Forty-four percent of all teachers in America quit within the first 5 years. I know, because I was one of them.
I graduated with my teaching degree in 2008, shortly after the Great Recession began, when state governments were too busy firing teachers to hire any new ones. I ended up scrambling across two counties around Atlanta everyday to substitute teach for $68 per day while paying off loans for a Masters degree in Education. While this was stressful enough, no amount of education could have prepared me for some of the classrooms I was about to enter.
One middle school in southern Cobb county had a tackle box behind the reception desk for the car keys of substitute teachers. You had to give them your keys to get the classroom key for the day, since substitutes had a habit of abandoning classrooms in the middle of the day. This probably wasn't a legal practice, but schools do what they have to. I've had classes where I had to give up my chair since we didn't have enough seats for the students. It was fine. I couldn't sit down anyways. I also had classes up in the north, around Marietta with classroom computers,
Smart-boards, digital projectors, and class sizes of 24 students.
I've since taught in schools on three different continents, and one fact that surprises almost every teacher outside of America is that the majority of American schools are primarily funded through local property taxes. What this means in practice is that schools in rich neighborhoods with high property taxes are some of the best funded schools in the world, while schools in poor neighborhoods can appear third-world in comparison. The contrast is stark, and when changing schools everyday between some of the richest and poorest parts of the country within two counties, the patchwork collage of the American school experience can be confounding.
Most of the long-term substitution jobs I received were in the south of Cobb County. One reason was that it's where I lived, but another was because teachers would leave suddenly and with little explanation. This area was majority black, majority poor, and functioned as a revolving door for most educators. At one of these schools, the one with my longest and last long-term substitute job, during a teachers' meeting in the morning, the principle stated in very clear terms that "If a problem in your classroom reaches my desk, you have failed."
Teaching in this school felt like fighting against a tide, with waves crashing against you from all sides as you attempted to stay afloat. You had to be loud all of the time. You couldn't sit down. There were never less than 30 kids in your class, and they would fight, they would scream, they would throw things across the room, and there was no help. The parents were skeptical, the administration was resentful, the other teachers knew you were just passing through, and so many of the students viewed me as the enemy. Maybe they didn't, but it certainly felt that way. Everyday was walking into a dark building, waiting to burn the little amount of energy I saved up from yesterday. Some days, I would just come home, get in bed by 4 pm, and sleep. I had nothing left, and nobody to turn to. I was on an island, alone.
One day I came home and told my girlfriend at the time that I had to quit my job, because it was making me racist. It was a horrible admission, and it came at a time of weakness, but I was exhausted. Progress was not being made. Nothing was getting better. I was falling farther behind everyday, and I felt alone in a school that was 95% black in administration, staff, and student body. It was awful, but it's how I felt. The majority-white schools in Marietta were less crowded, they were quieter, they had staff that worked there for years, with new books and technology that made teaching so much easier. Maybe I could sub around the county for a little while longer and get a job up north?
I didn't quit that day. Maybe I should have, but I stayed on for a little while longer.
After checking homework one day in my 6th grade class, a bunch of students started picking on one of the kids. This wasn't exactly unusual, but they were picking on him for his dad helping him with his homework. I piped in and let the class know that it's perfectly fine to have your parents help you with your homework, and that learning can happen anywhere, whether it's from your dad or your teacher. Then a girl interrupted me, since I clearly didn't know what I was talking about, and said "We're not making fun of him for getting help. We're making fun of him because he has a Dad."
I was confused. I said "Well, everyone has a Dad." The students looked around. Some were shaking their heads. Some looked at me like I was an idiot. I asked for hands. "Well, how many of you don't have Dads?" About two-thirds of the hands rose. I didn't quiz them any more than that. It was one of those situations where you just had to change the subject, since you couldn't find anything to add. The possible reasons these students didn't have fathers were myriad. Maybe he disappeared before they were born. Maybe he was in jail. Maybe he was dead. Maybe the mother just didn't know. Whatever the reason, about two-thirds of these kids were coming home to one mother. The inequalities in these schools went way beyond funding.
What I was seeing were underfunded and overcrowded schools. What I was not seeing was underfunded jobs programs, mental health programs, after-school and drug programs. I wasn't seeing the wealth-inequality, the food deserts, the debt cycle, the mass incarceration, the diminishing social mobility, or the systemic economic exclusion. The students in those Marietta high schools, with class sizes of 24 and Ted Talk presentations on the projected Smart-Boards were coming home to two parents, internet connections, subscriptions to magazines and full bookshelves, while many of the students of those Mableton middle schools were coming home to one parent, with maybe two jobs, or no job at all. The Marietta kids had college funds, while the Mableton kids had basketballs. Public schools should be equalizers, not dividers.
I didn't see this. I saw chaos, dysfunction, and exhaustion.
Systemic racism was providing examples to breed individual racism inside of me. This is the dark spiral of racism that feeds upon itself, and it was feeding upon me.
I was frustrated. We were all frustrated. The students. The administration. The parents. Me. It was like we were all stuck playing a game we knew we couldn't win at a table where none of us were allowed to leave. For so many years, America turned its back on its most desperate communities, and for years the only answer to this desperation was more cops with bigger guns and harsher sentences. Look, this is not an apology for cops, but in a lot of ways they were put in the same situation I was. I was put in a situation I was not prepared for, to deal with problems I didn't have the tools for, and it led me to a dark place. We were given hammers on a worksite full of screws, and then told to get the job done.
Racist cops are a problem. They are a big problem, but they are also a failed solution. They are a symptom to the larger problem of systemic abandonment. I've lived in four different countries, and I can tell you that America can be a harsh place to live. There are many ways to trip, and not much to catch you when you fall. It's life on hard-mode, and then handicapping the country's already disadvantaged with a lack of social programs and few prospects is a recipe for desperation. Then the only answer we had for this was filling these communities with more cops with military hardware, and suddenly we're all surprised that it becomes a Thunderdome? We built this Thunderdome. There was no doubt what this environment would become with the ingredients involved, yet we're only figuring this out now?
I didn't see any of this at the time. I just saw one lonely classroom, and many kids I could not control.
We've all seen those movies where the hero teacher comes into the poor minority school to win over the hearts and minds of their students. That wasn't me. I was lying when I said I couldn't leave that table and quit that game. It's precisely what I did when I ran off to teach in China. This isn't me preaching. This is an admission of failure. I could leave, but those parents and those students couldn't. Most of them are probably still stuck at that table.
Hollywood will tell you not to worry, because that hero teacher is right around the corner. But honestly, hasn't a system that relies on nothing but self-sacrificing heroes already failed?
The focus now is on the cops, which it definitely should be. Before George Floyd the focus was on nothing at all, but it's important to know they are a symptom, and treating a symptom is not treating the disease. When people have a better path, they usually take it. If society doesn't give them that path, they take another. We can do better.