This is a series in which you help me learn about America.
Melissa (daughter of Charles!) was born and raised in Iowa. She currently teaches in Chicago, in a high school that has been deemed a “drop-out factory,” where 100% of her students qualify for free or reduced lunch. I’ve always thought about becoming a teacher, and was curious to learn the realities of her job. I hope you enjoy her interview as much as I did! And if you’re considering this profession, you should definitely check it out!
Can you tell me about your school?
Well, the simple demographics are that 97% of my students qualify for free lunch, and the other 3% have reduced fare lunch. We have a large percent of students that don’t have papers and are in the U.S. illegally. Many have their own children. Most have gang affiliations. Our demographics are about 50% black and 50% Latino. I also have students who are currently homeless.
Homeless? That’s sad. How does that work?
Some are in group homes. There are a few students in particular I worry about in terms of where they are actually sleeping each night. One of our students disappeared for a few weeks last year; there were rumors that he was staying with an older man who was more or less his pimp. I don’t know what happened with that situation. Like I said that’s just what I heard.
What do you teach?
It’s common to teach different classes. I point this out because many people assume that high school teachers only prepare for one class and then teach that all day for the next 20 years. It’s not the case.
This year I’ve taught World Studies and US History. Last year, I taught Latin American History and Contemporary American History. Next year, I’ll be teaching AP Human Geography (the study of communities and cultures) and something else.
Even when teaching the same class, I often have to approach the content in completely different ways. For example, in two of my classes, I have a large percentage of students with special learning needs.
How do you know how to teach to kids with special needs?
Well, I hate to say “you learn as your go,” but that’s how it is. You can take as many classes as you want and read all about different teaching methods, but each child is an individual and has needs that reflect that.
I have one student who has a hard time focusing when she’s around other students, I ended up seating her at my desk after the first few weeks of school and we haven’t looked back.
Another student is very antsy and has a hard time sitting in the room, so we came up with an agreement that during independent work, once he is half done, he can then get up and walk to get a drink of water.
Sometimes I’ll let certain students pick from the 10 questions they are supposed to answer and decide which seven they think they can respond to the best and have them focus on those versus doing the entire thing poorly. It’s all about catering to the individual.
What is your day like?
I typically get to work anywhere between 6am and 7:30am, depending upon what I need to do before class starts. For example, if I need to talk to our principal, early morning is the best time to catch him. He’s the busiest man in our school, and he’s there every day at 5:30am.
Once I get to school, I start preparing for my day: making copies, putting final touches on a PowerPoint, or writing goals on the board. If I have requested parent meetings, I’ll check up on those and possibly meet with them. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to sit down and do some grading.
At this point, I’ve probably chugged at least 20 ounces of coffee.
I teach five classes during the day, ranging in size from 22 to 34 students. 4th period is my “lunch break.” I use that term loosely, because I rarely eat during that time. I’m usually in meetings with other teachers, with parents, or with the Dean (discussing students’ behavioral issues).
Three times a week, my students do timed readings. This is where I’ve seen them grow the most. They started the year at 4th and 5th grade-level and struggled to sit and read the whole time. Now they’re at an 8th grade level, and have no problem sitting down to read the entire time. It’s very gratifying.
I think the success has come from giving them readings at their level (which was lower) versus trying to have them read where they should be. This way, they’ve been challenged while still feeling successful.
After school, I try to go to my students’ games and events if they’ve told me about them. Right now, I have a student who just gave birth; I go to her house after school every day to tutor her for an hour through a CPS program called Homebound. It’s more or less our system of maternity leave for students. When a student has given birth they are allowed six-weeks out of school, but they are expected to keep up with the work they are missing.
She asked me to do it for her before she gave birth and I have to admit it is a much larger undertaking than I expected. Getting all of the work organized from her teachers, taking it to her, and teaching it is a lot at the end of the day. Not to mention the amount of paperwork involved.
Since I’m a newer teacher, I am observed about two times a week. This can be done by several people including the Principal, Vice-Principal, or someone from the Board of Ed. I meet with them about my performance and discuss what my goals were for that lesson, how I am able to tell if I mastered them, etc.
I’m pretty open to feedback; it’s made me a stronger teacher. It is nerve racking at times, though. Anytime I show a movie or I feel like I’m having an off-day I dread that someone is going to be coming in to observe. In that sense it is good, because I’m always on my toes!
If I’m lucky, I get home by 5pm, meaning I’ve worked 10.5 hours, though I only get paid for seven. At home I usually spend anywhere from 1-3 hours on grading and planning for the next day.
I try to get some “me” time, like a meal out with friends or even just a walk around the neighborhood. I’ve gotten into funks in the past when I become too consumed with work and isolated myself, so now I try to take a break when it’s too much. My students need me to be in a mentally healthy place to do my job well.
Aaaaah! I’m totally exhausted just hearing about your day! Do you resent working so hard for only 7 hours of pay?
