Monday, February 09, 2009

This is Why I Teach Where I Do

People who are not teachers for Chicago Public Schools often enjoy hearing my horror stories about my job. After one anecdote or another, they inevitably ask why I don't work for a better school. Or they wonder if I have tried to get a job at a better school. As if working in a substandard school, labeled a "drop-out factory" by Johns Hopkins University, was my dream while in graduate school.

This article from the Chicago Tribune sums it up nicely. There are too many damn teachers in Chicago -- and the rest of the state of Illinois.

When I finally decided to get my masters and my teaching certificate, I was a bit concerned about where I might get a job. I went back to school in 2001 -- by then the tech market had collapsed and already schools were slashing their budgets.

I was jealous of my brother-in-law, because he had completed the MAT program in secondary education a couple of years before I did. When he was looking for jobs, he regularly got phone calls from principals across the nation asking him to interview. Schools were offering signing bonuses. It was a good time to be a teacher.

That was not the case for me. I had decided I didn't want to teach in Arkansas, although I definitely could have gotten a job at a really good school in the state. But I wanted to live in a big city -- or at least a bigger city.

I started researching which cities were hiring teachers. As far as I could tell, New York City, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Las Vegas were the cities who seemed to be doing the most hiring.

I had never been to New York City and didn't know anyone there, so that didn't seem a good idea. And I knew I'd never be able to afford it. Plus, being the Southern gal that I am, I wasn't sure I was up to living someplace that seemed so far removed from what I was accustomed to. That's a whole lot of Yankees crammed into one place.

Las Vegas didn't interest me, either. So that left Cincinnati or Chicago. I applied to both school districts online. I got a phone call from Cincinnati the next day, wanting to schedule an interview. Spring break was coming up, so I decided I would spend my spring break in Cincinnati.

A day or so later, I got an email from a dear friend of mine that he was moving to Chicago, and I should move there, too. I did want to know at least one person in whatever city I chose, so this seemed a good omen. Then I got an email from Nancy Slavin, the CPS teacher recruitment manager. She had received my application and asked if I had any questions.

Through talking to her I found out that Illinois has different teaching requirements than Arkansas, and that I would have to take the Illinois teacher tests. They were offering the tests the week of my spring break. There was also a teacher job fair that week. So it seemed like I needed to go to Chicago for spring break instead of Cincinnati. Ms. Slavin helped get me registered for the teacher tests and the job fair. I called Cincinnati and canceled my interview with them.

The teacher tests -- a basic skills test and the English content test -- were pretty easy. The job fair, however, was a revelation. Never had I seen so many teacher candidates crammed into a space. There were thousands of us there. And we were all standing in long lines to talk to principals and assistant principals sitting at tables.

I knew it was bad, when I realized I was standing in a line that was at least fifty people long, and we were waiting to talk to the principal of Nancy Jefferson High School. Nancy Jefferson High School is the school for Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. I didn't know this until I got to the end of the line and met the principal. He explained to me that the job was in the juvenile detention center, and that it was challenging because the student population changed all the time. He assured me that the guards are right there, so it was a safe environment. He said that if I was interested, we could schedule an interview.

He was a really nice man, and by that time I had been at this job fair for a couple of hours. This was the first interview I had been offered. But I told him that while I appreciated his willingness to interview me, my father in Arkansas would have a heart attack if I told him I was moving to Chicago to work in the Cook County prison. He said he understood.

By the end of that day, I had been offered no other interviews. At all. I was one of thousands of prospective English teachers. We are a dime a dozen.

But I moved to Chicago anyway, certain I would find a position. This idea was cemented when I got a letter from CPS welcoming me to CPS as a new teacher. The letter indicated that once I got to Chicago, to get in touch with a recruitment officer who would put me in touch with principals.

I thought that meant I had a job. And it would have, years ago. It used to be that CPS placed teachers in schools. But the principals hated that, so now principals do the hiring for their schools. I didn't find this out until I had actually moved to Chicago. I had an interview (one interview!) and the principal informed me of this fact then.

I had one other interview that summer. I was getting anxious. It was the end of July. I had a super cute Lincoln Park apartment, a new boyfriend, and no job. Then I got a phone call from Nancy Slavin about a new program CPS was starting that needed teachers ASAP. The principals for the program were interviewing the next day, and was I interested? I was interested.

I went to the interviews, and was invited to interview at a high school on the South Side the next day. I went to that interview, and was offered the job on the spot. Which is usually not a good sign, but it was the end of July and I was getting panicky. This was on a Friday. The principal said I could think about it over the weekend, but needed to let him know by Monday if I was interested.

This job is detailed in this post, so I won't go into details again here. It was a tough year. But it was a job, and I needed a job.

During graduate school, I imagined what my teaching career would be like. I thought that I would get lots of interviews with great schools, and after careful research, would take the job offer that seemed like the best fit. I would have my dream job and it would be amazing.

Instead, I discovered that you take the job offered to you. Period. If you are lucky, it will be a great fit. But more than likely, it will involve stuffing your square peg into a round hole and hoping for the best.

This situation is why our schools aren't better. There's no impetus to make the schools better. Principals know that for every disgruntled teacher at her school, there are a billion other teachers dying for a job. So we are all dispensable. Principals can do whatever they want. Teachers, especially new teachers who don't have tenure, spend most of their time worrying about getting fired.

There is no teacher shortage in Chicago, except for special education and bilingual education. If you are certified in those areas, by all means come to Chicago. But otherwise, don't bother.

I don't know many teachers in Chicago who are happy at their jobs. Which is extremely sad. And it's not the students -- the students are not the problem. It's the administration and the ways the schools are run that make the job so challenging. But if you want to be a teacher, this is what you get. I just have to try to make the best of it.


d.i. said...

This is a great post. It should be required reading for all education students. The whole educational hiring system is bizarre and overwhelming. It was truly one of the most humbling experiences for me not finding a "dream job" when I decided to go back to work. I'm a math teacher, what do you mean there aren't a billion schools waiting for me?

Keep updating when you can. :)

cd said...

I did read your previous post about your job, and felt the need to correct you on something. All white kids don't respect you just because you are a teacher....i think that you thinking that is the beginning of your problems. I am from the south, taught in Tennessee, and had much more problems with white children than i ever did with african american children. Teaching on the south side of Chicago is difficult, but that is because of the socioeconomic problems...not because the kids are black. I grew up in a middle class neighborhood in the south, mixed with all races. When you grow up like that, you relaize that there are bad apples on every tree. I think you should find another job or is too short to be as miserable as you sound.