Sunday, November 6, 2016

Why I Plan to Stay At My (High Needs) School

One of my favorite articles in recent months is Justin Minkel's "Why I Plan to Stay in Teaching" (Education Week 2/24/16). It is more than a pep talk/tough it out/what did you expect kind of treatise. It is really inspiring and is saved to my desktop to read from time to time as a concise reminder as to why I love teaching and have been in this field for 39 years. I could've written it, but he beat me to it! LOL. But recent events at my school have given me reason to come with another version of that article and it is Why I Plan to Stay at My School.

I have been the Media Specialist at my current elementary school for 14 years. Before that I was a Media Spec at another school for 3, and before that I had over 20 years as an SLD/EH teacher in Secondary, and before that I was in Elementary for a mixture of ESE students when it was kind of getting started. When I came to my current school, I was not necessarily planning to finish out my career as an educator at that location, although I did feel called in a divine sort of way that this was my new mission field. As the years went on, I felt it was my home, and I certainly moved enough stuff in to make it that way! Anything we were getting rid of at home ended up in my Media Center: Christmas trees, decorations, party supplies, kids books, know what I mean! When the demographics of the school started to change, thanks to a completely illogical boundary the District established, mini-exoduses became a regular occurrence. "So are you coming back next year, Mrs. Penvose?" "Of course" I'd always respond. They would wait for a reason, since it was quite an unexpected response. At first my reason was (jokingly) I had too much stuff to move or some such thing. More recently, however, the reason became "I am one of the only elementary schools with a Media Clerk and a Tech Specialist, why would I leave?" We are a Title 1, Renaissance, 1000 student high needs school...those positions are crucial! But with our District looking to reduce resource positions, and not fill the vacancies, our Tech Specialist opted to take a classroom teaching position in a middle school. Ok, so there went half of the reason I repeatedly gave as to why I'm staying. I'm hoping my clerk, who is at retirement age, will hang in there with me for a few more years. I'm treating her with kid gloves to help make it happen!

But seriously, why AM I staying at my school? It is for students like Kristen, who is now in 8th grade and came back to visit with a little sister at a recent Conference Night. "I was hoping you'd be here. None of my other teachers are left". When asking about her family, who had been unstable, to put it mildly, she responded that her mom was back on drugs with a boyfriend and dad was in prison for armed robbery. Grandma and Aunt took Kristen and 2 siblings in...and Grandma has since died. "She just had to come a see 'her' Mrs. Penvose", said her Aunt.
It is for students like Jack and Trevor who, when learning that I lived closer to some higher SES schools, asked why I don't want to teach at those schools. "Because you're here" I said, truthfully.
It is for the middle school students who experienced the suicide of a classmate and clung to me when I went to the funeral, not seeing many of their previous elementary teachers in attendance.

These are just a few of the students who see their elementary experience as more than the fun and learning that took place. It was and is their foundation, their entry into the world of education that is populated not only with friends and classmates, but also adults that they want to turn to, and return to, for a sense of stability and security. In their worlds of more upheaval and uncertainty than I might ever experience in a lifetime, they live every day. When they come back to visit their old elementary school, I want them to know that there will be someone there for them, that remembers them, that is interested in them and has genuine love for them and gives them a sense of constancy that they are searching for.
When I was talking to Kristen, I asked what she thought of all the changes in the Media Center. In the past few years, I've gotten the furniture recovered, tables re-laminated, carpet replaced (thanks to a water fountain flood) and generally tried to keep up with renovating the space to keep current with media trends. To me the change is dramatic, yet cosmetic. She looked around and said, "oh yeah, it looks nice". Her nonchalance struck me like a ton of bricks..she wasn't here for the decor. She could have cared less if the tables were Seafoam green or Arizona turquoise. Whether the baseboards matched the carpet or not. She didn't note the dust in the corners. She was there for the human contact, the interaction, the relationship. How much time have I spent searching for funding, ideas, etc. for the externals in the Media Center (which of course make a difference) when the students are there for the human element?

So as I labor on, adapting to taking on more of the Tech role at my school and being in the rotation for Specials classes, I remember why I'm there. For the kids. For the current students who come in every morning before going to their free breakfast (don't forget, you need a pass first...oh yeah, I forgot), for the students who have had more books deleted from their record due to moving/family trauma/foster situations/acts of nature/ etc. than I'll ever know, for the students who arrive on their bikes in the dark in the morning who just feel safer at school than at home, for all these and more. My heart breaks that I can't do more, but perhaps just staying at my school is enough. Being some sort of constant and consistent adult in their lives will give them a hope that they're not being given up on or forgotten.

I know that most educators, facing a multitude of challenges, will choose to change schools this year...if they wait that long. I don't fault anyone for making changes they deem necessary. In fact, I think it's healthy and wise to have several educational experiences and different schools, grade levels and subjects. But unfortunately, the most movement and transition seems to be at schools like mine, with needy children who don't have the option to go to other schools. For that, I am sad.

So take some time to reflect on why you're where you're at, or even why you're staying in education. Maybe why you even pursued it in the first place. If you truly are answering a call to change lives, it shouldn't matter where you do it...there are lives there who need you, want you, and are seeking to be changed.

We are in a mighty and powerful profession! Encourage each other, seek support as needed and Stay Grounded, friends!