In 1998, I began my journey as an elementary school teacher under the guidance of my aunt and respected educator, Marva N. Collins. My mother was also a teacher, so I saw firsthand what it means to be a passionate educator with a deep connection to students. Their dedication and passion for teaching made me choose this profession. After watching them invest time and energy into their craft, I entered the profession with passion and excitement, not knowing what the next 25 years would bring.
I wanted to be a teacher with a calming presence and positive attitude—one who could help all students succeed. Unfortunately, becoming the teacher I wanted to be took more energy than I thought.
After more than two decades of working in the classroom, supporting students with intense challenges in their home lives, and trying to live up to unrealistic expectations set by administrators, I finally reached my breaking point and poured out all my compassion for my students and my students. my commitment to the field may not be enough to help me recover.
How It All Began
When I started my first position as an English teacher on the north side of St. Louis, I remember walking into the building as books and computers were thrown from the third floor window. Next door was a halfway house full of young men, some of whom were fathers to the students I would be teaching. “What in the world am I committed to?” I remember wondering about the question. Four years of college to become an educator did not prepare me for what I encountered. I was coming to teach the masses full of hope and determination – how quickly I had to change my focus.
Once I entered the school building, a young man was being detained for his behavior. I asked the headmaster if I could talk to him and he reluctantly agreed. When I asked him his name and why he was acting like that, he immediately got defensive and said that I would soon be kicked out of the school like the teachers before me.
From looking at my mother, I realized that you can’t put out fire with fire, so despite her resistance, I decided to take a gentler approach, reminding her that I was there to support and better understand her case. Finally, he revealed that the teacher had asked him to read; When asked if she could read, she hung her head with tears in her eyes. His confession made me emotional, but I quickly composed myself and told him that if he would let me, I would help him learn to read.
I could only imagine what it must be like for a 13-year-old boy to be in the eighth grade. His behavior was an outlet for his anger, but all he needed was for her to listen and acknowledge his pain. This was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. For years, Eric had seen people leave him without caring about their needs. I was the change he needed and I hope, but I would soon find out there were more like him.
I remember being so excited about my role as a teacher—the creativity I had, the impact I knew I would have, and the sheer joy I gained from knowing I would one day be an agent of change. At the end of my fifth year of teaching, this excitement changed. I was overwhelmed by demanding and unrealistic expectations, and I realized that one of the key ingredients to supporting my students was supportive leadership, and our school didn’t have that.
In fact, many of the administrators I worked with on a daily basis had no idea what challenges students would face when they entered the classroom, or even what was happening in the classroom. Most administrators were more concerned with meeting academic standards and metrics than providing comprehensive support for students who could not meet those standards because of personal problems.
In my current role as a school and community outreach manager, I work with students and families facing a range of challenges – often very serious situations such as homelessness or community violence. It is not uncommon for trauma to follow my students to school. This kind of work makes it difficult to disconnect, and the weight of my students’ personal struggles regularly brings me home at night.
Even though I knew I would have to endure the challenges of the classroom without the support of administrators, I refused to give up, despite the negative impact it had on my mental health and well-being. I know that I am a skilled teacher who can speak out against administrative issues and advocate for students who experience marginalization that affects their academic performance. After all, I have always been a rebel, and I follow in the footsteps of my mother, who retired because she gave up teaching.
I made it a point to meet my students where they were. I chose to stay and fight for them, but compassion almost always falls to the teacher.
Stay in the fight
To survive in this field, you need to have the level of mental fortitude and tenacity to persevere. It is difficult, and I, along with many others, question whether our compassion for our students is enough to fix the state of our education system and keep us in the profession.
As much as I want to save my students, I know there’s only so much I can do before I take all the weight on myself. I’ve been and still am in the trenches, fighting for what I believe my students and their families deserve – but it’s not for the faint of heart.