End of the journey

This past Saturday, I traveled back to Baltimore for the moment I poured my blood, sweat, and tears to see: the graduation of the first class of Friendship Academy of Science and Technology, better known as FAST.  Being that my students are no longer students, it’s probably safe at last for me to explicitly identify the school where I worked (as if it were ever a big secret).  Given how hard I worked with this day in mind, to have it finally arrive is, hands-down, the proudest moment of my life.  My hat is off completely to my coworkers who worked much longer and harder than I did for this day to come, to all career teachers out there who educate far more young people than I did, and to Errol Duncan, who didn’t get the chance to see his work come to fruition.

We fought some truly epic battles as a staff to try to establish a culture of scholarship and success.  I can’t even describe how hard we worked to get keep our students in uniform, to march them down the hall in quiet, straight lines, to stamp out profanity, to require respectful behavior toward peers and staff, to demand punctuality, to enlist parent support.  We spent countless hours meeting together to strategize how to work with individual students and how to build effective systems.  And that’s not even mentioning academic instruction, let alone the High School Assessment tests the students had to pass to graduate.

By the numbers: from an early roster of mine, it looks like at one point, the original FAST 9th grade class numbered 95 students. The graduation program listed 59 graduating seniors.  Among those were about 48 students I taught, and 36 of those were students on that early roster, whom I taught for two years, some as early as Summer Bridge.  Seven came from my infamous homeroom, Class 901, whom I saw for almost 4 hours a day, every other day, my first year teaching.  Looking at those early rosters, I feel a mix of emotions.  On one hand, for those 7 kids that managed to make it to graduation from my homeroom, I feel nothing but respect.  I know I wasn’t the greatest teacher in the world, and yet, they managed to persevere through my ineptness and abysmal behavior from some of their peers.  Of the whole group of seniors, it looks like a lot are college-bound, a handful with some serious scholarship money.

On the other hand, a lot of names I had high hopes for weren’t in the graduation program.  By my recollection, only one of maybe a dozen English-language learners that I taught made it through.  Many of those kids were the sweetest, most resilient, most respectful children I had the opportunity to interact with.  They had come to America as refugees or immigrants, only to be plunked down into Baltimore City Public Schools.  It’s unpleasantly surprising, because I felt like FAST did a really good job of providing for them.  To be fair, many of them transferred away or moved and may have gone on to graduate somewhere else.  But I know for a fact that two of my most promising immigrant students became pregnant and dropped out.

All things considered, I’m still extremely proud of what my students accomplished, navigating the minefield of adolescence in Baltimore to finish their high school educations.  I never thought graduation day was going to be completely perfect.  How could it be, given the challenges?

June 17, 2008.  That is the date of the first post in this journal, and the beginning of my journey as a teacher, which paralleled that of my students.  From one of my first posts:

The biggest things I plan to internalize are to establish relationships with the students, the other teachers, the administrators, the corps members, and the community, to not succumb to negativity and defeatism, to never waver in setting high expectations for the kids, to be respectful and humble, and to be prepared to work relentlessly.  I’ve got a lot of learning to do these next couple of months.

And this much has been impressed upon me more than anything:  the experience of teaching in inner city Baltimore is going to be extremely tough.  I’d say all of us are somewhat scared to death, and we’d be fools not to be.  But we’re also fired up, and even after a just a couple of days, we’re already starting to band together and dig in.

Wow.  Overwhelmed as I was, that’s actually pretty much spot on.  If nothing else, I did a good job of absorbing the most salient points, because those are things I really did try to keep in mind throughout, even if I wasn’t always successful.  In some sense, it’s hard to believe that four years have passed.  But I’m extremely thankful today that I kept this journal to go back through to relive the experience, and remember what it was like to not know all the things I’d come to learn.  Hopefully there are lessons in here for some future teacher to learn from.  To be fair, there wasn’t much of my blood involved in the experience, but I think the copious sweat and tears more than made up for it.

Even though I intend to maintain a lifelong engagement with education, I think it’s finally time to close the book on my education journal.  I may continue to add new entries to this journal when something education-related catches my eye, but there likely won’t be much else.  Looking back, teaching is by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life.  As this journal can attest to, I barely made it through two years.  I am absolutely awed by anybody who makes a career of teaching or school administration.  What I do as an computer/electrical engineer is supposed to be “hard”, but it doesn’t even chart in comparison.

Don’t be surprised if there’s a Volume Two sometime in the future.  Despite a recurring dream (okay, slight nightmare) where I’m sucked back into school as a last-minute permanent sub, I don’t see myself ever actually teaching high school again.   But I definitely plan to coach again.  And maybe, just maybe, I might find myself in higher ed, education policy, or school leadership when I’m done with the corporate world.  It’s certainly not on my 5-year plan, but never say never, right?