My daughter was hired two weeks before the Chicago Public School’s opening day—a teacher had suddenly quit for a job in the suburbs. The teacher departed along with all her classroom supplies. She left behind a somewhat barren room, save the bright yellow walls marred with hot glue gun lines, scotch tape, and color paper flecks—remnants of past bulletin boards. There were old wooden desks, but each needed a thorough scrubbing of pencil marks, paint, and dirt left behind for who knows how long. Hurriedly, Rachel spent full days preparing for the anticipated 30 first graders that would show up, ready or not, on a fast approaching September morning. Less obvious was that she wasn’t being paid quite yet. She needed to head over to Central Office and wait in queue for several, precious hours to be officially entered into the district’s payroll and security system. Registration accomplished, out came her personal credit card to pay for trips to education supply stores, Target, drug stores, and a paint store to salvage a badly stained bookshelf left behind. This is par for the course given new teachers frequently spend well over $500.00 of their own money on class supplies (together, we spent over triple that amount). And out-of-pocket spending rarely ends after a teacher’s first year— money is donated throughout the year to the child who lacks supplies, food for an extra long weekend, clothing items, a toothbrush, books, and endless class supplies.
I volunteered to help a few days and together we picked through leftover supplies in the cafeteria that other teachers had discarded. Her colleagues, feeling empathetic and recalling their own meager inventory during their first years, donated whatever they could to help. A colleague brought a few boxes of gently used books; another shared her initial curricular plans and one donated a blue mailbox with 30 slots for supplies. Rachel, too, had been collecting supplies. The children she taught during student teaching gave her children’s books as their end-of-year gifts. She proudly displayed these new books in a small wooden book holder. She also quickly applied, and was accepted, to a social media account called Donors Choose, something that didn’t exist a few years ago. Donors Choose provides matching funds if she can reach a certain benchmark fundraising goal. She put the Donors Choose link on Facebook and my nephew quickly gave generously as did her husband, brother and other close family members and friends.
As the school’s opening day grew near, the air conditioner still didn’t work and temperatures hovered at a humid 85 degrees. Her class list constantly changed, with enrollment suddenly climbing to 34 students, as last minute parents decided to finally visit the school office. The principal shared that she would have liked to add another classroom, or two, but the building was maxed out of space. Therefore, Rachel pulled out of a dusty closet four more desks, the last of the building’s supply, and the scrubbing and set-up process began anew. (It’s telling she felt grateful opening day that three students were “no shows,” although she had purchased and prepared materials and supplies.) Overall, her class list included a diverse array of cultures and ethnic backgrounds; including a child, a mother shared on the Parent’s Night couldn’t speak English yet. Fortunately, Rachel had experience with ELL students during her student teaching and was able to reassure this parent that everything would be okay. The principal visited the newly decorated room and seemed delighted with the improvements. She did her best to act as motivational cheerleader given the last-minute challenging situation for a first-year teacher. Flexibility is a key virtue in this large K-8th-grade school, highly ranked for student year-to-year growth, but one that was also over-capacity by more than 250 students. The parents appear to flock to the successful schools, thereby straining the school’s ability to keep pace with their expectations.
It’s humbling that teachers, especially the newly hired like my daughter, are asked to not only develop daily lesson plans and grade boatloads of papers every evening but also manage singlehandedly 30 children on their own. Can you imagine babysitting 30 children by yourself for seven or eight hours a day? It’s exhausting work. Plus, each teacher volunteers for extra-curricular activities or, in this case, the after school program. Rachel volunteered to take Friday’s after school class; a day no one typically wants, but someone must manage. This experience reminds me of why, with all the outside interests in how teachers manage students and focus on each child’s unique learning needs, we need to frequently reflect upon this almost heroic profession that requires more education than most jobs, and then dishes out inadequate pay, support, funding and many unrealistic expectations. It’s true that many politicians, community leaders and parents alike feel they have innate expertise because, obviously, “they went to school”. And, lastly, it should be said that Rachel, like most new teachers, truly feels grateful and enthusiastic to have her own classroom and perform this frenzied feat each and every day. Therefore, remember to periodically thank America’s teachers for their many contributions. Express your gratitude, and praise teachers and school administrators often, and support them in words and deeds. I was once again reminded over the last several weeks: it’s not a job; it’s truly a passion.