Saturday, September 20, 2008

Two 1st year teachers in Baltimore, two different paths

Tonight, my college roommate and former Baltimore roommate, now a math teacher in rural Georgia, called me and said, "You know, man, I think I'm done with this teaching thing."

He went on to describe his low salary (much lower than the Baltimore pay scale), his long commute, his choice to take on an extra $5,000 in salary by doing "extended day" (no prep period), his constant taking of work home, and the lack of desire he's feeling to motivate the kids. He sounds pretty bad. Wants to be an accountant now.

J and I moved down to Baltimore together from Michigan upon graduation from college in 2001. Almost literally, I threw a dart in a map and ended up in Baltimore (they offered me a job at a job fair at Michigan State), and J, who was looking for a change, followed along. We were both hired as wide-eyed college graduates into the Baltimore City Public Schools.

I lucked out with my placement; I had a pretty nice online teaching portfolio, and a pretty decent high school in Baltimore City needed an English teacher on the fly, and they had hired another Michigan State graduate a few years back who had worked out very well. I was hired after a brief phone interview and a check with my references.

My roommate got placed in a rather low-performing middle school. His classroom was a trailer in the parking lot. He said the school treated the children like cattle, being herded from one place to the next. He came home every day feeling beat up and wore down. He resigned after a month or so, after lots of long talks in the evening on the front porch or over epic games of ping-pong.

My first year was no walk in the park. My classroom management was terrible, and I recall, pretty vividly, that my first formal observation ended with the sentence, "I do not believe that any of the students learned any of the objectives that Mr. _________ set out to achieve." I just looked at my journal/blog entry from that day (still online, from 9/19/01, believe it or not), and wow was I ever a clueless, snotty kid then. I had no clue about teaching, yet here I was disagreeing with the comments that my veteran instructor made to me. The nerve. I was probably not much worse than the average first year teacher, but, looking back, it's hard not to feel embarrassed by some of my classroom practices at the time. The kids ate me alive. Luckily, they kind of liked me so they ate me up with smiles on their faces.

Thankfully, that department head took some pity on me, or she saw something in me, and did very well by me. I remember something so vividly; one time, she came in, looked at my lesson plan, which were (and still are) strong, and told me to sit back, that she would teach my lesson to my students. I watched her, and learned so much. She is still in the system, in a way-high-up position, and I still thank her for saving my career in that first year, and I give her a big hug whenever she comes and tours my school. When she retires, I'm going to write her quite a letter. Maybe I should do it before that. I also had a close-knit, fully functional department, all of whom offered lots of tips and support. They all gave me the space to figure things out on my own while being there when I needed it. It was a superb place to learn how to teach.

Anyhow, my college roommate didn't have that support. I never heard about his department head. Or any sort of mentor. He didn't go out for Happy Hour on Fridays with his co-workers. He felt totally alone, and ineffective, and depressed. He resigned after a month, and ended up as a substitute teacher in the county for the rest of the year, because the county pays about $20 more per day ($75) than the city ($55) for subs.

After the year, my roommate moved down to Florida, to try the teaching thing again, this time in Orlando. He has done much better the second time around. He's moved just over the border to Georgia to be closer to his son, and has started teaching in a tiny town there. For the aforementioned reasons, he's frustrated. He doesn't think he can afford to ever buy a house as a single parent making less than $40,000 a year, especially with the private school pre-K and the commuting.

Today, he sounded miserable, sort of like he did during that first month in Baltimore. I ask him about teaching salaries, if he can do any better in a nearby county - but teaching salaries in the south are pretty much bad all over. I tell him to think about administration, because there's a salary increase and no work to bring home. He thinks he wants a total change, the chance to make nearly six figures, like some of our friends who went into Packaging make. One guy got a job at Welch's fruits and now makes over six figures in the factories.

We talked for a while, discussing about the possibilities that the teaching schedule has - summers open for classes, etc, but I feel for him. His life is sort of mine in a parallel universe. If I had not received the support that I did during my first year of teaching, if I was not on a block schedule with a whole new batch of kids in January (giving me, effectively, two first years within the first year of teaching), then I could be in his boat. Instead, I still really love my job, and feel rejuvenated every year by the kids. Eight years into my career, I feel ready to go another thirty-two. Maybe not exactly where I am, and hopefully always growing and changing and rolling with the punches. But I think it was that first year that did it for me.

My friend has figured other aspects of his life out much better than me - notice I said he had a kid, which is something I'd always thought I'd have by the age of 31. But I'm sad that the teaching thing isn't doing it for him anymore, and the slogging through for a low salary isn't enough for him. I hope he's able to find an accounting job or something like that and feel a lot better about his situation.

1 comment:

Eric said...

You make such an important point. In some ways you accent the opposite lesson of this than I would. Your central point seems to be that without the support that you received you might be him. I'd turn it around and say that with the support that you received, Baltimore City might have another good teacher. Until the system finds a way to support all new teachers (and that means real, non-evaluative help), Baltimore City will continue to struggle to attract and retain good teachers. In the end, the kids will bear the brunt of that failure.