Teaching In America: 'Only The Strong Will Survive'

Sep 13, 2015
Originally published on September 13, 2015 9:46 am

Last week was supposed to be the first week of school for students in Seattle, Washington. Instead it was the beginning of a teachers' strike. Negotiators are at a standoff over wages and performance evaluations.

In 2012, Chicago's public school teachers went on strike, leaving the city's 350,000 kids out of school for eight days.

There is tension in our education system. Teachers say they aren't valued enough, not given the respect, wages or resources they deserve. Others think teachers aren't held to high enough performance standards, which affects what kids learn or don't learn in the classroom.

To mark the beginning of the new school year, we hear from two teachers as they think about the challenges ahead.

This week on For the Record: What it takes to teach. Click the audio link on this page to hear the full conversation.

Tom Bergen, North High School, Denver

Tom Bergen remembers his first day in front of a class, about 10 years ago.

"Oh, it was terrifying," Bergen says. "They all sensed how nervous I was and just kind of rolled with it, but, boy, I think I sweated through my shirt."

He says North High had been one of the lowest performing in the city; Bergen was hired as part of a program to turn it around.

"They bring in more teachers, they bring in intervention specialists, psychologists, things like that," he says. "My first year was tough because it was a new school, a new population. I had never broken up so many fights in my life."

Pamela Guy, Austin Multiplex High School, Chicago

Pamela Guy, who has also been teaching about 10 years, says Austin Multiplex is in a tough neighborhood. Students have a lot of odds stacked against them, putting added pressure on Guy and the other teachers.

"I wear many hats," she says. "I may have to be mom sometimes; I may have to be a counselor sometimes; I may have to be a lawyer. There's a lot of situations where you don't have as much parental involvement and with that, it's always a daily task of, What will I have to do today? What do I need to bring to class today?"

Over their decade of teaching, both Bergen and Guy remember their low points.

Bergen says one class in particular was out of control, and he ran out of ideas to fix it.

"I thought, 'Why don't I just write them a letter?' " he recalls. "I just put my heart out there about why I value them and their class."

He wrote to them all the reasons he loved teaching, then asked the students to write back.

"What I got back were beautiful things," Bergen says. "They all either owned up to it or said, 'I'm going to be a pro-active part of changing this.' And every day I would start class, I would put their quotes anonymously up on the board and have them reflect on it and share what they thought and then we would launch into class. It completely flipped it. By the end of the class year, it was one of my favorite places to be."

According to a 2014 study by the Alliance for Excellent Education, every year roughly half a million teachers in the U.S. either move to a different, often more affluent school, or they leave education altogether. The pay isn't great, the work is emotionally trying, the hours can be long.

Guy says teachers have to feel called to the work, and then put their hearts into it.

"Because you're going to be pulled on, and it's going to be so much required and asked of you that you have to be willing," she says. "And only the strong will survive."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And this is For the Record. Last week was supposed to be the last week of school for students in Seattle, Wash. Instead, it was the beginning of a walkout.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thousands of Seattle children are starting the school year with the day off this morning, thanks to a teacher's strike. Both sides remain...

MARTIN: Negotiators are at standoff over wages and performance evaluations. In 2012, Chicago's public school teachers went on strike, leaving the city's 350,000 kids out of school for eight days. There is a real tension in our education system - teachers who say they aren't valued enough, not given the respect, wages or resources they deserve, and others who point out that some teachers aren't held to high enough performance standards, which affects what kids learn or don't learn in the classroom. Another challenge is getting the really talented teachers to stay in education before burning out. That means honoring those who are at the top of their game. Here's President Obama at the Teacher of the Year ceremony earlier this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: They are not just teaching formulas or phonetics. They're selling hope.

MARTIN: To mark the beginning of this new school year, we're bringing you the perspectives of two teachers as they think about the challenges ahead. For The Record today, what it takes to teach.

TOM BERGEN: My name is Tom Bergen. I'm a teacher in Denver at North High School. And this is going to be my 10th year in education, which is pretty crazy to think about 'cause it just seems like yesterday that I started. It's kind of a weird journey. I was always a really quiet kid in school, and I was very, very shy. But one day, I took one of those tests that said, oh, you might be good at teaching - or a mechanic (laughter).

PAMELA GUY: My name is Pamela Guy, and I am a teacher here at Austin Multiplex High School in Chicago, Ill., West Side of Chicago. I have been teaching 10 and half years.

