(I‘ve been trying to keep these entries around 1000 words, but today’s entry runs a little long, so get cozy. –M)
For most of the schools in the Lansing area, this week is the end of the first quarter. This is usually the time when districts also have the first round of parent/teacher conferences and professional development. As a result, I haven’t received any calls for work this week.
In other news, I recently interviewed for an ELA position at a local middle school. Could this finally be my ticket out of Substitute Purgatory? Unfortunately, no.
This recent rejection is the latest in a long line of frustrating job interviews. Some of my friends know this story, but for those who don’t, here it is…
I spent the last four years teaching English at a high school located in the heart (or maybe I should say “armpit” ha ha) of Detroit. There was a strip club literally 300 yards from the high school. During one of my first professional development meetings at this school, I was told that three-fourths of our students were coming from single-parent homes. I was also told that 98% of the student population qualified for free and reduced lunch. In addition, the district was underfunded and lacked some of the critical resources that a school needs to be successful. The school didn’t have a functioning library, the newest Lit books were from 1999, and the computer labs rarely operated at full capacity. In an era when a lot of schools now have SmartBoards, I was excited just to get copy paper. In addition to the lack of resources, the culture of the school was pretty negative. My former school was located in a part of Detroit that had been ravaged by crime and generational poverty. The surrounding neighborhood had such a negative impact on the students that came to my school. In short, this school was a tough place to work.
I’ll be honest; before I started working there, I had my doubts. Could I be an effective teacher without the materials that my college education had told me were essential? As a white teacher in a district where all of my students were African-American, could my students relate to me? Would they even listen to me? Would they respect me? Would any student try to fight me? (Sidenote: during my 4 years there, I only had one student try to fight me, and he wasn’t a member of my class.)
The job was both difficult and rewarding. I found that working in this particular district forced me to become a more compassionate person. I also found that there was absolutely no way to teach my students the content if I didn’t take the time to understand the circumstances of their lives. And some of my former students came from pretty intense homes and had lived pretty intense lives before they stepped through my door.
When I was in college, a professor told me that teaching would get easier each year. And in some ways, he was right; working in this dysfunctional school showed me how to effectively communicate with students that had an indifferent attitude toward school. More important than teaching the curriculum, I tried to show students how to become successful. If they happened to learn about Shakespeare in the process, cool.
For some students, I was a teacher. For others, a guidance counselor. And others, a father figure. I know that might sound endearing, but for some of my male students who had been storing years of animosity toward a deadbeat or nonexistent male parent, I was sometimes on the receiving end of misplaced frustration and rage (over time, I learned to redirect that frustration into positive behavior).
Did every student pass my class? No. Did every student like me? No. But, by the end of the fourth year, I could honestly say that I was making progress. Progress that I wish I had a chance to build on.
The district made poor financial decisions and certain people in leadership didn’t want make the tough choices to cut staff when the student numbers began to fall. Instead of making small layoffs over four years, the district made huge cuts during the 2010-2011 school year. The big cut was when I, along with 25 other teachers, got laid off in June of 2011.
Receiving the pink slip in the mail wasn’t a real surprise – I’d been getting them periodically since the middle of my second year while working at this school. But I was usually called back a couple days before the layoff was effective.
This time was different. This time, I was fairly certain that there would be no call back. I spent the summer combing the Internet looking for teaching jobs. I looked for jobs in districts that were nearly 3 hours away, I looked for teaching jobs in teenage rehab clinics, and I looked for jobs in Toledo (only an hour’s drive from sunny Detroit!).
Since the first week of June, I’ve applied to 46 teaching jobs and I’ve had six interviews – so why am I still a sub? It’s complicated.
During the second week of August, I had my first interview. It was at a high school in a wealthy (and mostly white) suburb just south of Flint. This school was recognized as one of the best high schools in the state and they had the facilities, the graduation rate, and the test scores (if that’s how you personally measure success) to back it up.
