Sunday, June 14, 2009

Bittersweet Transitions

For most of this past year I've had it in my head that I would probably be moving to a new location at its end, not because I don't like where I work, but because I'm truly a nomad at heart and like the idea of living in as many different places and meeting as many different people as I can while I'm still young and not tied down. I like to think of James Blunt's song, "I'll Take Everything," as my life's theme song. I'm not positive that moving to different places every few years is the best way to take everything from life, but that's the assumption I'm working under right now.

So with that assumption in mind, I went interviewing a few weeks ago in our nation's capital. Washington D.C. has always captivated me. Every time I'm there I find something new: a new sight to see, a new perspective, a new hope. It's a gorgeous city that can be very inspiring. However, it can also be very depressing. The D.C. public school system is widely acknowledged as one of the worst urban school districts in our country. The city's general population is grossly underserved by a wide variety of public services in a way that would outrage most Americans. So I'm called to D.C. because I love being in the city and because I'd really like to see what kind of difference one person can make in a classroom out there. I'd like one day to go into educational policy, leadership, or international education; and I think the experience of teaching in D.C. will provide me with valuable insights with which to tackle my future endeavors.

When I got to D.C. I had two interviews scheduled: one with the regular DC public schools and one with a charter school within the DCPS. Both interviews were highly unusual. Both asked me to bring a mini-lesson, student work/data demonstrating my impact, and to prepare for a case study. My first interview was a screening interview with the regular DCPS. It was a way for them to toss out teachers they felt would be entirely incapable of teaching in their schools and move those they felt capable to the next round with individual school administrators. I was called in an hour late (they got behind schedule (surprise, surprise)) to a room of three principals. One white male and two black females. Two from high schools and one from a middle school. The white male principal asked me a few questions about my personality and educational philosophy. I could tell he was trying to intimidate the hell out of me and ask questions he didn't think I'd prepare for so he could get a true sense of who I was. We ended up getting into debates where he would talk for minutes on end and the two other principals would nod and say, "That's so true." When I would respond, they would look at me sideways as if they'd never heard such opinions. I'm sure that guy talked more than I did throughout the interview. He subtly questioned whether the student work I brought in was genuine (as if I had time to fabricate the handwriting of ten different students over five or six different assignments), but backed off when I pulled out the originals and probably showed him he was starting to piss me off. By the end of the interview the walls came down and they all said they were very impressed with my thoughts and student work. They said they didn't feel like they needed to see my mini-lesson and handed me their cards asking me to apply to their schools. I'd never seen anything like it.

My second interview was two days later with one of the more well-respected public charter schools in the area. It's a combined campus of a middle school and high school. It's population is about sixty-five percent Latino, twenty-five percent Black, and ten percent from different parts of the world. The interview lasted almost three hours. The first hour was based on finding out who I was as a person and an educator. "What's your educational philosophy?" "Why does the achievement gap exist?" "What motivates you to teach?" "What, in your opinion, is rigor?" When the lady was finally done with these types of questions, I honestly thought the interview was over (it had already been an hour). But then another principal came in and asked me questions about my teaching for another hour. "What strategies do you rely on the most?" "How do you assess ESL students?" "How do you teach world history?" "How do you accommodate for different learners while still holding them all to high expectations?" I showed him my student work and, again, I thought the interview was over (it had been two hours now). Nope. Now they took me to a classroom and told me to teach for thirty minutes. I had been told that this might happen, so I was prepared. After coming through the doors in the morning with the students and watching everyone go through the metal detectors and scream at the security guards, I have to say I was pretty nervous. It kind of looked like a prison. But when I got in the classroom, those kids were some of the most well-behaved, trusting inner-city students I have ever had the pleasure of teaching. They were interacting and doing what I requested. They trusted me and respected me merely because I was the teacher. The worst behavior I saw was someone staring off into space. I was really impressed.

After the process was over, I went back down the main office and waited for some sort of verdict. "We'll get back to you." "I don't think this is going to work out." "We'll need you to come in again." Instead, they brought me student reviews of my teaching and asked me to look over them. They were overwhelmingly positive. "Can he teach all day?" "Why didn't you hire him last year?" "That was the best lesson ever!" I was so touched. These kids were INCREDIBLY nice and respectful, and they liked me for making a real effort to learn their names and teach them something worthwhile. These are the inner-city kids I want to teach. They're the ones I wouldn't mind devoting my life to. So what if I give up everything making lessons, tutoring, and talking to parents? If these kids are going to be willing to work with me on it, it's TOTALLY worth it. Not the feeling you always get. When you work your ass of for kids that show no interest, and actually begin to seriously dislike you and go out of their way to piss you off, it really discourages you from putting that kind of effort in.

So at this point I was really pumped about the possibility of working at this school. More excited about a job than I'd been in a while. I started to wish I'd spent more time prepping for those earlier questions so I could impress them more. But in the end, it ended up being okay. The principals gathered my references, sent me on my way, and called me three hours later with a job offer. So next year I'll be teaching freshman and sophomore world history three metro stops north of Capital Hill. It's pretty exciting. But it's not all smiles.

I've developed some really meaningful relationships at the school I teach at now. I really, really, really hate to leave. I know I'm contributing to the constant problem of teacher turnover (although it won't be quite as tough since I teach mostly seniors). I love the school, the people I work with, and the students I've taught. The last day for seniors was my birthday and the staff and students went all out of their way to make sure that I knew that they knew about it. All kinds of gifts and cards. I also gave the seniors their final lesson that day and they all stood up and clapped like they actually listened to it. It was one of the most emotional and touching days of my life. I seriously reconsidered moving that day. But I made my decision, and although I don't know for sure that it's for the best, I have to believe that it is. Maybe I'll come back out here later in my career after I've advanced my education and experience. It really is an incredible place to work. So my leaving is bittersweet and I'm super excited and super sad at the same time.

Goodbye and thank you so much to everyone at my current school for making it such a great place to work and make a difference, and hello to a new chapter in life.

I'll take everything.

1 comment:

  1. I expect to be regularly updated on how life is going there.

    We'll miss you.