: http://terrytutors.wordpress.com/2014/06/03/very-inspiring-blogger-award-los-angeles/

    Many thanks,
    Christine Terry,
    http://www.TerryTutors.com

  2. I just discovered your blog. I’m in my 10th year of teaching and reading your thoughts are like listening to mine (much more eloquently stated). I’m hitting a burn out state and fantasizing about quitting. I lOVE teaching and can’t imagine myself doing anything else. But the system is stacked up against teachers and more distressing, against the students themselves. I’m reading through your archive and every post has me smiling, crying, and nodding along. If you ever need more teachers to follow or talk to, feel free to contact me (symaestra@yahoo.com). Thank you for your blog and voicing what many of us feel.

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education and beyond

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