During the interview, the panel of teachers and administrators nodded in affirmation when I told them about the struggles at my old school and congratulated me on the success I had achieved over my short career. At one point in the interview, the assistant principal stated that the biggest “problem” his school was facing was, “the students coming from Flint schools who aren’t performing well on standardized tests. We need to close the achievement gap between our students and these newer students.” (For those not familiar with the Flint area, the subtext of the assistant principal’s statement was basically this: the recent influx of students from the Flint area, most of which whom are African-American, are lowering the test scores in the district.)
Given my unique experience at my prior school, I thought I had a decent shot at getting the job. I mean, I spent the last four years helping my students close that ‘achievement gap’ that politicians and professors talk about. That’s got to count for something! I thought “This job is right up my alley!”
Sure enough, two days after the initial screening, I was called back for a second interview. This second interview would consist of two parts: a 20-minute sample lesson presented to a class of students, and then a short one-on-one interview with the principal. Prior to this second interview, the assistant principal told me that the main objective of this sample lesson was to show the staff how well I could interact with students. My sample lesson went well and I had a lot of fun interacting with the students. I also thought that my interview with the principal went well…until I got the rejection call three days later.
I did a follow-up conversation with the principal so that I could get some feedback on where I went wrong. I was taking notes and here are some things she said (direct quotes):
1) “You have an excellent rapport with students. You’re obviously good at what you do. However, we don’t think you have had enough experience working with high-performing students or that you [can teach] at the same level.”
2) “We don’t think that you could provide enough academic rigor in your lessons.”
3) “In future interviews with high-performing schools, play up the high academic performance in your classroom.” (During the first interview, I talked more about students overcoming personal problems instead of the academic performance.)
I’m making it sound like the principal is a jerk, and she’s not. This suburb of Flint has one of the best schools in the state and I get where she’s coming from. I just think she has a really limited perspective and I disagree with most of her comments. Her basic assumption is as follows: it is much harder to challenge “smart” kids from wealthy families than to teach students who don’t even want to be at school.
I sent a copy of these quotes to one of my former professors, who scoffed and said, “It makes me angry to hear those administrative comments –if it is so much harder to teach bright, privileged students, why aren’t the experienced teachers flocking to the inner city schools where they can coast?” My thoughts exactly! In a weird way, it seemed like the talents and skills that I thought were my assets (working in a challenging urban school, motivating unmotivated students, etc.) were actually hurting my chances of getting this job.
At first, I thought this principal was biased and that her views weren’t widely accepted. But as I landed two more interviews, and got turned down for two more jobs, I noticed that these letters and phone calls of rejection were all saying the same thing:
“We understand that you’re probably an excellent teacher for your district, but we’re looking for someone who…ah…is just a better fit for this environment.” (Seriously, what the #$%& does that mean?)
“You seem to have a great rapport with your students. But we’re looking for someone more academically focused.”
“Given your past experience, we don’t think you’d be a good fit for our district.”
I relayed these comments to some teachers that got laid-off at the same time I did and they said that they were getting similar feedback in their job searches as well.
But the most annoying comment was yet to come. The aforementioned ELA position I interviewed for this week was especially maddening. The principal and the assistant principal asked me what I learned at my old school. I said, “I think the biggest thing I learned was that a teacher has a responsibility to not only teach the curriculum, but also teach students the social skills they need to succeed. I had to work hard to build social relationships with my students and I worked with my students a lot on how to be successful.”
“Well, here at _____________ Middle School, academics are, like, our number one priority,” said the principal. “Don’t get me wrong. Your students probably needed that social instruction, but this is a different culture here.” Ouch. So condescending!
Later in the interview, he actually said, “Well, do you think you can teach here?” My response, “Bring it, sucker.” (Not really.)
At this point, I was tempted to punch this principal, but I needed the job and I didn’t want to lose my cool. In the end, I guess it didn’t matter anyway. Ha ha. What struck me is the arrogance that this guy had. I mean, let’s be honest: any good teacher knows that without the social connection and the social skills, the academic learning won’t happen in a classroom.
Let’s be clear. I’m not playing the “victim” card, here. I can’t blame people for having biases. The real key for me is trying to figure out how to reinvent myself – much like David Bowie in the 1970s…but without all the glittery makeup.