My name is Iran Mejia. I am a former Noble teacher. It’s taken me many months to shed the guilt I’ve felt over leaving the classroom. Even so, as I write this, I can’t help but feel a sense of remorse for not being there for the students that I grew to care for and see as family in my two years as a Learning Specialist at Hansberry College Prep. But then I remember the sleepless nights (they were innumerable), and worse yet, that hour spent laying in bed in the morning debating whether I was going to get out of bed and make it into work, or whether today was finally the day that I would work up enough courage to use one of my few personal days and take a much needed day off. The martyr in me, or rather, the individual with near-crippling student debt who wanted the perfect-attendance bonus (gained by not using a single personal or sick day throughout each quarter), always won out. Despite the exhaustion, despite the feeling of being overwhelmed (which never really got better as the year went on, or as I returned for my second year), and despite knowing that as soon as I set foot in that building, I’d be overcome with the fear that this, finally, was the day I’d lose my job for not giving enough demerits, I got up, got dressed, and drove to work.
Phrases like “this isn’t fair to our kids” or “this is so unprofessional” and “we have to hold ourselves to the same standards as our students” were often used as a means to guilt us into coming to work, as if the migraines or the vomiting or the inability to swallow due to the severe case of strep throat should suddenly disappear. I also heard those phrases used frequently when teachers and staff would receive mulligans (teacher demerits) for arriving a mere 30 seconds late to a 7 AM meeting (or any meeting, for that matter). Strangely enough, I did not hear these same words uttered when our principal, 35 minutes late to one of these morning staff meetings, walked in excusing herself because the train on Ashland was blocking her way (said train was non-existent according to a co-worker who took the same route to school on a daily basis). Did she give herself a mulligan? How many mulligans did she have? And has her bonus ever taken that $1000 hit when you reach 5 or more? These were all questions I asked myself, but I had a feeling that the answer was “No.” It was this lack of consistency and this lack of accountability for those in charge that made me wonder: “Is this what education is supposed to be like?” Again, I knew the answer. But it was not until I saw my principal lay hands on a student in the middle of a crowded hallway, that I allowed myself to believe it. Bernice (name changed to protect actual student’s identity) had just stormed into the hallway because the office had run out of belts to give to students. For the past 3 days, she had made it to class, was engaged, and managed to complete the homework for some of her classes. This was a huge deal for her. Bernice was a student who received special services for, among other things, an emotional/behavior disorder. Because of her disability, she had a very difficult time making it through a class period and thus, she rarely completed her homework and her grades, which are everything at Noble, suffered. The fact that she was on a roll had improved her spirits and her coping skills were being utilized more frequently. However, because Bernice came to school without a belt that day (the fact that she also suffered from a mild-cognitive disorder caused occasional memory loss) forced her teacher to kick her out of class. She was fuming and quickly losing hope but it was not unlike what her social worker, and her teachers (myself included) had seen before. Bernice simply needed an ear to listen to her and perhaps a shoulder to cry on. What she got instead was a firm grasp to the elbow as she was whipped around by the principal. The principal saw Bernice storm out of the office and felt disrespected when her question: “What’s wrong with you?” didn’t receive a response from Bernice. Bernice immediately shook the principal off, screamed “GET THE F*** OFF ME!” and proceeded to dart down the hallway, away from her aggressor. As the social workers chased after her, I reflected on how that action, simply putting hands on a student (something that we had been warned could be grounds for termination), could have easily been avoided, had the principal ever bothered to look Bernice’s Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) which read, in big, bold, red letters: DO NOT TOUCH THIS STUDENT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. My suspicions were confirmed: this was not the best place for our students, especially those with diverse needs.
In addition to these and other failures, I witnessed our students’ needs continually go unmet due to the sheer size of our caseloads and the ever-increasing number of responsibilities we had to fulfill as teachers. I overheard my administration say that “things are gonna get so much easier now” after students were suspended and expelled following Manifestation Determination meetings and expulsion hearings at which I, their case manager for 2 years, was not invited (when I inquired as to why this had occurred, I was told “We thought you’d defend them too much because you knew them too well” as if advocating for my students were not my job). I went through the full range of emotions during my tenure at HCP. I know that I was not alone however. During my short time there, I saw at least 8 teachers leave in the middle of the school year and many, many more leave before the start of the school year. Can I blame them? Absolutely not. It’s a vicious cycle: the work is unsustainable, so teachers leave, making the job more unsustainable, which results in a shortage of people who want to apply.
I began this letter acknowledging the guilt I felt for leaving my post of two years. I end it with a feeling of agitation and resolve. I am sure, without a shadow of a doubt, that things will not change at this school and within this network if we, the teachers and staff, don’t decide that our expertise needs to be honored. We are responsible for many of our students’ successes. These stem from our classrooms and from our daily interactions with them. As educators, we need a voice. And while some may argue that we already have one, we need that voice to be listened to, supported, and valued; not because of one’s close personal relationship with the principal or Deans of Instruction, but because we as teachers know our students, we know our classrooms, and we know what is and is not working. I know that this is exactly what the Union of Noble Educators is fighting for, and what it will bring throughout the Noble network. I’ve often pondered whether or not I’d return to the classroom. I am still unsure. But, I am sure of one thing: I don’t hate my old principal. I know now that, despite everything, she too was a victim of a system that undervalues and seeks to make martyrs of teachers who then leave after a year or two. They abandon their students who are then left wondering why the few adults who they thought cared about them, leave. She too was a victim of that cycle, although I’m sure a $50,000 bonus has the ability to make one feel a tiny bit better. Truth be told, I don’t know if I’ll ever set foot inside a classroom again as a teacher. What I do know, is that I will never want to enter another school without a union.