Unchartered territory

I remember going on road trips in a pre-mobile technology era and playing the “license plate game” for entertainment. I’m sure you know the one I’m talking about – this is the game where you stare out the window for hours on end to see how many different license plates you can spot. I was an exceptionally day-dreamy child, so I always excelled at this game. I loved staring out the backseat window, watching the world pass by, peacefully absorbed into my inner world, looking for license plates from other states. 

Though I could play this game for hours on end, I was never super successful in finding all of the states – it seems that finding a Hawaiian license plate when you’re travelling on the mainland is exceptionally tricky, and you often see an overabundance of plates from the state you happen to be travelling through. I always found that I never really got past about 10 different types of plates.

So, knowing that it’s rare to see a lot of different license plates in one place, I was taken aback as I drove into the parking lot on my first day of work at a charter school. I was one of only two people with a license plate from the state my school was in – every other car had an out-of-state license plate. There were 15 different states represented in total.

I came to learn that this license plate diversity was caused by my new charter school’s insistence on hiring teachers from alternative certification programs that imported young, college-educated, non-teachers from around the country to fill teaching positions for two years at a time. I’m not sure if this was intentional, but my school seemed to be on a 2-year rotation where approximately 50% of the staff turned over each year, to be replaced with new alternative-track teachers just starting their two year commitment. This meant that the entire teaching staff would completely turn over every two years.

With so many new teachers, many of whom have never taught before, the first day of professional development at a charter school is always extremely awkward. When you come into the first day of professional development at a charter school, a huge majority of the time is spent on juvenile ice-breakers and team building activities, as well as a healthy dose of brainwashing and “brand management” related to the mission and vision of the school. “We’re a family here,” you’re told over and over. “We’re a family.”

When I look at my charter school’s website today, a year after I resigned from that first charter school position, only four people that I worked with remain. One is still teaching, one is the secretary, and two teachers have been “promoted” out of the classroom into administration positions – other than those, the entire teaching staff and administration has turned over in a year’s time. Upon further investigation, I’ve learned that the teachers that have left have gone on to, in the words of one former teacher, “bigger and better things.” They’ve left for administration positions at other charter schools and networks, law school, neo-liberal policy think tanks, administrative positions in alternative certification programs, and both elected and non-elected positions in local governance. It’s shocking just how much power and influence is held among the ex-employees of my former employer, and it boggles my mind that the people that have taught in my former school are been deemed qualified to make educational policy decisions despite the fact that they have no degrees in education, and two years of teaching experience. I find this particularly insulting because I – someone who spent five years of their life earning a bachelor’s degree in education, someone who is working on their Master’s degree in education, someone who has now seven years of teaching experience, someone who has gone to countless content-specific professional development sessions, workshops, and conferences, and has committed to a life-long career in education – was continuously told by charter administration that I’m just not as dedicated or qualified as these alternative-track teachers that went to five weeks of teacher training, and then made only a two year commitment to classroom teaching.

And so, I have become unchartered – I resigned from my charter school, and accepted a job at a traditional public school in a large, urban school district.

When I drove into the parking lot on my first day of school this year, I saw that every license plate in the parking lot was from the state that my new school is in. I learned that every teacher in my building permanently resides within my school’s metropolitan area, and most grew up here. Every teacher in my new school is an active member of the community in which they teach, and has been for years. Every teacher has a vested interest in seeing their community thrive.

And would you believe that – despite the negative press, punitive education legislation, and historical struggles experienced by my new district – the teacher turnover rate at my new school is exceptionally low? I am, with seven years of teaching experience, one of the youngest and least experienced teachers on staff. Many teachers in my building have spent their entire careers serving my new district, which mean that these colleagues have become fixtures our community. They have seen entire families of children grow through our building, and they have experienced all of the tremendous joys and heartbreaks of the surrounding community and district. My colleagues have relationships with parents, community members, and each other. And the kids – it’s like these teachers are an extension of their families. There is not a single alternative-certification teacher on staff – all of the teachers in my building have degrees in education, and plan to stay in education until they can retire. I am surrounded by professional teachers, who have taught together for years, if not decades.

On the first day of professional development at my new school, no ice breakers were needed. As we assembled in the library that first morning, it felt like a huge, slightly dysfunctional, family reunion. There were hugs, and jokes, and laughter, and tears, and yelling, and it was loud, so loud, and boisterous and raucous, and full of life. At no point did anyone ever say, “we’re a family here,” because they didn’t need to. It was felt.

My new school is the heart of my community, in a way that my charter never could be. My new school has a library, computer labs, and a health clinic that is staffed by nurses from a local health system. My new school offers comprehensive mental health services not only for students, but for parents and families. We have laundry facilities, a parent engagement center, and are staffed with many, many paraprofessionals, special education teachers, and support staff teachers. Students receive music, art, and P.E. instruction, and there are a variety of interesting elective courses for older students. This is a place that students and parents want to be – in fact, the assistant principal has to make an announcement ever afternoon reminding students that they must exit the building and go home after dismissal!

At my new school, students don’t have to walk on tape lines, or eat silent breakfast. At my school, students don’t have to deal with petty uniform rules (even though we do have dress code requirements). I have never feared for my life at my new school, and I no longer fear that I would be shot by an active shooter due to the gross negligence of an unqualified administration. I no longer fear that my tax dollars are being spent on lavish parties, or disproportionate administration salaries. At my school, we don’t “sweat the small” stuff, we are here to, in the words of my assistant principal, “teach the children” – all children – regardless of race, creed, color, orientation, sex, gender, socioeconomic status. Any child or parent that walks through our doors is welcomed with open arms – even I, as a teacher, have been welcomed with open arms! In the first week of school, at least ten teachers have gone out of their way to walk down to my classroom and check on me, some of whom have visited me multiple times. That never happened in a charter school – the only people that ever came to check on me were the myriad of administrators carrying clipboards and laptops, looking to evaluate my every move, and every nook and cranny of my classroom.

This new school, this public school, THIS is what school should be. This school is the lifeline of my community, the glue that holds my community together. This school is warm, welcoming, and lively. The hallways are filled with color, chatter, and life.

There is no silent breakfast here.

This is unchartered territory.

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