In April, when I logged into what would be my final Zoom meeting with my school administrators, my hands were trembling. The head of school had scheduled the meeting to discuss whether I planned to return. And it was time to speak up. He asked me why I hadn’t signed my contract for next year, and I didn’t hesitate. With my shaking voice, I responded, “I do not intend to return next year.” He sighed in disappointment and understanding, and the meeting ended soon after. There was so much more I wanted to say, however.
Over the four years that I taught 2nd grade as a lead teacher in both Maryland and District of Columbia traditional public and public charter schools, my students were unique, smart, and caring young people with whom I built meaningful relationships and had tons of fun. So, spoiler alert, I did not leave teaching because of the kids. Sure, as a teacher, I felt frustration with some students’ negative responses to their learning environment and witnessed the secondhand effects of traumas in their lives, but the reasons behind my departure stemmed from the priorities my schools adopted.
Public schools are often forced to make many unethical decisions. Even before the pandemic, the schools I worked in prioritized standardized-test scores over any other academic goal. I saw the direct effects of punitive discipline systems, which mimic and foster the school-to-prison pipeline. I felt the crush of persistent underfunding for public schools. It was these three major education forces—too much standardized testing, too much punitive discipline, and too little funding—that pushed me to leaving the profession, a profession I excelled in and even loved.
A student I taught in my first year, we’ll call her T, was one of many who struggled in school. From the curriculum my schools selected to how faithfully I taught it to the rigid scheduling, my school’s emphasis on standardized-testing preparation was everywhere in T’s education. And she could not stand it.
I don’t blame her. The curriculum was not relevant to my students, though administrators assured me that it was both common-core aligned and designed to teach to the “whole child.” My classes of mostly Black students read mostly white stories that decentered the narratives of people of color. None of the schools where I taught gave teachers the freedom to adopt project-based learning or self-directed learning models that might have allowed students to find more relevance in what they learned.
T was not a kid who “slipped through the cracks.” Everyone in the school knew about this 7-year-old girl. She had thrown things, cursed, called everyone names, hit kids, and screamed for hours. She was also brilliant, motivated, and curious. She had interests, friends, supports, and aspirations. T loved using her manipulatives in math, reading about princesses and the teen dancer and singer JoJo Siwa, acting, and teaching other kids.
But when it came to the curriculum, none of it got through to her. So, T rebelled, every year. My school’s positive behavioral interventions and supports system was the first response to her rebellion, but teachers lacked proper resources, and the system’s reliance on external motivation and discipline triggered her more.
When that failed, school leaders and student-resource officers often got involved. Administrators sent her home several times, SROs physically pulled her from class, and teachers wrote her up dozens of times. Once, administrators felt the need to bring the police to school for her. When I read Mariame Kaba and Erica R. Meiners’ essay “Arresting the Carceral State,” I cried as I saw T in their description of who ends up in the school-to-prison pipeline and why.
No-nonsense approaches to discipline are archaic and proved to be ineffective. They decenter kids, not allowing them to have a voice in establishing community norms, while putting teachers in a space of moral superiority, assuming they know better than students. If kids stray from these norms, teachers are expected to respond punitively.
At each of the places where I taught, I wish we could’ve used a more transformative discipline model instead, like the restorative-justice programs provided by Restorative DC, which centers kids and their voices to foster community and accountability. I wish the districts I worked in had heeded the calls of advocacy groups like Schools Not Jails that call for increasing social workers and community services in schools and youth-organizing programs.
It was during those times of self-doubt that the severe effects of underfunding hit hardest.
Meanwhile, many of my students responded to punitive consequences like T did, with anger and confusion. Eventually, it began to weigh on me. “If this isn’t working,” I wondered, “are there better discipline models that would?” But that was not a conversation anyone was having at my schools.
It was during those times of self-doubt that the severe effects of underfunding hit hardest. Resources are the lifeblood of learning, whether it’s a pencil or a set of blocks. The more exhausted I became from the day to day, the less time and energy I had to supplement resources with my own money. Buying journals, pencils, fun books, markers, plants and supplies for science, candy, prizes—it all took more time out of my short evenings and more money out of my slim wallet.
Every year, I requested resources from my building leaders in schools that suffered supply shortages, including pencils, dry-erase markers, and even classrooms. The pandemic only exacerbated these shortages. When my school turned off the water fountains this past school year as a COVID-mitigation strategy and shipped in water bottles, we had to limit the number that were handed out daily. There simply were not enough for everyone to drink as much as they wanted.
I believe we could give students and teachers the resources they need if more states adopt policies like the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. The program, passed last year by the state’s legislature, calls for billions of dollars in extra funds for schools. Crucially, that funding will use poverty data to target funding disparities and prioritize equity.
Even as I leave teaching, I’m confident in the public’s support for healthy public schools. Though many educators are leaving teaching and leadership positions, I am hopeful that with less emphasis on testing and more emphasis on helping students foster curiosity through robust resources and conflict-management programs, schools and teachers can thrive. These movements are growing, and they really make a difference. I’d still be in the profession if these supports had been stronger.