Surprisingly, no. I describe my work as hard work, but good work. Since I enjoy it, I don’t mind. What I resent are comments about only working 8-3 or how it would be nice to have summers off. Those get to me since they imply that my job is easy or that I’m not working as hard as someone else. When I’m putting in the amount of time that I do, I find them incredibly insulting.
I’m surprised you have so many parents’ meetings, especially since your school’s been called a “drop-out factory.” I assumed parents weren’t that involved. Is that wrong?
Yes and no. I think that at any school you always have parents who are overly involved and some who are never there. Our school is big on parent-teacher communication, so if something is going on with a kid, I will call and request a meeting with the parents. Some come and some don’t, but the school supports us in trying to get them to come in. We do have the parents though, who don’t seem to exist, but I think you would find that at many schools.
I think the difference at schools like mine, is that the parents don’t always know how to enable their children to be successful. Many of our parents are not college educated and many don’t necessarily have a high school degree themselves. For instance, I’ll meet with them and explain that their child is skipping school (or something) and their reaction might be to scream and swear at their child in anger.
This reaction stems from their wanting their children to be successful, but it’s not the best way to convey that. I’ve seen parents hit and swear at their children who are in trouble for their own tempers; this obviously sends the child a mixed message. I think that’s the problem. I’ve never met a parent who doesn’t want their child to be successful, but not all of them know how to get them there.
If I were in your situation, I’d worry that gang members wouldn’t take me seriously. What’s been your experience with this?
Not bad actually. It’s pretty clear who is affiliated and who is not. And they are fairly open about it as well. They will discuss it in school and if asked they’ll tell you if they are affiliated and with which gang.
I’m very honest with my students about who I am and also about my background in Iowa. I don’t pretend to relate to them, but I also make a clear effort to learn about them and their unique background. I think there is a difference between the two. I find that they appreciate this more than some of the teachers who act as though they can relate to them.
I also want them to understand that not everywhere is like the neighborhood they come from, there are other places where gang life and affiliation is not standard or a way of life.
I’ve tried to educate myself as much as I can about their world though. If you are a Chicago resident, I highly recommend Raymundo Sanchez’s books on his life as a gang member in Chicago. I live near many of the areas he describes and it’s eye opening to read about what goes on—from police brutality against Puerto Rican youth to the many drive-bys that he took part in and witnessed.
He also paints a picture of why many children find themselves in gangs: low-self esteem, physical abuse, lack of parental guidance, and in some cases, not having a place to live. These reasons make sense to me, as I see so much of that with my own students.
Overall, my students are very protective of me and other teachers at the school. Once, I was accidentally shoved in the hallway by a student, and several other students, who are gang members, ran across the hallway to come to my defense, because they thought I was in trouble. It was misguided but touching.
That is really freaking sweet. Is the job what you expected?
No, I actually love it even more than I thought I would. I truly enjoy the work, and feel lucky that I get to do this every day. On the flip side, I had no idea how many hours would be spent in meetings and on phone calls to parents. It’s crazy how much time is spent not teaching the kids!
Whenever someone tells me they are considering going into teaching, I emphasize that they need to be prepared for a lot of work. Even teachers who have been doing this for years still work schedules similar to mine.
Working at a more challenging school really puts us under a microscope. I constantly have to be prepared to explain and defend everything I do in the classroom, mostly to people who may have seen a documentary about the teaching profession and now think they understand the whole thing.
I was at a Christmas party this year and a friend’s parent started grilling me about why Chicago teachers were opposed to the longer school day. She pulled out stats that clearly came from a newspaper article—in other words, something she’d spent three minutes reading. It was clear to me that she had limited knowledge of the topic, yet felt compelled to tell me how she believes CPS should be run. I would never tell a physician or a financial planner how to do their job.
Also, I teach in a public school, and I get defensive when public schools are criticized. I’ve seen the good that can go on in public school and I know that they can work. There’s this belief that charter schools are the magic solution, however people don’t understand that the successful ones (and in Chicago that is 1 in 4) are that way because they can select their students.
Many students at our school have been kicked out of charter schools because they could not adhere to their strict policies. So if we are taking in all the students that charter schools are showing the door, how are we supposed to compete with them? Based on standards, however, we are not far behind and many of these magic schools are not at state standards themselves. The truth is that there isn’t a magic solution.
I would say that at my school, at least 90% of the staff are solid. Yes, we have teachers who might not be considered the best or who are perhaps a little lazy, but I think you would be hard pressed in any profession (be it sales, medicine, or law) to have every employee performing at 100%. Yet, these fields are not as deeply criticized or scrutinized as mine. It wouldn’t be fair for me to not mention that those teachers who might not be considered the best are trying to improve as well; no one is just sitting back and letting our ship sink.
A doctor is not expected to save every patient who walks through his door, yet I am expected to save every kid despite what background they may have.
