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A Bittersweet Back to School

As the last two weeks of summer went by, I met with old and new teaching colleagues. I reminisced over dinner with a teacher who taught across the hall from me at the school I left last year. I laughed over lunch with a nurturing and seasoned paraprofessional from that school. And I sent back-to-school packages to students from last year’s class, piecing together some books, erasers, and pencils. What did I realize? It’s difficult to move on. Especially as a new teacher.

At the same time, I was getting settled in my new school, with a wonderfully warm and welcoming staff and a brand-new co-teacher. This year, I’m teaching in an integrated co-teaching setting — meaning that our first grade classroom has a general education teacher and a special education teacher (that’s me). Forty percent of our students require special education services; the rest don’t.

Sharing a classroom with another teacher isn’t my only big change. I’ve also moved from a Title I School where most students are poor enough to qualify for free lunch to one with many middle-class families. At this point in my career, I want to work in a collaborative setting with a focus on progressive curriculum, and I think that I have found a place where I can grow. But moving on is hard.

My first year of teaching was beyond challenging, but I loved every minute of it. Not love in the fluffy, hearts and rainbows kind of way. It was the toughest job I’d ever done. It was strange to like something so difficult. To love something so difficult. (And students who were sometimes so difficult.) It was certainly a different kind of love.

Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote, “It is impossible to teach without the courage to try a thousand times before giving up. In short, it is impossible to teach without a forged, invented, and well-thought-out capacity to love.” In my master’s thesis, I tried to analyze what this statement meant. It is only over the past school year that I felt what he meant. This summer, I found myself nervous for my students from my old school. Had I failed them, I wondered. Had I done enough, whatever that is? What I do know is that working with those students taught me what it means to have courage and a “well-thought-out capacity to love.” But the courage and love didn’t just come from me, it came from them.

I’m not sure if I have failed by moving to a different school with a different population, one that in many ways is easier to teach.

My former school was filled with students who faced emotional and behavioral challenges, and the school lacked the structures to adequately address these needs. Most of the parents and students I met were deeply invested in their students’ education, but having most students — 96 percent — living in poverty presented major challenges. The administration focused on high-stakes testing and keeping up appearances, not giving students the help they needed. At my new school, most of my students’ basic needs — shelter, food, safety — are met. Most likely, quiet spaces won’t be needed for students who need to sleep during the day because of the lack of a peaceful or safe space to sleep at home. While my new school will certainly serve some students with emotional and behavioral needs, it is clear that I am in for a big change. I will be able to focus on academic instruction, collaborating with colleagues, and professional development. I will be able to breathe, a bit.

I decided that my new school is the best place for me to grow and learn right now. The decision to move was made more with my head than my heart. Is that a smart or selfish decision? Did I give up? Or is this decision in the best interest of my future students?

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.