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There aren’t happy endings for teachers in the trenches

  • Written by Matt Amaral/New America Media

teacherInTrenches-400Walking around a high school campus at this time of year you will notice the air floats a little lighter and the sun reflects off smiles a little brighter. Everyone is looking forward to the last day, and the mood can aptly be described as celebratory. Seniors can't wait for graduation, teachers can't wait to sleep in, and even the students with straight Fs are showing up again just to tighten up their game for the summer.

You also cannot help but notice all of the end-of-year celebrations. Senior Awards Night, Hispanic Awards Night, Grad Night, AVID Banquets, Band and Choir concerts, Dance Shows, Leadership Rallies, and to top it all off Graduation. Everyone is getting awards and being recognized. Students are getting scholarships and teachers and counselors are being lauded for their work with these amazing students. The only people you don't see celebrating are, well, the students who aren't amazing and the teachers who teach those kids.

There aren't any Sheltered Awards Nights at my school. We don't give out anything to the Juniors who read at a 5th grade level. And for the kids whose parents don't make enough to feed them three meals a day, and therefore get free lunch at school, we don't add cake to the menu at the end of the year. The sad reality is that the only teachers on campus who aren't being recognized with balloons, and awards, and gift certificates, and thank yous, are the teachers who teach the toughest classes at our public schools.

I think there should be an award for the teacher with the most difficult schedule on campus, and at the end of every year that teacher should get a standing ovation from the staff and an all expense paid trip out of whatever city they have to teach in. They should get a year off. Instead, no one will say thank you. Students might throw up a peace sign on the way out the door, and the teacher will clean up their room in silence. When they step outside they will see students from other classes hugging teachers, and giving them gift cards to Starbucks, taking pictures, and laughing, and the Sheltered teacher will wonder what they are doing wrong, and spend the next three months wondering why they never have kids say thank you at the end of the year. Here's the reason:

There aren't any happy endings for teachers in the trenches.

We always bemoan the fact that teachers with experience have easier schedules. Of course there is the argument that "easier" can be construed in many ways, because when you teach AP students it is much, much harder from a content standpoint. But in this way teaching is like most jobs—we don't give the most rigorous intellectual workload to newbies, and you also have to PROVE yourself to move up the ladder. I don't think anyone can argue with that. That said, I still would like to see every teacher, especially the cagey veterans, teach at least one Sheltered class every year. But here's my little secret—I'm not.

This year is the first year I haven't taught a Sheltered English class.

I actually want to teach a Sheltered class next year, but being a veteran teacher has almost made that an impossibility. I already have four preps, so even though I requested a Sheltered 9 class next year, it won't fit in my schedule. And because I've been here so long and am now in charge of great programs, I am basically beyond the trenches by virtue of having lasted so long. I should be teaching a Sheltered class next year, but I'm not. So at the end of next year, me, and all the other teachers who teach the great kids, the AP kids, the Leadership kids, the Band and Choir kids, will be treated like the saviors of education.

I'm not sure we deserve all that.

At the end of the year, there is no potluck for the teacher with five 9th grade classes, three of which are Sheltered. Those kids aren't making lists at the end of the year for who is going to bring a salad, entrée, or desert, on the last day of class. Those kids are trying to figure out what the word entrée means. Or they ask, "How am I supposed to bring an entrée to class when I ain't even had one at home for months?"

I've been recognized by students at two different banquets this year. I'm signing yearbooks and taking pictures and seeing kids off to college. The kids are amazing, and because I have a couple classes where I teach amazing kids, it seems I am amazing too. But looking back at all the Sheltered classes I've taught, I would argue I was just as amazing; it just didn't seem like it because those students were failing all of their classes, rarely came to school, were suspended all the time, and had home lives that would make you gasp. At the end of those classes, even when I did an amazing job, there wasn't anything tangible to show for it—certificates, awards. And those kids, for many reasons out of their control, were not the kind of kids to plan celebrations, or even say thank you.

Of course our Sheltered classes are shouldered by the newest teachers. At the precise moment you are trying to figure out how to make lessons work, you are given classes in which lessons NEVER work. We all have to go through this. It is like starting in the mail room and working your way up to VP. New teachers have to prove they can do the job, and you have to figure out the intricacies of teaching the content in your area to kids who really do need differentiation and scaffolding. But it won't be like that forever, and if you made it through this year, I'm betting next year's schedule looks a little easier.

So to all the Sheltered teachers out there with six classes and no prep, below is a certificate. I used this template this year at our Awards Nights. Print it out on one of those certificate papers with a nice border, and put a gold seal on it. I just want to say I see you, and I see what the work you're putting in. Nobody else might ever say it, but I will. "Thank you." And now you have to picture me getting out of my chair and giving you a standing ovation.

(Matt Amaral is a writer and high school English teacher from the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a featured blogger at EducationNews.org, a leading international website for education issues. You can also follow his work on the blogsite, Teach4Real.com.)

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