Fascinating. I am SO SICK of people blaming everything on bad teachers… What do you think it would take to drastically improve our education system?
I think earlier interventions are key (like birth to two years old). My students who are parents have nothing but the best intentions for their own kids, but they are still kids themselves. They don’t seem to understand why good nutrition is important to a baby’s development or why reading aloud or even talking to a baby is going to help out the child in the long run.
For instance, the amount of words a child knows by age five is drastically different for those in a higher socioeconomic status versus a lower one. That five year-old who has a lower vocabulary is now already behind when they enter school and as a result, that trend will likely continue for the rest that child’s life. There needs to be more interventions before a child even steps foot in a school.
Are there any moments that stand out as pure culture shock?
Seeing one of my students on the street one night as he was scalping tickets was hard. I was aware that he was homeless, but seeing it was difficult. We both said hello and I talked with him a bit. He was kicked out of school this year for gang- related issues. I still think about him a lot. I often wonder if, when he was two or three years old, he imagined his life would end up this way.
The number of students who have children was shocking as well. I’m not naive, I knew that there would be some, but there are many more than I had expected. It’s considered normal. Many of my students are shocked that at 26 I don’t have any children of my own and they make comments (jokingly) that I better get on that.
My students are all-consuming. I am always thinking about them. I go to sleep at night hoping that they are safe and that their parents had money to pay the heat bill so that they will come to me the next day well rested. When I see them eating the free breakfast provided to them, I wonder if they had anything to eat when they went home the night before. Anytime I get frustrated or want to raise my voice, I remind myself that I might be the nicest person that they see that day.
Do you often hear that their parents didn’t have money to pay the heat bill?
That or something similar.
That said, I see such money mismanagement that it’s hard not get frustrated. For example, almost all of our students qualify for free lunch. (Of course, it’s free because tax payers are paying for it.) However, most of our students go to the corner store before school begins and buy chips, pop, and other junk food, which costs more than the actual price of lunch, not to mention is negatively affecting their health in the long run.
There is an expectation that things should be given to them. I have students who openly comment about not getting jobs so they won’t lose their link card (Illinois’ version of food stamps). Some have confessed that their family will sell their link card so that they can get cash and not have to follow the restrictions on it. They complain when they can’t have certain things for free, like pre-made food or clothes. Because they don’t have to pay for some stuff, why should they have to pay for any of it at all? It’s a frustrating cycle.
The sense of entitlement at times is overwhelming, despite the fact that a majority of them are considered poor. Many of my students have iPhones, expensive shoes, and game systems, yet they live in lower income housing. It’s as though there is a priority to spend money on some things, but others are ignored.
This part of the job has been one of the most challenging for me to see because I feel like in some ways they are fulfilling negative stereotypes that some members of society already have of them.
You mentioned that most people don’t know about this side of Chicago. Can you tell me more about what you meant?
Many people who live here are not aware of many parts of the city. On tumblr, for instance, you see many pictures of the beauty that is Chicago, and believe me it is beautiful. That’s not everyone’s version of the city, however.
Many Chicago residents don’t experience the side of the city that is nice bars and restaurants, amazing shopping, street festivals, and the security that comes with living in a nice neighborhood.
While many people I know want to live and be in this city, my students don’t. They want to leave because they only know the blocks they’ve lived on. They’ve told me that they don’t feel welcome going downtown or into certain parts of the city. They feel like they don’t belong. So what I am trying to express is that many people have different versions of what this city is and it’s important to keep those in mind.
Chicago has the third-highest poverty rate in the nation among major urban areas. We have the highest poverty rate among African-Americans in the nation. Not only that, but there is the highest gap between minorities and whites in poverty in the nation. Crime comes with the poverty.
Last year, Chicago got hit with a giant snowstorm. The schools shut down for the first time in 12 years. Many people assumed that the schools had not shut down before because the public transit system is so good, but it’s actually because so many students depend on school to provide something to eat and a warm place to be.
People wonder what keeps kids from learning or not being successful, but haven’t thought about what it would be like to sleep in the cold and then come to school hungry and have to take a standardized test. I take so much pride and put so much love into what I do each day, but am often forced to spend much of my work addressing issues that people would not believe.
Everything, really. Changing state-standards to new focuses on skills. During the past few years, our school has gone from state standards to college readiness standards to core content. A decade ago, the focus was on math and science, last year it was writing, and now we are transitioning to literacy. All of these changes require additional planning and meetings.
Then there are visits to homes to drop off work for students who haven’t come to school due to depression. Or keeping a student’s breast milk in my fridge at school so it wouldn’t go bad before she went home for the day. I’ve visited students in the hospital, gone to their prom send-offs, and been invited over for Sunday dinner. None of this is in my job description, yet it comes with it. All of these immeasurable things are what eventually contributes to a student’s measureable success in school.