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A Teacher Left Behind: One Teacher’s Story of Breaking Away from A Broken System

This post is from the NYC Firm Schools Blog AdConnect Platform.

This post was written by Heather L. McKinney, M.A.Ed., a teacher at Fusion Academy.

I can still remember the enthusiasm and energy I had during student teaching: I was surviving on far less than healthy amounts of sleep, which didn’t seem to matter because of how excited I was to be working with kids to help them learn and grow into well-rounded individuals. I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, and now I was getting the chance to be one!

Then I considered myself one of the lucky ones who got a “cushy job in a small, rural school district.” Our philosophies were one in the same, and the district seemed to practice all of the theories that I learned in college. It felt like a perfect fit! I trucked to school an hour each way plus tolls to a place where I enjoyed being every day, especially when I considered the alternatives: not having my own classroom, working in an inner city school with far less resources and other obstacles, substituting, or not having a job at all. Please don’t misunderstand me by thinking that I look down on any of those positions, but I was horrified time and time again by the stories my mom would bring home from her inner city teaching position that further glorified my circumstance. I decided that I would rather drive two or more hours each day and pay what capped out at $11 every day in tolls (I dare you to do the math!) because it was a far healthier environment for me than the schools twenty minutes from my house. I fell in love with my students right from the start and knew that I was blessed with a very special group my first year.

Without a doubt, my first year was by far the hardest of my career, just like every other teacher. I was handed a Post-It note with a website that detailed the Pennsylvania State Academic Standards, walked to a room full of trade books, and told to have a great year. I. Was. Terrified. But I mustered my excitement back because of how creative I was allowed to be. I thought, “Great! I can create fun, authentic assessments, use any materials I want, and create surveys to find the students’ interests to direct my instruction! I’m living every teacher’s dream!” As year one continued, I found myself on a roller coaster of ups and downs, but my students’ senses of humor and the family we formed kept me motivated, as well as the support from a few colleagues I admired. I was determined to help every child succeed and reach their potential. That’s what good teachers do, right? I wanted to be remembered as their favorite teacher. The one whose class flew by because of all of the fun we had together. No pressure! We created many fond memories together, and at the end, I think most considered the year a success.

Then my end of year evaluation came where I found out I would be teaching two other subjects for another grade level. I thought, “Great! I can create fun, authentic assessments, use any materials I want, and create surveys to find the students’ interests to direct my instruction! I’m living every teacher’s dream!” I was getting the opportunity to work with a full-time co-teacher I adored and with whom I worked extremely well, and I realized my passion for teaching American history and science in authentic ways, especially drawing the connections between the two with our students and using reading strategies to help the students understand the concepts. Everything I did I thought I could benefit from having in my arsenal for the next year, and fortunately, I was asked to teach the same thing again. This news was especially exciting since I could use my summer to gather materials from museums that I visited and refine my teaching methods and materials to improve. I was in bliss!

As my third year continued, which I mark as my best for many reasons, I thought that incorporating literacy in these content areas was securing me in my current position. I even assumed a teacher leader position and felt myself spreading my wings more and more. An increased sense of confidence grew within me, as I saw and heard positive reinforcement of what I was doing, especially from my current and prior students and their parents.

Then I was switched to another subject – Language Arts: A subject that I had a challenge teaching in isolation because there was no foundation on which to build because of the district’s ever-changing initiatives and exponentially rising pressures from the state and administration. Any English or language arts teacher can support why we should receive a stipend for all of the extra time it takes to grade writing, but it’s even harder when not only did I not have a curriculum from which to draw lessons, my colleagues and I feared reprimand if we pursued acquiring so much as a teacher’s manual. (I still referenced a friend’s copy, though, but I’m more brazen, I guess. Still, I didn’t dare bring it inside of the building, for such materials were considered as risqué as an issue of Playboy!) I intended to use these teachers’ manuals as reference materials and not as a replacement for my own input and dialogue. Just like it doesn’t make sense to pick up an encyclopedia and read it cover to cover, it didn’t make sense for me to pick up a teacher’s manual and do everything in it. Educated teams of people choose various materials for specific reading and writing purposes because they model different skills, and I also knew that other teams of people had sorted through many of the mistakes I found myself making and weren’t writing a script for me to follow. I felt frustrated being forced to reinvent the wheel, when I knew there were wheels out there that worked perfectly well! Now I am one who fully understands the value of learning from mistakes, but I reached a point in my personal life where I gave enough hours on the weekend and sleepless nights only to realize that I couldn’t keep working at this pace and maintain at the very least good health, let alone be a happy teacher for my students. Lesson learned: the significance of “work-life balance.”

