A Geek-Turned-Teacher’s Urban Elementary School Adventure: Year 1

Goodbye, Cube Farm

I wanted so badly for someone to call me crazy: “You are leaving a high-paying, steady job that is five minutes from your house to go work for a third of the pay in some of the toughest areas of town?  Are you nuts?”  But it never happened.  Instead, I got comments like, “I wish I had your guts.”, “I’ve always wanted to do that!”, or “You are going to change the future!”  I had no idea how many people wanted to be teachers but just never took the leap.  But after 12 years sitting in front of a computer screen in a sea of office cubes,  it was time to jump.  I knew I wasn’t a good programmer my junior year of college.  But I wanted to make good money and minimize how much speaking I had to do.  People who stutter like me tend to go to great lengths to avoid certain speaking situations.  I decided it would shape my entire career….and I was dead wrong.  So in 2004, I validated my mother’s advice from many years before:  I decided to become a teacher.

I Don’t Care What Your Background Is

So I went down the list.  Bachelor of Science in Computer Science:  check.  Twelve years of experience programming software in multiple businesses: check.  References from several successful people in the technology field: check.  It seemed like a pretty good arsenal to bring to job interviews for high school computer science teachers.  I should have no problem finding a decent job since computer skills are in high demand and I have the background.  Dead wrong again.  I arranged to go to the teacher “job fair” in the summer.  I put job fair in quotation marks because I found out later that instead of “job fair”, the event should have been called “the crap that’s left over”.  You see, a week earlier the school district had another event called the “transfer fair” where teachers who had had enough at their current schools after 3 years could get the pick of the job openings.  Principals had little choice but to accept some of the experienced teachers no matter how bad they were.  So the newbies like me had to fight over the bottom of the barrel like hungry dogs.  Even still, I was confident that my background would shine.  When I met with the time-stressed principals, I got the same answer each time, “Have you taken the computer test?  I can’t even talk to you until you take the test.”  What test?  Little did I know that the state had a mandatory test you had to pass to be considered as a computer teacher.  The hiring people at the district office conveniently failed to tell me this minor fact.  Meanwhile, other teachers were getting hired after only 10 seconds of conversation.  I left dejected and angry.  I was even more frustrated when I saw a study guide for the computer test:  it included questions about vacuum tubes and other questions that were completely obsolete.  Is this the information that is being taught to our kids?  At this point, I decided to go into what I dreaded the most:  substitute teaching.

Substitute Teachers Taste Like Chicken

“If substituting doesn’t make you run away screaming, then you might like teaching as a career.”  This sage piece of advice came from another substitute teacher in the faculty lounge of a nearby school.  I had spent the previous three months taking substitute positions at high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools in several parts of town.  My high school experiences ranged from classrooms that practically ran themselves to ones where students were crawling in and out of windows right in front of me, laughing when I tried to stop them.  My time in middle school was even worse.  Breaking up fights between teenage girls who were bigger than me was not my idea of educating our future.  Elementary school was a different animal altogether.  I took a week-long position at the same school and taught a different grade level each day, beginning with kindergarten and ending with 5th grade.  If you’ve never spent any time in a kindergarten class, I highly recommend it.  It’s one of the most unique experiences you will ever have.  I remember reading a large print book to the children and how they were interested in every detail, especially when I acted out the silly parts.  And when I saw the class again on Friday when I had my 5th grade group, the ENTIRE slew of kindergartners gave me a big hug.  If that doesn’t melt your heart, you aren’t alive.  Not every class was perfect, but the experience stayed with me, especially my time with the teachers.  I’ll never forget walking my 5th grade class out to the playground with another teacher, a seasoned veteran who looked to be in her 60’s.  We were exchanging small talk when a kickball come out of nowhere and struck her in the back of the head, driving her to her knees.  Horrified, I helped her up and asked if she was okay.  “I’m fine”, she said, dusting off her dress.  “That happens a couple of times a week.”

