Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve wanted to be a teacher. My parents, who immigrated from Thailand, told me I would come home from 1st grade reteaching them everything I learned: my short and long vowels, how an “e” transformed short vowels into long vowels, etc. I was passionate about sharing these lessons with my parents because I witnessed them struggle to speak the English language, and this passion served as the catalyst that would pave the road towards my career in education. Every decision thereafter was intended to help me reach my goal of becoming a high school English teacher. From obtaining the Golden Apple Scholarship to majoring in English Education at Bradley University to receiving a Fulbright to teach English in Thailand, I felt myself getting closer to my dream. All of my hard work eventually paid off when I landed a job at ITW David Speer Academy.
When I first began working at Speer in 2015, I thought it’d be a place I’d remain for years to come. However, as each year passed, I felt less and less connected to the school, its mission, and its values. It became clear that testing was a strong focus, and although I initially bought in to how valuable test scores were for students’ college admissions, every time I handed my students yet another scantron, their defeated looks pierced through my heart. I kept repeating to them that they were not just a number, even though everything that surrounded them told them they were; their ACT scores affected everything – their grades, their eligibility for extracurriculars, and the classes they were placed into. As a result of the testing fatigue and pressure, my kids couldn’t perform well on their ACTs at the end of the year, and because Noble’s data-driven ways had become ingrained in me, I believed I was a failure as a teacher.
I realized I needed to make a change; I proposed journalism and civics courses to my administration, and they approved them. I felt liberated not having to teach ACT test prep and instead being able to discuss real-world social justice issues with students. However, it was a dream that would unfortunately not last very long. Just four weeks into the school year, I was placed on an improvement plan because my students did not “grow” enough on their ACT scores the previous year.
I was heartbroken. I couldn’t bring myself to even drive to and from school without breaking down. How was I on an improvement plan? I looped up with the kids nearly every year and created curriculum from scratch. I devoted nights and weekends to lesson planning, grading, and attempting to provide as much individual feedback as I could. I established the Newspaper Club and at that point had published 6 newspapers the principal always referred to as “the best newspaper in the country.” I was shouted out for my amazing technology integration into the classroom and efficient management systems. Yet, despite all of my significant contributions as a founding staff member, I was on an improvement plan simply because administration deemed my ACT data unsatisfactory.
Knowing that I had to be there for my students, I kept going. My curriculum began coming together and every day the kids reminded me how much I loved my job. I convinced myself that I’d be fine and that I’d be able to at least make it to the end of the school year. However, once again, this didn’t last. Policies began to change without teachers’ input and feedback, and teachers were simply expected to follow the rules, much like Noble’s discipline system for students. The most recent policy change required teachers to create and grade daily quizzes, and return them to students within 24 hours. As a result, I felt myself drowning in the demands that only seemed to increase. How was I going to manage my two courses across eight periods, all these changes, and my own personal needs such as graduate school, family, and friends? There was no way.
However, I found solace in the fact that other teachers shared these same frustrations. I knew I had a support system ready to console me whenever necessary. Nevertheless, teachers were chastised for discussing their disagreements with the school policies, myself included. We couldn’t even talk about our opinions without being told that we were being unprofessional and bringing down the staff morale. We were either with administration or against them.
Overall, the systems in place at Noble made me feel like I had no voice. There is always talk about an “open-door policy” and administration being receptive to teacher feedback, but only to a certain extent. Administration can decide to make schedule changes, increase demands, and mandate school-wide policies all without thinking about how it can negatively impact teachers and students. At the end of the day, we teachers are the ones in the classrooms and we are the ones who know our students best. We know what management or policies will or will not work; we know when our students are feeling exhausted from the test prep; most of all, we know what we’re passionate about: making a difference in kids’ lives. If Noble were unionized, teachers would be able to carry out these beliefs and passions without fear. They would feel safe enough in order to speak up in a high-stakes environment where they can get let go at any point for any particular reason.
Now it has become my mission to be a voice for other teachers also experiencing similar situations. Please know that you are not alone and that you are valued. I once felt like I didn’t have a voice because it was constantly shut down. However, I realize I just need to speak even louder now so that teachers can have a protected union voice. It is time that others realize teachers’ everyday struggles in this broken institution. It is time that others get a glimpse into teachers’ lives. It is time teachers are finally heard.