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Tue September 10, 2013
Classroom Contemplations: Why One Teacher Left The Classroom To Work With Death Row Inmates
Originally published on Tue September 10, 2013 10:35 am
Editor’s note: Names of teachers and students have been changed.
Marie Roberts is the kind of person most education policy-makers dream of attracting to the teaching profession. She intelligent, sensitive and able to handle a classroom full of teenagers. She is herself a public school graduate and an Ivy League-educated woman of color.
She’s also the teacher highlighted in an earlier post about adding value — the teacher whose students demanded “small books.” She responded by securing a class set of novels to help them experience an authentic reading experience.
But despite her commitment to children and to education, she left the classroom after three years.
“I left teaching because I didn’t know how to make it sustainable,” she told me. “I didn’t have the resources or the tools professionally or emotionally [to deal with] all the demands of the students that weren’t just academic or even just social. There was always more work to be done—I never felt a task was complete. There was always more.”
Many new teachers often feel overwhelmed because, like Roberts, they are often assigned to the most difficult schools. Her first year was in a large high school in a high-poverty neighborhood in Miami-Dade County.
“I had around 230 kids a day,” she said. “It took me a month to learn their names and they were shifting in and out. I didn’t know what I was doing. The way the system is designed was flawed. Classes were too big, the demand was too much, and no one was teaching me how to work within these demands.”
Roberts made it through her first year and was able to transfer to another school. She spent her next two years at an alternative school, a place for students who had been kicked out of other high schools. She had a little over half as many students as before and she found the student load more manageable. She said the experience showed her that class size matters tremendously.
Even with the smaller load, Roberts found her responsibilities enormous.
“With teaching it’s not just the hours, it’s the caring. Even when you aren’t grading papers, you’re still caring. [It’s] not just personal issues, but how you’re going to engage a particular class, how you’re going to get them to respond.”
But the personal issues of students did take their toll. Roberts shared a particularly difficult situation she faced.
“One day I learned that one of my student’s mother’s boyfriend had set her up to be gang raped and she had to fight her way out of it. I cried for 20 hours.”
Roberts told me she went to a colleague who tried to help her separate from her emotions, and to channel her emotions into action as a teacher. But Roberts found this difficult. She could never get her job or her students off her mind.
“There’s never any putting it down and, unfortunately, no one ever talks about that,” she said. “Even most teachers. We struggle on our own.”
Ultimately, after three years, Roberts chose a different struggle. She chose to pursue a career in law and is currently defending clients on death row. (She told me, laughing, that she’s not as intimidated by her clients — death row inmates — as she was by some of her students. Despite the stress of her current job, she finds it less overwhelming.
“One law firm I interviewed with, when they asked why I left teaching, I told them the workload was too intense. They pointed out that the workload for lawyers could get intense as well, and I laughed. I stand by that. Lawyering is not as much work as teaching.”
The week we talked she had pulled three all-nighters working for a client on death row with life-threatening health issues. And yet she was very clear about the relative demands of her three years in the classroom.
“It’s the hardest job I ever had,” she told me.
Jeremy Glazer is a Miami-Dade teacher writing about classroom issues for StateImpact Florida. Want to sound off on something Glazer has written? Want to suggest a topic for him? Send us an email at Florida@stateimpact.org and put “Classroom Contemplations” in the subject line.