Several teachers from a handful of District and charter schools were asked what they love about teaching and what they would change if given the chance to improve conditions for students.
About a dozen educators from Teachers Lead Philly, a professional network devoted to teacher leadership, recently came together to write down responses describing their love of teaching in Philadelphia and their students, their motivations, frustrations, concerns, and hopes for the District. Here we feature six of those teachers' short essays.
Mastery Charter School Mann Elementary
Teaching in Philly is challenging. But the challenge keeps me going. My students relentlessly challenge what I thought I knew about kids and teaching. My colleagues challenge me to expand my perspective and step out of my classroom bubble. The families I work with challenge me to have high expectations and broaden my definition of family. My supervisors constantly challenge me to reflect on my own teaching, take the next steps, continuously improve, and push myself out of my comfort zone.
There’s never a dull moment. The dynamic of a group of 22 kindergartners is not a predictable one. There are behavior, academic, emotional and social challenges in our classroom daily. But without embracing these challenges, my students and I would not have been able to create the safe space we have: a space that promotes taking risks, allows for respectful disagreements, and encourages critical thinking and productive problem solving.
I keep teaching in Philly because I love this challenge. If you look at real estate prices in the University City neighborhood of West Philadelphia, there is an invisible line that separates $200,000 houses from $600,000 houses. The houses are a few blocks away from each other, with the same number of bedrooms and similar row home layouts. Why such a drastic difference in price? The difference is based on one thing only -- the Penn Alexander School’s catchment area. Families are willing to pay 23 times as much for their homes in order to live within the lines that dictate that their children will attend the top-performing Penn Alexander School. Why should families have to invest that much more in a house (or pay that much more for a private school) to be able to send their children to a school they trust? Across Philadelphia (and almost all cities for that matter), extreme inequities in education abound.
If I could change Philly education, I would ensure that all students have free access to a robust, comprehensive, rigorous, high-quality educational experience in a safe and nurturing school environment.
Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School
Teaching in Philadelphia is great because of the diversity of students, a vibrant teaching community, and the city resources. Students of different backgrounds, races, cultures, and languages enrich the learning that happens within the classroom. I am honored and humbled by what my students have taught me about their lives, culture, and languages.
The teaching community in Philadelphia is filled with passionate and dedicated individuals who are advocates for students and for better schools. The resources and rich history of Philadelphia allow the community to become the classroom.
Whether we are learning about the history of Philadelphia by walking through its neighborhoods, interviewing community members, or investigating history, the city has many cultural and historical institutions to supplement learning.
In Philadelphia, I wish there were more ways to incorporate the arts and community into our education. Our students need creativity, expression. Visual, dance, music, drama, folk arts, and poetry help to bridge communities and bring together our learners in whole ways. It would be great to see more community involvement in our schools and more of our students in the community. Service learning provides rich opportunities for our students to be agents of change and to use their knowledge for authentic purposes.
Samuel B. Huey Elementary School
Having come to the School District of Philadelphia to serve in a two-year program, and experiencing what was a very difficult first year in the classroom, I could not imagine staying a teacher for very long. Now, eight years later, I cannot imagine doing anything else. I've seen other teachers leave my school, the District, the city, or the state. Some switch to charter or public schools. Others return to grad school. Still others leave education entirely. But here I stay at Samuel B. Huey because there is no other place I would rather teach. It is a public, urban, K-8 school, and it certainly has its challenges. But it is my home now.
We need more resources. And this doesn't just mean more money. We all know the financial crisis the District finds itself in these days. Those of us teaching in District schools know the realities of this crisis. We know what it's like to live with too few desks and broken windows; to struggle to teach with outdated textbooks and no writing supplies. Everybody has seen the Facebook posts about how much teachers spend out of their own pockets versus how much they make per hour.
But when I say resources, I mean something more than just money. Of course I think teachers should be paid more (well, I'm a teacher, after all). But compensating teachers more wouldn't completely solve the problem. Buying new textbooks and furniture will help, as well as repairing and updating schools, or ordering more supplies so that the students who cannot afford a pencil and paper can still be prepared each day. Yet I mean more than that, too.
