My first teaching post was a nightmare. At 21, I was an incurable idealist who looked younger than the students and behaved with more maturity than half the staff. My first teaching job taught me that schools lie and that teachers don’t always, or even usually, care. It taught me that the more adamant you are that schools try, the more work you will have thrust upon you, until you burn out and become the colleague you hate or leave the field entirely. Despite all this, I loved teaching. Because of all this, I left the country.
I left the country because I needed to leave that school and, with regulations on state-to-state teacher transfers/certification becoming increasingly strict, it was easier to get a well paying teaching post in England that anywhere in the US. (Totally messed up, I know). I left the country because I wanted to travel and live and do things worth talking about, and I knew if I stayed where I was I would never be more than a mound of ungraded exams.
And leaving the country was fantastic.
In England, I taught in a school that cared and worked and strove for excellence—and it was not a wealthy or privileged school. I had colleagues and students I respected, and I learned more about myself and my teaching than I had in the whole of my collegiate study and early career combined. I met people and traveled and, eventually, was led to a master’s program at the University of Oxford.
There is much I could say about my early career in both the US and England, and about my master’s study, but, after all that, what I really want to discuss is where I am now.
Following the completion of my masters, I returned to the US. (Not so much willingly, but my visa had expired and I had no other option). (PS- I don’t hate the US, even though that is totally how that sentence just came across, I was just not ready to leave England.) The assumption was made by myself and my family that it would take 3-6 months for me to find a job, until then, I would move back home with my parents in my home town of Detroit. (Yes, I did say return to the country after living abroad and having a brilliant time to live with my PARENTS. I am THAT cool). Unfortunately, my triumphant return was accompanied by the complete collapse of the economy, and, over a year and a half later, no job. Well, I do have a job, so I’ll clarify—no job in my field.
I made the incorrect assumption that a degree from somewhere like Oxford, somewhere that offered me countless experiences and ideas and open doors, would appeal to American schools and educational organizations. In reality, it gets me blacklisted. Schools fear ambition. It labels me a boat-rocker and climber and everything else schools dislike. It makes me an ideal candidate for volunteer opportunities and low/non-paying philanthropic positions that I wish I could take, but, sadly, I have bills to pay, which is not acceptable when you are supposed to be ‘working for the kids.’
Somewhere between interesting and depressing is the fact that I am conducing this job search (or should I say social experiment?) in Detroit, America's fastest dying landmark. Though my career hunt is nationwide, it is impossible to discount or ignore the grandeur of the destruction in my back yard. And, in a lot of ways, watching Detroit fall is like watching American Education.
Detroit has issues on a variety of levels (See TIME’s year long expose on the city and its problems and excellent photos of decay here). Between the decline of the car companies, the embarrassing behavior our of elected officials, the deeply rooted racial issues still effecting social, economic and political decisions, and the recent attempted terrorist attack, it is hard to find someone who doesn’t have thoughts on the city, and I am no exception. Certainly the problems are many fold, and certainly there is almost no answer in site, but what I find most striking is the similarities between the field of education and my dying hometown.
Like watching a friend sink deeper and deeper in to a dangerous addiction, the fear and anger pulling at your heart and lungs and brain until you can’t think or breath or act, I’m watching the field for which I’m passionate and the city I call home knead themselves into an incurable state. Both are chained by budgetary constraints; both are shackled by expectations and ideas and dictums passed down by those not directly involved in the day to day operation. Detroit has failed to develop an identity outside of race and cars. Pain from deeply rooted racial wounds prevents progress socially; the inability to break free from the mustangular mold of industry prevents progress economically. Education is caught in the bars of finances—do it better, cheaper and faster—an impossible combination. And, in both cases, the decisions made are all wrong. Education buys out experienced teachers and replaces them with inexperienced, staffing whole buildings young teachers and no one to guide them. Detroit refuses help on racial lines and continues to elect corrupt officials. Education resorts to teaching through worksheets to prove to governments that standards are being met on a daily basis and throws inspiration in the dumpster with old textbooks; Detroit legalizes and encourages gambling in a population where 30-50% are unemployed and 1/3 of the city’s residential addresses are vacant. Education points fingers at teachers; Detroit points fingers at everyone else.
I don’t know what my role is in this garden of destruction, or if there is still a place in society for someone who wants to save the world in spite of itself, or herself, as the case may be. For now, I keep sending out resumes. Mostly, I sit at my desk watch it all burn.