Two events happened today that no teacher ever wants to be a part of. I was greeted this morning by a note in my box from DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee. She was informing me, and the 900 other new teachers she hired this year, that because of budget constraints, a good number of teachers will be let go on September 30th of this year. Rhee projected a higher number of students than DCPS actually ended up with (possibly a piece of wishful thinking in a district that has been losing students to charter schools, private schools, and VA and MD for years). In the note she blames the DC Council for making budget cuts to the 2010 budget. Many of my coworkers put the blame on her for projecting too many students when few people seemed to agree with the numbers she was suggesting. Additionally, not everyone is entirely happy with the blame she and Mayor Fenty put on the council.
This apparently is all part of the equalization process. This is where schools report the number of students the actually have; it's compared to the number originally planned for; and the number of staff is changed accordingly. So of course it was hard for my fellow teachers and me to concentrate on our morning meetings and teaching today. Some of us may find out that we no longer have a job in less than two weeks. However, the school I teach at is one of DC's shining stars in terms of achievement and our school is packed with kids, so the odds of me losing my job are pretty low I feel, but you never know.
The other most stressful situation that occurred today was that one of our ninth grade students committed suicide. At 3:00 a member of my school's support staff came around to tell me that we would not be dismissing students until 3:30 (we normally dismiss at 3:15). At this time, I had no idea what was going on. A few minutes later they came over the intercom to make the announcement that students would have to stay an undetermined amount of time. Of course, I lost all control over my 34-student class at that point. People began taking their shirts off (we have uniforms at my school - so they had undershirts on), getting their cell phones out to call home (students aren't even allowed to bring phones into the building, but asking for 20 kids phones just seemed like a battle I wasn't going to win), and getting out of their seats to see what was going on outside. The only thing we were told was that there was an accident at the metro stop closest to the school.
They let the kids out around 3:29 and I went to meet with my department head to talk about curriculum. Instead he took me to a colleague's room and informed us that the "accident" was that one of the ninth-grade students had skipped fourth period to jump in front of the train. My colleague had this student in class. We all just stood there quietly for a moment. It's one of those times in teaching when you have no idea what to do. When you remember this job is FAR more than just a job. It's an investment in life, in community, in the future, in progress, and in the minds and emotions of each and every one of our students. When one of them willfully ends their future so abruptly, it hits you in the stomach like a sledgehammer and everything stops. All of the conflict that you've had with colleagues and students, the work you've put into getting the kids ready for the test, the taking of attendance, the assigning seats and giving detention - it's all gone for that moment.
And there's silence.
A sorrowful irony is that all staff have been wearing suicide-prevention-week ribbons they received in their boxes at the beginning of the week, and a student took his life at the end of it (there's no school tomorrow in favor of DC PD).
After the initial shock of it all, a few other teachers came and we all sat around and talked about nothing for a good half hour. It was quite different from what I normally spend my time doing at school. I'm usually so behind in everything I'm expected to keep up with that I never have spare time to do anything but work. It felt a little unusual to talk and get to know people, but it was a good thing. After a while, another teacher who had the student came in and told us that in four months of teaching in DC (he taught summer school), this was the second student he lost. Another had been shot dead in his neighborhood, which reminded me of gunshots that have woken me up in the middle of the night the last couple of weeks. It hasn't been since I lived in Albuquerque, NM, that I remember hearing live gunfire.
It was all a powerful reminder that our students often come from incredibly stressful backgrounds and have a tremendous number of needs. Needs that we as a staff will never be able to fully meet for them, but will continue trying nonetheless. This powerful reminder comes in stark contrast to the numbers game being played by Mayor Fenty, Chancellor Rhee, and the DC Council. I understand why they are forced to play their game, but I also know that the way its being played will never add up to a meaningful solution for many of these kids.
So we do what we can and pray that it helps somebody. Tomorrow arrives regardless of the political circumstances, so it's really all you can do.