Resources might include creating more professional development opportunities for teachers, after school, on weekends, or in the summer so that they can become more effective instructional leaders. It means adequately supporting teachers in their schools, instead of cutting positions like new teacher coaches and assistant principals. It means making sure there is common planning time built into the roster of each school, to foster more collaboration between colleagues. It means providing tuition reimbursement for educators who are returning to school in order to further their careers. I know all of these things require funding, and a lot of it. So, yes, I suppose this will all mean at the heart of it that there is a need for more money. But is also means we do something meaningful with that money.
Science Leadership Academy
I choose to teach in the School District of Philadelphia. I don’t choose to teach in the District because the pay is lower and the physical conditions are worse than comparable suburban teaching jobs, or because class sizes are large and the bureaucracy and daily realities many of my students face often feel insurmountable.
I choose to teach in Philadelphia because my students are wise beyond their years. Their varied experiences, though sometimes painful, add to our classroom and allow us to probe issues deeply in ways that go far beyond theory.
I choose to teach here because I don’t have to worry about boring days with nothing to do. Instead I cherish a daily classroom reality filled with spunk and spontaneity. My students take nothing for granted; they challenge me regularly. But when our connections deepen, they stand with me and will take risks beyond what I would have ever done at their age, even as many of them balance life stories that go far beyond what I have dealt with at any age.
This is not an easy time to be a teacher. There is little to encourage people to teach in a struggling, underfunded school district like the School District of Philadelphia. Political speech and media are full of rhetoric about poor teaching and failing schools. My daily experiences contradict the stereotypes about urban education that have become, for many, an accepted truth.
Fortunately, I know that the work that really matters will begin again in September. And then again next September. And hopefully, as the work continues, more people will realize that teachers aren’t enemies and that our state, our city, our school district, and our schools must do better. The work of education, transformation, and growth is messy and challenging. This is all of our work. Young people deserve it. Our society needs it.
Jay Cooke Elementary
I love teaching in Philly because there is a rich, diverse community of children. They come from all countries, manner of customs, and beliefs. The variety of family structures mirror the kaleidoscope of family dynamics they bring to the classroom. To be a Philly teacher means you will come in contact with children who need a teacher like you, a fearless champion of youth who knows the weight of the task they will undertake. As a Philly teacher you will have opportunity to expose your students to all that Philadelphia has to offer; the history of William Penn, the industry of Ben Franklin, and all that art has to offer. Believe that you will have the boundaries of your skills, patience and professionalism tried and tested, but at the end you will know what it is to teach and reach the souls of children.
What I want to change about Philly education is that there be an end to all the posturing and a clear position on violence in school. No teacher should work in fear, yet many do. Collaboration with mental health agencies in residence with hotlines to crisis intervention is becoming more of a necessity than we want to believe. The truth is many of our students are coming to school from a battleground called home. Our children are being exposed to more dysfunction in their home settings than ever. They are witnessing violence and the effects of drug and alcohol abuse at younger ages and bring this behavior into the classroom perpetrating it on their classmates. This term we affectionately call bullying. Many more students need resources to help with anger and coping skills.
Second, I would like to see a fair distribution of resources and equipment. Being in a classroom with an inadequate supply of textbooks and workbooks should not be a reality. Schools that have stockpiles of resources should be required to share. If all this isn’t too much to ask, having a helping hand in the classroom could only help our children more.
Freire Charter School
What I love about teaching in Philadelphia is that tomorrow afternoon, I will take a draft of this essay to my school’s student-run Writing Center and have its thoughtful, creative, critical writing fellows help me make it sing. I love that my school allowed me the opportunity seven years ago, as a mere second-year teacher, to pilot this now thriving student tutoring program. I love that through my teaching and directing of the Writing Center, I have been able to develop authentic, honest relationships with my students and trust them to give me valid and meaningful feedback.
And finally, I love that I have found colleagues within my school and throughout this city that honor and celebrate my work as an educator who innovated at first out of necessity and who now innovates to make change.
