Reflections on Teaching, Part One

I don’t know what is prompting me to be so reflective lately, but I have been thinking a lot about teaching in the last few months. After a period of time last summer in which I was caught in a rut, thinking about the social justice work that I have done and trying to ascertain its value, in recent months I have been re-examining my teaching experiences. While things are still going very well, I have been in a thoughtful mood about it.

I became a teacher under precarious circumstances. I left a job that I liked, working in book publishing at NewSouth Books, when someone called me to say that the creative writing job at Booker T. Washington Magnet High School was still open five weeks into the 2003-2004 school year. I applied and was hired very quickly, and began teaching in mid-September, with no experience and no training. At the time, then-newly elected governor Bob Riley had on the state’s agenda an up-or-down public referendum that would result in either a huge tax increase or a huge cut in government staff and services. My first day on the job was the day of the vote, and the tax increase lost by a 2-to-1 margin; the public notice in the paper listed all of the cuts, which included a 100% cut in funding for the school where I was now teaching. I was sure that I had made a huge mistake leaving NewSouth Books and that by May I would be unemployed.

I also began teaching the year that No Child Left Behind started to take effect. In my first years of teaching, I watched insulted and bitter veteran teachers retire rather than go back to school to become “highly qualified.” As a new teacher who was pursuing his certification while on the job, the rules for my becoming certified changed every year, adding new requirements of me, and each fall I got a new phone call from the school system human resources office explaining that if I didn’t by xy, and z immediately I would be fired and replaced. My first four years – one under “emergency certification” and three under the Alternative B Certification – were full of constant uncertainty and frustration. But overall, it was going well; I was getting along with the students, and they seemed to be learning. In an odd twist of fate, in the 2006-2007 school year, I was named Teacher of the Year twice, by both the Montgomery County Board of Education and the Montgomery County PTA, before I was even certified or tenured.

In another distinctly odd circumstance, I have taught under five different schools superintendents in eight years, if I count the interim superintendent who served after one of them resigned and left town abruptly. Luckily, I have had the same principal for seven of my now-eight years, through nearly constant administrative restructuring. By the time one of the superintendents would get things set up how he or she wanted it, the school system would be starting over with a new one. Rather than worrying about it, I have tried to do my job – teach the kids in my classes – and not worry about what isn’t my business.

(continued in the next entry, “Reflections on Teaching, Part Two”)

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