Coaching Soccer is Easy

“I know you want to be an assistant coach to a boys’ team, Mr. Meyers, but we have a girls’ team that really needs a head coach.”  “How old are the girls?”, I replied.  “There seven girls, all age 6, and none have ever played soccer before.”  Very long pause.  “Please, Mr. Meyers, we really need your help.”  Of course I accepted:  I loved soccer and I had some spare time between substituting gigs.  How hard could it be?  Throw a ball out there and make little girls go kick it.  Easy.  After spending the entire first practice tying shoes and wiping tears, I realized I was in over my head.  Thankfully, my awesome wife jumped in and things got more fun…..until the first game.  Watching the opposing team practice made my jaw drop to the ground.  “Good, aren’t they?”, said an admiring father as the girls passed the ball around in short, crisp kicks. “They’ve been playing together since they were 4.  Good luck!”  Predictably, our team was slaughtered by these future Olympians.  As I struggled to find positive words for my confidence-ravaged girls, I realized they were learning hard lessons, even at this young age, and it was only the beginning.  As the season went on, my wife and I watched as these girls grow in confidence and learn soccer faster than I ever did as a child.  It gave me hope that I could teach students the same way.

“Billy”

I’ve watched Billy grow up in my neighborhood for the last 11 years.  He has a developmental disability, but he has a wonderfully sunny personality.  Always quick to smile, he makes your day every time you see him.  His parents and older sister are wonderfully supportive and I admire them greatly.  I happened to be substitute teaching at Billy’s school for a week.  When Friday rolled around, I walked my class into the cafeteria and noticed a microphone on the stage.  And behind the microphone, in front of hundreds of his peers, stood Billy.  He was trying to get the crowd to hush while he set up a surprise.   When they finally did, Billy motioned toward a side door where a woman was just entering.  As every head turned toward her, Billy started singing…..Happy Birthday….to his teacher….in front of the ENTIRE school.  I was floored.  If a kid like Billy had the courage to do something so wonderful in front of all of his peers, I could do something meaningful too.  At that moment, I decided to become a special education teacher.

It’s Only a 4 Year Commitment

The substitute teaching was starting to wear on me, but I wasn’t about to quit trying to find a permanent position.  The hiring process for teachers was still the most obscure experience I have ever had.  Every day, I would log on to the school district’s web site and search for positions.  Every day, nothing would be updated.  Yet I had friends getting hired all the time.  I didn’t understand.  I called the staffing supervisor at the district office and asked if the positions would be posted online.  He said that job openings happen so fast that they don’t even bother updating the site.  I asked if he had an updated list of positions I could apply for.  He said no and I would have to call each individual school’s principal and ask about open positions.  I paused for a moment.  Then I said, “There are over 200 schools in the district and you are the staffing supervisor and you don’t know where the jobs are?  What exactly do you do all day to earn your paycheck?”   Yes, I said that….in the shower to myself that evening….

It was about that time I found out about a program called Transition to Teaching.  Basically, it’s a federal grant that places people with four-year degrees in high-need schools in the areas of math, science, and special education.  We are paired with experienced teachers and take graduate level courses for free while being paid an hourly wage.  The catch?  We have to commit to an entire year of apprentice teaching in a high-poverty school and then another 3 years at a different high-poverty school.  Overall, a 4 year commitment.  After much thought and discussion with my wife, I went for it.  And I was placed a tiny school that was built in the roaring 20’s.

How Old Is This School?

School number 12, built in 1921.  Spiral staircases and cinder block everywhere.  It was small, cozy, in an older neighborhood and I loved it.  I was apprenticed to a teacher who had just moved from Arizona but she had many years in special education under her belt.  I remember clearly what she said when I was sick the entire month of November (yet still at school), “I’ve been teaching so long, it would take the plague to keep me from coming to school.”  She was great and I learned so much from her I can’t even begin to say.  She saw the shell-shocked look I had on the first day of school with small kids everywhere, and she taught me well.  Of course, this was the year that we had to open and close school three times because of the multiple hurricanes that seemed to hit every part of Florida except Jacksonville.  We had the tornado drills down pat.  When the year ended, I was sad to go, having made so many good friends and learned so much.  But I felt I was ready for anything any school could throw at me.

Little did I know the toughest part was yet to come…..


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1 Comment

  1. Mark, this is wonderful. I haven’t laughed that much in a while. You make me cry, however, talking about “Billy.”

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