Let’s pretend, for a moment, you are standing in the hall outside my 2nd grade classroom. As you cross the threshold, I’ll shake your hand (as I do with my students each morning) and introduce myself, “Hi! Welcome! Come in and sit on one of my tiny chairs!” We’ll walk past the potted lily and the two ivies (your eyebrows may raise at the one which has grown so long it covers the tops of three bookcases, a feat which is terribly impressive to my 7 and 8 year old students). Before sitting together at my green kidney table, you’ll notice a blue box labeled “Affirmations”, into which my students place kind notes they’ve written to one another. Then, once we’ve been seated on those little blue chairs, (“She wasn’t kidding about the tiny chairs!” you’ll think to yourself), I’ll look you full on and tell you my story, which is as follows:
I’m an urban teacher. For the entirety of my 13 year teaching career, I’ve taught in the inner city. A school population’s poverty level is often determined by the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunches; the three schools in which I’ve taught have all scored above 90%. I’ve been in the trenches for a long time. I tell you this not to impress, but to attach credentials to what I’m about to say.
Last week, the families of the students attending my school received letters from the state threatening to close the doors of our school indefinitely this June because something “must be done to prepare children for life after high school”. It offered suggestions for alternate districts and explained that the state “wants all students to have a good life after high school”. As insulting as it was to read those words as a teacher who fights for the positive future of her students every day, it was more degrading to know this “failing” status was gauged by the results of a single standardized test.
My inclination here is to tell you all the ways in which this test has been criticized far and wide in its content and delivery. I want to tell you of the days, evenings, weekends, and summers our staff has forfeited to sit in seminars and speeches and conferences in a constant effort to better ourselves as educators. I want to tell you all of the times state demands have been sprung upon us, or of stakes sporadically raised, or of assurances retracted. I want to tell you of the unbelievable gains we’ve made across the board, ones which are ignored just because not enough increase has been shown on the only window our state seems willing to look through.
But those words have been said and you’ve already heard them in one form or another. No one needs another disgruntled teacher posting about the difficulty of the profession.
What I AM going to share with you is the reality of shutting down a school like ours. I want to flood your mind with stories so when you hear of so-called “failing” schools, you can balance the media hype with some brutal and beautiful reality.
We are a staff. We are led by a principal who is fair and trustworthy and has never, not one time, allowed us to doubt he has our backs. We are a staff who hugs in the hallways and texts on the weekends because we are friends before we are coworkers. We exchange Secret Santa gifts. We have breakfast potlucks. We cry or celebrate together over our children- those we’re raising at home and those we’re raising at school.
We are families from impoverished and working class homes. Families who gather around tables in homes they own, in homes they rent, in homes they share with extended family while in transition, and in the local homeless shelter. We are parents who drop their children off in the morning, entering through the same doors they opened when they were in elementary school because this was their school, too. Our parents share with us their fears and successes and we hold these admissions with reverence because it is the highest of honors to be entrusted with educating their child. Sometimes, we are their only consistently reliable ear or aid and we offer both as freely and openly as we are able because we recognize the meaning of supporting a child best by supporting her from the ground up. Our families are an extension of ours even when complications or disagreements arise (and they do) because we have learned to look below the surface and see the questions underlying every interaction: “Do you see my child? Are you doing right by my child? Can I trust you with this task?” We are aware.
We are children, hundreds of them. We feed them. We clothe them. We dry their tears. We bandage their wounds. (I do not mean any of those in the figurative sense.) They carry with them their stories, which they reveal in hugs or tantrums or laughter or aggression. They test us until they can trust us because they are skeptical and often weary. They come to us with full bellies and empty ones, from warm beds and from naked mattresses infested with bedbugs, (something we know because we’ve seen them crawl out of backpacks and homework notebooks and clothing). The children we teach write us love letters and scream that they hate us, sometimes both from the same child in the same day, because they crave affection as deeply as they fear losing it. They play together on the playground, the well dressed children and the ones wearing their older (or younger) sibling’s ill fitting clothes. They are the reason we choose to stay at a school with such a demanding range of needs. They are worth every difficulty and we mourn and rejoice and worry and celebrate over them as though they were our own. (Because, we consider them so.)
We are a community, one who has risen up in droves to speak affirmations loud enough to rise above the condescension of those who’ve never set foot in our school. We are a community who has rallied together with petitions and letters and verbal outrage. We are members of a body who have witnessed the value of a public, neighborhood school who rally around the academic and emotional and physical needs of its children and families. A community who knows of our growth first hand because they’ve witnessed it in person, in our school, and in our city at large.
Do not misunderstand my words to be a refusal to admit our deficits. Any member of our staff is aware of our shortcomings and the goals we’ve set to stand on firmer footing. Though we know the reasons it can feel next to impossible to raise academic achievement, we are not comfortable here nor do we accept it as an excuse.
DO hear me when I say, WE ARE MORE THAN A TEST SCORE. We are a staff and families and students and a community and we know our worth. We are resilient, each one of us, and we know better than to buy into the opinions of someone who can’t see the school behind the scores. We are fighters, the students even more than the adults, and we will hold our heads above the mire. We are necessary and important, and we will not allow a label from on high to change our minds. When you hear of us, think first of our stories, for they will always, always, reveal more than our scores.