What I want you to know about being a teacher in a high poverty school

What I Want You to Know is a series of reader submissions. It is an attempt to allow people to tell their personal stories, in the hopes of bringing greater compassion to the unique issues each of us face. If you would like to submit a story to this series, click here.  Today’s guest post is by A Teacher.

Occasionally-- at parties or church or in line at Target-- people ask me what I do. When I answer, they normally look surprised. I teach 4th grade in a high-poverty district at a high-poverty school. The reactions I get when I say "I teach fourth grade at (local school)" range from "That's great" to "Oh my gosh, bless your heart" to "Oh I bet THAT's interesting." But most of the time people say "Do you like it?" or "So what is that like?" I have no clue how to answer that in a way that would take less than an afternoon. Do I like it? Yes. No. Maybe. Sometimes. I don't like working between 10 and 12 hours a day, every single day. I don't like the assumptions people make about my students (you know, the ones that lead well meaning people to say things like "bless your heart"). I don't like the fact that our district left us for two months without a single working printer or copier. I don't like going 5 hours without a bathroom break. I don't like walking out of the building every evening knowing I could have done something more, something different, something better. On the other hand, I love walking out every day knowing I am doing something that matters. I love learning from my students, who are resilient and hilarious and so, so smart. I love the look on a kid's face when she makes a connection. I love being a part of a vibrant community. I love working for my principal, who inspires me to work harder and love bigger every single day. I love waving to my students every morning, sitting by them on the bench at the playground, talking through a writing assignment. So do I like it? I have no idea. What is it like, you want to know? It's like standing in a gym, reciting with liberty and justice for all while living with the hard truth every single day that this country is not a just place for poor kids, for kids of color. It's like a copier jamming with three minutes before the bell rings and knowing that this, this copier jam that would be a minor inconvenience anywhere else, will completely change the course of the entire day. It's like working until 8pm and then sitting in bed at 10:45 reading a book on classroom management or the effects of poverty on childhood. It's like doing a hands on LEGO design challenge with Katy Perry singing "you're gonna hear me rooooooar" in the background and children working together and thinking "why would I ever want to do anything but this?" It's like trying to help a child who cannot read (and therefore cannot complete the assignment) and help a child who is yelling "I DON'T HAVE ANY FRIENDS" at the same time. While someone else is losing a tooth. And a fourth child is shredding the assignment to pieces. It's like squealing and jumping up and down (in your head, anyway) when a kid who usually gets it wrong gets it right. It's like standing in the middle of a housing project, asking if anyone knows where one of your students lives, because his mom's phone is disconnected and you need to talk to her. It's like feeling forty-five at twenty-five. It's like turning your back for one minute to switch the PowerPoint slide and turning back to see two students doing the pre-fist fight shove that you are so familiar with now. It's like running to get between them before it happens and arriving two late. It's like trying to pull them apart and screaming for help. It's like not even being able to be angry at student misbehavior because you see the root causes and they are deep. It's like serving 79 students with 79 different root causes and not really being sure where to start. It's like being asked to be a teacher, a case manager, and a therapist. It's like feeling like you're failing at all three. It's like meeting a goal and your whole class screaming WE DID IT. It's like watching kids taste space ice cream for the first time. It's like high fives and hugs and holiday parties and field trips and more homemade cards than you could ever imagine. It's like being a part of a team that's on a mission to accomplish something that matters. It's like wanting to to hug anyone who gives you pencils or donates money to buy books for your classroom or asks "what do you need at school?" or volunteers to be a guest speaker or field trip chaperone. Not just because teachers spend tons of money out of their own pockets, but because that's a tangible thing that says you see the kids in my classroom and you care. A lot of days, it's like walking a tightrope over the edge of a razor, just one copier jam or fist fight or deadline away from pretending to pick crayon fragments off the floor so you can cry a little bit. And ultimately, it's like being humbled and spurred on by the fact that every single thing about this work that is hard and frustrating is nothing compared to the obstacles that your students overcome on a daily basis. Do I like it? What is it like? I don't know. How much time do you have?

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