My hope for the schools of Philadelphia is that students and teachers will have more opportunities to learn from one another. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all of our schools had safe afterschool spaces where students could learn with and from their peers? And if those peers were encouraged and prepared to confidently provide such help? Wouldn’t it be fabulous if more school administrators equipped and supported their teachers to breathe life into their inspired solutions to classroom challenges? So many teachers are already making change in small ways, but we need them to go big, to go public, to share their successes. So much noise is made about how broken our schools are, but so much music is being made within them, too — and we need to create more opportunities to teach and learn from, not only for our students, but also each other.
My hope for the schools of Philadelphia is that we stop competing, stop trying to outrank and outscore each other, and start coming together for the good of our children and our profession.
Cathy Quero is an intern at the Notebook.
It's a funny thing. When people find out that I am a teacher, they immediately offer up apologies and opinions about how my profession is notably underappreciated and underpaid. They seem to half-expect me to confess regret for my miserable career choice. During the summer, their references related to my job tend to lighten up, but they still involve pity: "Summer's a teacher's payback for the rest of the year, right?" Or, "I bet you need a couple months to recover from spending the the school year dealing with preadolescents. I don't know how you do it. Ha, ha, ha..." After decades as a teacher, I can script this predictable social banter.
But here is what I want people to know about my job: I love it. The truth. It is highly likely that someone will have to forcibly cart me out of my classroom when I get too old (okay, maybe that is an exaggeration -- hopefully I will leave my chosen career strong and at peace, content with the timing of my exit.). But in addition to offering me the cyclical opportunity to reflect, restore and explore (otherwise known as summer break), there are many reasons that this fall will be my 29th year of teaching.
HERE ARE JUST SOME OF THE REASONS WHY TEACHING IS THE BEST JOB
Teaching gives me a clear sense of purpose. I never, never ever, have to struggle with nagging questions about the value of my occupation. Teaching children is obviously important work. This deep conviction infuses me, every day, with energy for my complex interactions with students and their families. I might go so far as to contend that teaching, and its accompanying sense of purpose, offers me a vaccination against any sense of angst or self-doubt about what I should be doing with my life.
Teaching is highly nutritional. It feeds me important ideas, challenges my bad ones, and supports and sustains my intellectual curiosity and growth. True, part of my motivation to keep learning is derived from the simple fear of regret. While I would rather not be caught flat-footed or wrong when leading or facilitating learning, the inevitable failures are a part of the job (oh yes, teaching also keeps me humble).
- Teaching helps me stay culturally nimble. As a teacher, I have to constantly check my assumptions and language to make sure that I am not unintentionally perpetuating ideas that are harmful to any of my students (or simply outdated or wrong). This is good reflective practice for anyone, but it is essential for teachers. My college-aged children are often surprised that I attempt to keep up with them regarding academic debate related to race, gender, sexuality, cultural or socioeconomic theories, cognitive science, literary constructs and/or revisionist history or thought. The investment I make, and the professional development necessary, to stay aware of the constantly shifting cultural and political landscape also conveniently keeps me relevant at the dinner table (and hopefully staves off some inevitable cognitive decline).
Teaching offers me a sense of playfulness. What other middle-aged women spend their work days sitting cross-legged on the floor, crafting art projects, reading children's picture books, running around on the blacktop or the playing in the field, singing loudly, laughing hard, being teased and hugged, and dancing and singing to pop music? I do not take any of that daily joy for granted. It fuels me.
- Teaching surrounds me with interesting people. My colleagues (both in and out of my school) are the funniest, smartest, most creative and curious people I know. Together, teachers make up a diverse community of caring, engaged learners and lovers of life. We share ideas, jokes, struggles, conflicts and realizations that continually aid us in being more knowledgeable, thoughtful and caring people. In fact, I cannot think of any company I would rather keep.
So while I recognize that there are obvious challenges associated with being a teacher, we are hardly a desperate group with no other options. Teaching is a passion for many, and certainly a well-considered choice for most others. I would argue that teaching offers the privilege of living a life informed by highly coveted values and opportunities that money cannot buy. Additionally, the work is both grounding and medicinal. I feel fortunate to teach. No one needs to feel sorry for me.
Photo taken by Clara Greisman