MARTIN: When Pamela Guy was in college, she wanted to be an accountant, but a friend encouraged her to check out education. And after she did her first stint as a student-teacher on the South Side of Chicago, she was hooked.

GUY: It just sparked me, you know, when I would see the light bulb turn on with them. And I said, this is something I can definitely do.

MARTIN: Finding your calling is one thing, but standing up in front of a class - your own class, for the very first time - is quite another. Tom Bergen remembers his first day.

BERGEN: Oh, it was terrifying. You know the feeling of when you were in high school and you'd have to get up and give a speech. But now it's a bunch of people that have higher expectations of you. And, you know, I scripted out every single thing that I said. They all sensed how nervous I was and just kind of rolled with it, but, boy, I think I sweated through my shirt.

MARTIN: Tom Bergen says his school had been one of the lowest performing in the city, and he was brought in as part of a program to turn it around.

BERGEN: They bring in more teachers, they bring in intervention specialists, more psychologists - things like that. My first year was tough 'cause it was a new school, a new population. You know, I had never broken up so many fights in my life.

MARTIN: Pamela Guy's school is in a tough neighborhood. Students have a lot of odds stacked against them, and it puts added pressure on her and the other teachers.

GUY: I wear many hats. I may have to be mom sometimes. I may have to be a counselor sometimes. I may have to be a lawyer. There's a lot of situations where you don't have as much parental involvement. And with that, it's always a daily task of, you know, what will I have to do today? Or, what do I need to bring to class today? It may food. It may just be an ear to hear what's going on.

MARTIN: Over the past 10 years, both of these teachers have had a low point, a moment when they thought, maybe they're not cut out for this work. For Tom, it was this one group of kids.

BERGEN: It was one of those classes where the culture going on in the class was almost beyond my control. And I was doing everything, you know, all the tools in my toolbox that I could get out and try to re-engage and get everything back, you know, where it needs to be. And at that point, I was just tired, and I didn't know what to do. And I thought, well, why don't I just write them a letter? And I just put my heart out there about why I valued them and their class.

MARTIN: Pamela Guy remembers her low point. It was one particular day with one particular student.

GUY: I was teaching a lesson, and he was not having a good day. And this was maybe my second year of teaching, so I was still fairly new. And everything I was saying, everything I was doing, he had some rebuttal or something - some comment, and it was always negative. And I just turned around. I said, what is wrong with you? I said, whatever you're going through, I don't have anything to do with it, and I need you to pay your attention. Otherwise you can leave because this is not jail, and you're here to learn. If that's not your choice, you need to leave.

MARTIN: Later, she was venting to another teacher who knew this student.

GUY: And she said, well, you know what? His mom passed away, and she actually died in his arms. And to hear that, it really hurt me. And so when I went home, I had to really think about what can I do to make this situation better? Because now I felt like I was the problem. Here I am, a mother figure, and he has lost his mom, and I treat him with disrespect instead of love and respect.

MARTIN: Pamela realized that there are some students who come to her broken, in a way. And before they can learn, they have to heal. Tom's breakthrough came with that letter he decided to write to his students - that class where he felt he'd lost all control. He put in that letter all the reasons he loved teaching, and then, he took a big risk - he asked his students to write back.

BERGEN: And they all either, like, owned up to it or said, I'm going to be a proactive part of changing this. And every day, I would start class, I would put their quotes anonymously up on the board and have them reflect on it and share what they thought, and then we would launch into class. And it completely flipped it. By the end of the class year, it was one of my favorite places to be.

MARTIN: According to a 2014 study by the Alliance for Excellent Education, every year in this country, roughly half a million teachers either move to a different, often more affluent, school, or they leave education altogether. The pay isn't great. The work is emotionally trying and the hours can be long. So Pamela Guy says teachers have to put their heart into this work.

GUY: Because you're going to be pulled on, and it's going to be so much required and asked of you that you have to be willing. And only the strong will survive.

MARTIN: Pamela isn't sure if she'll stay in the classroom for another 10 years. She'd like to get into administration. I asked Tom Bergen if he thinks of teaching as a long-term career.

BERGEN: That's been my goal. It's a tough thing to be in the long haul for. It's mentally very taxing. You know, when I got into this, I thought, you know, I'm going to give this a go for as long as I can, and until I find something that's as rewarding as teaching, I'm going to be here.

MARTIN: Tom Bergen, a teacher at North High School in Denver, and Pamela Guy, who teaches at Austin Multiplex High School in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.