For the past two years, I worked at Gary Comer College Prep as the freshman composition teacher. Last year, I was part of an effort to form a union at Noble. I first prepared this post with the title “Why I Fight” because I knew that I wanted to fight for a union in order to make Comer manageable and sustainable. Now, however, I title it “Why I Left” because I knew that if I continued to work there, I would no longer want to be a career teacher.
During my first year, I taught my class every day and shared the planning responsibilities with another teacher. My class sizes were never more than 30 students. I loved going to work and being challenged and made into a better teacher. I loved how close I grew with my colleagues, many of whom were new to the school. Most of all I loved my students and having an advisory and being a mentor to my boys.
At the end of the year, I was told that because of the budget they could not hire another composition teacher, and my class would be an every other day class. This meant I saw half the freshman class on A days, and the other half on B days. While I was afraid of this new challenge, I felt that I was up to it and planned to make it work.
During my second year, I knew from the first quarter that the year would potentially break my dream to be a career teacher. On the first day of class, one of co-taught classes had 45 students in it. I did not have nearly enough desks or chairs in my classroom for these students. I constantly tripped over students because they had to sit on the floor. I also had no co-teacher for those classes. No matter how much I begged for a teacher to temporarily be switched, or for someone from admin to step in, I was told that because I had two paraprofessionals (both in their first year of residency at Relay, who had no background in composition, and who were supposed to be dedicated to a particular student) in my room, that was satisfactory and I would have to wait for another teacher.
In total, I had 280 students at the start of the year (that number dropped to 260 by the end) and it took me a month and a half to learn their names. I had one sixty minute period to grade for 260+ students, and to plan for my classes.
Even though I had to teach twice as many students in half the amount of time compared to my first year, my bonuses depended on students reaching the same, if not better, growth than campuses who had teachers that taught students every day and with smaller class sizes. I consistently asked for data from other teachers in my position in the network. Although I asked many times for this data from my principal, I never received it. Comparatively, if I ever missed a deadline she set, I would receive a mulligan. While my data was 3 times better than my first year, but that was still no justification and it was never good enough.
During that year, I was consistently pushed to teach directly to the test. I could see how much it hurt my content lead, who founded the department, to teach in this way. I expressed my concern to my principal. I told her that identifying and correcting information was only the most basic of skills, and that students need to be able to write in order to pass their classes in college. Her exact response was “Ben, you could have them write about butterflies for all I care as long as it gets results”.
In another meeting with her and my assistant principal, I was told that, ideally, students would learn ACT style grammar for eight weeks of the quarter and writing for two of them. I reminded them that this time was cut in half, considering I only taught students every other day. My assistant principal’s response was “Oh I forgot about that…so that’s five weeks of grammar and only one week of writing. If it were my choice, I would cut the writing”. It was in that moment that I knew that my administration cared more about the data than whether students were actually learning material. I felt disgusted going into work after that; I knew that I was breaking my own code of ethics by continuing to teach to the test, and there was only so much more I could do before I broke my dream.
In the end, I fought against this test-centric culture, and I focused the last quarter on making my students write well. I don’t regret it.
I fought for a union because students deserve stability in staff. I want them to be able to graduate college and go back to their old high school, just as I did, to find their Freshman english teacher still working at the school. When I graduated with my M.Ed, I was able to seek advice and materials from my old english teacher, Ms. McBride, at my old high school. I would not be where I am today without her, and I want my students to have that as well.
I fought for a union because teachers deserve to have a voice in the curriculum they teach, in the policies that they enforce, and because we deserve to work in a place that is sustainable and ethical.
I fought for a union because students deserve career teachers, and career teachers deserve a just and stable working environment.
I fought for a union, and implore you to fight, because I wanted my students to know that they are more than a test score. I want them to actually learn material instead of just test taking strategies. I want to teach them how to research, write, revise, and publish their own material.