Despite all research, despite all evidence, despite years of accumulated wisdom and experience on the part of actual educators who have dedicated their lives to helping low-income students and their families the myth persists- that the teachers are the problem, that we are failing.
This culture of blame and shame has been seeping into schools so that every day when I walk into school I feel on the brink of disaster. Despite working 12 hour days, despite knowing that my students love coming to my classroom, that parents value what I do, I still feel like a complete failure, that I can never be good enough, that my fate will be decided at random, that no matter how hard I work, my students will eventually become disenchanted with learning, and alienated from their school through years of brutal and degrading test-prep, that I will make mistake after mistake and always be told what I’m doing wrong. In what career other than teaching are practitioners expected to be perfect, to be superhuman, to have their every interaction scrutinized and criticized according to so many standards, to never stop for one minute to get to know the people they work with? No matter how hard I work there is always more to do, and even as I throw myself into my teaching, into working with colleagues, planning school wide events, assuming leadership roles, the message I keep getting is that it is not good enough, I am a failure.
But it is not us. It is segregation, poverty, housing insecurity and lack of healthcare. We know that it is not us, but we still feel the weight of the world on our shoulders, we still feel the blame and we work harder, and longer, and try to be everything- teacher, parent, social worker, data analyst, curriculum writer, coach, fundraiser, planner, web designer, therapist, artist, mentor. We try to teach meaningfully while being compelled to adhere to inane curriculum and standards, we try to prepare our students for what lies ahead, to help them get through each day, to help them love learning, and all we hear is that it is not good enough because now tests will determine not only our children’s futures but our careers, there is always more we could do and we know it and we burn ourselves out.
Instead of encouragement or recognition, we are handed itemized analyses of our performance, and teaching feels more and more like a performance- something we pretend to do so that the right boxes will be checked off on each list. Just as our students are constantly being evaluated, we too are under constant scrutiny. Just as our students are given less and less choice, so too, we are given less and less opportunities to be creative, to be authentic, to be agents of change.
This is my fourth year teaching. No matter what, working in a low-income school is going to be hard. When your students are hungry, when they are tired and cold, or come from unstable or even abusive families, you can never do enough. There are days when you cry after school, when you cry during school. With experience, it is supposed to get a little easier. But each year, I feel more and more like I am failing, like I am neither important nor capable, like no matter what I do, no matter how much my students have learned and grown despite a million disadvantages, the system around me does not have my back. The problem of poverty runs deep and teachers can’t be expected to face it alone. In this climate of teacher baiting, of blame and constant evaluation, I’m not sure I can face it at all.
If reformers succeed in implementing their full agenda, who will be left? I’m not sure I will.