An Important Note: Sharing one perspective can often lead to stereotyping and the overgeneralization of a specific issue or group of people. That being said, it is important to recognize this post as one person’s story and not the experience of all teachers and students. It is not meant to reflect every urban teaching experience, but rather to open people’s eyes to the reality of the hostile environment that exists within many (not all) inner city schools and the negative effects teaching without proper support and resources can have on an educator’s mental health.
I remember sitting on my bed on the seventeenth floor of my downtown apartment building feeling trapped both physically and mentally - inside the walls that were holding me there and the mess of emotions I’d collected over the previous months I’d spent teaching. It was crazy to think how naïve I’d been four months prior to that moment – naïve to the reality of the adult world, my own inner demons, and the true horrors that had existed for years within the city that I now called home. I felt so much in that moment, yet I was frozen in fear, scared to move forward in life, and unsure how to get out of my own head. At that point in time, a jump from my seventeenth floor window seemed like one of my better options. Lucky for me, I made a phone call and an appointment with a psychiatrist instead.
About four months prior to that phone call, in August, I’d started my first real job out of college as a fifth grade teacher in a low-income public school in an east coast city (which shall remain nameless, as to avoid further stereotyping). This was my dream. Working with kids was what I lived for. I wanted to do something good and make a difference in the world – and at the time, teaching in a place most people don’t want to teach in seemed like the right way to do that. Yet, here I was in a troubled inner city school, with very little support, and might I add – no formal training as an educator, oblivious of what was to come. As you might imagine, a strong passion for something so important with little foundation for success can lead to a rather messy cocktail of emotions. And, as most people warned me would be the case, it was the hardest, most mentally taxing thing I’d ever done. With time, my passion faded and my anxiety and depression creeped back in, just as it had in high school. I struggled to relate to my students, had no time for myself, very few people to talk to who knew what it was like, and I started viewing myself as a failure - anxious to come into work everyday, yet scared of what would happen if I left the only job I that was supporting me financially.
Imagine something you’ve always wanted – and I’m not talking about that fancy new car or expensive handbag you won’t ever come close to affording. I’m talking about that deep-rooted dream you’ve always been passionate about, something you feel you were born to do, something that drives you out of your bed in the morning because it’s just that important. Then, picture yourself holding it in your hand for one minute and placing it on the ground in front of you, right where you can see it. Then have someone put a solid, bulletproof, glass window in-between you and that dream. You can still see it, but no matter how hard you try to reach it, or the tools you use to break that barrier, you just won’t.
Well, that’s how I felt trying to teach.
At first, I woke up everyday and went to work because I was passionate about my job and my students. I loved every bit of each one of them, despite what obstacles we faced in the classroom. Every story and every little face that looked to me with such trust made me more determined than ever to be better and do better as their educator. They deserved so much more than what they were getting, but I didn’t know how to give them that. I barely knew how to meet their needs and when I did, I either didn’t have the necessary resources or the time to do what I needed to prepare. Slowly, day-by-day, things started to fall apart. There was asbestos in the walls, lead in the water, students punching each other over pencils, kicking you when you tried to break-up a fight, banging their heads against the wall, throwing chairs at other students, flipping desks, and screaming until they were red in the face, most likely because they’d never been truly heard by anyone before. The Internet didn’t work for weeks, yet I had fifty students to submit grades for. My kids couldn’t learn because there weren’t any books but the ones I provided them with out of my own pocket. I couldn’t plan proper lessons because I barely knew how and my planning periods were filled with the after math of the violence that occurred in my classroom on a daily basis. I started to lose weight because I had to hold lunch detention myself and didn’t have time to eat. The more energy I gave, the more exhausted I became, and nothing came back in my favor. No one was learning in my classroom and I not only felt like a failure at my job, but I grew to fear the students that I loved and hate the person I’d become. The months went on and I got more and more anxious. I’d wake up in the mornings struggling to breathe because I knew I’d have to spend another day pulling students off of each other, wiping blood from their fists, and crying in the staff bathroom – with not a single person coming to my aide in a time of crisis. I felt my students were unsafe and I felt empty – stuck in an authority role where I was failing to protect the little bodies and minds of tiny humans who needed me. Calling in sick was my solace on a few occasions, but there was only so much recovery I could achieve in one day.
Once November rolled around, I broke down. The only motivation I had pulling myself out of be each day was the paycheck I needed keep up with my rent. I was miserable, anxious, and dangerously depressed. I’d spend the entire 30 minute commute to school thinking about which tree or building I could run into that would get me out of work that day. I started to give my students packets of work because I didn’t feel my classroom was a safe environment for them to interact with each other. I wasn’t myself anymore and I no longer stood for everything I used to believe in. Once Thanksgiving rolled around, I felt like a different person. I was thinking dark thoughts and crying every night on the phone with my parents, unsure what to do next. Then, my worst day of teaching rolled around and I officially reached my breaking point.
It’s not as important to talk in detail about what happened on my last day of teaching, as it is to simply say that it was traumatizing. I left my school that day without any advanced notice, never looking back. I’m choosing to refrain from the details because the story has the potential to stereotype my former students – which is something I’d like to avoid doing. At no point did I ever blame the kids I taught for their behavior or the state of the school I was in. It is more complicated than that. The blame lays elsewhere, in politics and racist, oppressive policies that keep low-income, minority families in schools that are unsafe, failing to support them and their teachers. I will always believe in my former students and I will always pray that they are able to achieve their dreams, despite the obstacles thrown at them everyday. Sometimes I lay in my bed hoping that the teacher that followed me was better prepared, stronger, and more equipped to meet their needs. Because on this day, I reached a point where I was no longer helping anyone, including myself.
It’s sad really that I had to reach such a low before I was able to recognize that I should no longer be working in a job that made me feel like life wasn’t worth living. It’s even worse that I’m not the only first year teacher who’s ever felt this way. And what really still gets to me is that very little is being done at a policy level to change inner city schools so they are safer for both students and teachers. Unfortunately, the education gap is real. There are kids going to school less than five miles from each other: one group sitting on Ipads and planning language immersion trips abroad and others simply hoping they won’t be shot walking to school that day.
My reality is this. I didn’t leave teaching because I wanted to. I didn’t quit because I stopped believing in my students and the people that I know they are capable of being in the future. I didn’t walk away from the most emotionally involved job I’ve ever had lightly. I left because I had to. I went my separate ways because I had no choice but to do that for my own mental wellbeing. And, after almost two years of recovering from the toll it took on me, I remain more passionate than ever about raising awareness about the mental health challenges students and teachers face in urban schools – so that other dreamers and doers who decide to teach won’t find themselves alone in a job that holds so much meaning but takes so much of who you are with it. We need to create a world where people feel supported, especially in jobs that are often paired with pain. We need to support the good in the world so that it becomes a better place for this country’s children and their children after that.
Featured quote: "What is stronger than the human heart, which shatters over and over and still lives." -Rupi Kaur
Trigger Warning: This blog may discuss topics related to mental illness and trauma that could be potentially triggering. If you or anyone you know is in crisis, please click the link below for 24/7 support. Dial 911 if you or anyone you know is at immediate risk to yourself, themselves, or another.