I had reached my breaking point and felt my passion for the art of teaching slowly fade, which made it harder and harder to go to work. I never planned to lose my zest for this profession and couldn’t stay in a position where I was basically watching/allowing it to happen. What particularly scared me is that it was happening after only four years. After my fourth year, I became a statistic: I resigned from my job before five years of service. There was not another job lined up for me; I needed a break.

For personal reasons, I moved across the country to California where my first job was as a Barista at Starbucks. What a refreshing place to work! My work ethic and charisma were rewarded and appreciated on a regular basis. I made people smile by giving them their little treats for the day or afternoon pick-me-ups and immersed myself in a proactive business model corporation. I remember thinking during my training, “If the teachers with whom I worked had Starbucks’ training on having the power to make someone’s day better and I was afforded this work-life balance, I’d still be teaching right now.” I have mixed emotions when I admit that I feel more valued and respected as a Starbucks employee from higher ups than I ever did as a teacher. I feel like my talents are nurtured and that I belonged. And I didn’t have to bring loads of work home with me? BONUS!

Having this job afforded me the time I needed to rejuvenate because I had the time to take care of myself by getting enough sleep, working out, not be overstressed; however, my heart is in teaching, and I knew that’s where I needed to be. I was sitting on two degrees making minimum wage. Something wasn’t right. Plus, there are bills…..and student loan payments…..and the cost of living…..I could see the party ending.

Then the unthinkable happened: At the end of one of my Pampered Chef parties I was approached by a guest whose husband ran a school and was looking for a history and English teacher. After I picked up my jaw off of the floor, I took his business card, which read, “Fusion Academy and Learning Center ­ Because One-to-One Works.” My first thought was, “Yes, that makes sense!” I was honored to even be considered to work at such a place, especially after perusing the website, so you can imagine my elation when I was offered a teaching position.

I received the New Teacher Training Manual and will always remember reading the philosophy to my mom. Neither of us could believe such a place existed where building relationships was defined as just as important as our teaching, making academics almost secondary to our students’ needs and where teachers were encouraged to have fun together inside and outside of school. These are things I tried at my public school setting, but they were kept secret. During my first few weeks at Fusion I had to decondition myself from my public school PTSD, and I quickly learned the mantra that explained different things, “This is Fusion!” I quickly fell in love; it simply felt the way an effective school should feel.

When I left my other teaching job, I had little hope for the teaching profession. I forced myself out of a vacuum of negativity that was spiraling out of control. I was not satisfied by watching great potential continue to be wasted because it was only the help of a few that dedicated extra time to better the whole group. I knew I was too young to have to settle for accepting, “Well, at least you have a job.” That’s not enough. I’d rather live in a tent than suffer in a toxic environment that only afforded me more money to get stuff to create the façade that I actually am happy. [“Fight Club,” anyone?]

I carry with me my battle scars from public education that remind me of how incredible the environment and culture is here at Fusion. I love seeing this school blossom and grow and hope to help in that process any way that I can. I feel myself thriving, which I know the students observe. Each Fusion staff has an eclectic group from many places in life that all come together for one common purpose: To nurture and inspire healthy individuals one student, one session, one “It’s great to see you!” at a time through the power of healthy relationships, dedication, laughter, and love.

At the end of the day, we all have to what makes us happy. Life is too short. I’m so glad I had the courage to take myself out of my comfort zone to make myself happy. I am very grateful for the people I have met, the growth I’ve had as an educator, and for being an integral part of the Fusion culture.

It. Just. Works.

Fusion Academy is now open in Woodbury, Long Island and Midtown Manhattan, and will launch a Westchester location in the winter of 2013. For more information go to: www.fusionacademy.com.

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