When I was ready to start teaching more than 20 years ago*, my now-husband was working on his PhD at Johns Hopkins University. I knew I didn’t want to teach in Baltimore City, even though I loved living there. This is not so much a failing on the city of Baltimore as it is on me. I knew if I began my career in such a challenging setting (a school system with as many difficulties as that one has) I would likely not have lasted as a teacher. I would have given up in the first few years. I have immense respect, so much respect, for teachers in school districts with serious challenges.
I convinced my now-husband to move to Northern Virginia once he was ABD (all but dissertation) so that I could teach in my current district. (In my defense, once he was ABD the research for his dissertation was all in Washington, D.C., Richmond, VA, and Pittsylvania County, VA so living in Northern Virginia definitely made at least as much sense as living in Baltimore.) I substitute taught and began to get to know where I might want to teach.
While I hadn’t wanted to teach in Baltimore, because I didn’t feel I would be successful there and kids deserve successful teachers, I wanted to serve students that really need strong teachers. Not that I was a strong teacher in the very beginning! Being in my current district seemed like the best of both worlds: we have plenty of students who need strong teachers in a district that has the resources to support teachers and kids.
My school district has more than 200 schools. Many of them are full of kids who come from financially stable homes. Kids whose families know the dominant culture and can navigate the schools on behalf of their kids. Which isn’t to say those kids don’t face challenges, as many of them do. It is simply to say they have advantages over kids whose families are not financially stable and don’t know how to navigate the system.
For my first 21 years of teaching I taught in schools that were mostly populated by students who were first or second generation immigrants. These students were mostly learning English, facing financial challenges, and had families that are still learning how to navigate systems in this country. Students who definitely needed teachers who would advocate for them in the system and do everything possible to ensure they had the knowledge and skills to be successful in the society in which they live.
This year, for the first time ever, I am teaching a class of students who have all grown up speaking English. (I have all of their last names memorized already and that has never happened because the majority of my students in previous years have had two last names as they were Latinx and it would take me longer to get them all down. Only one last name per kid is a new thing for me.) My school is not a Title I school, which would suggest that my students are in more financially stable families (although that’s a bit misleading, I believe). My current students definitely have advantages my previous students lacked.
That said, my current students are all in military families, with all that entails. Frequent change is definitely one thing that is true for them. Many of them move regularly. Many have parents who have or are deployed. And even if they aren’t moving, friends move away quite often. (In addition, right now lots of our students are displaced because their housing on post has mold. So just one more change in their lives.)
Many of my students have noticeable needs that go beyond and impact their academics. I am again grateful to be in a school district with lots of resources. We have three counselors provided by the school district. We have two instructional coaches. We have three assistant principals. (We do have nearly 1,000 students, so that is a factor in some of this staffing.) We have wonderful support from our central offices.
This means that my students have so much more than just me. In many school districts I’d be navigating a lot of these challenges in far more isolation. It is an absolute gift to have the people and tools available to me to help my students.
*I didn’t begin teaching directly out of college, although that had been my initial plan. Instead, I played the harp on a cruise ship for a bit. Before getting hired and between contracts on the ship, in order to have some income, I substitute taught and worked in a bookstore.