In my fourteenth year of teaching in American schools, I’ve had many highlights. This spring, several of my former students met with President Obama. And this May, on National Teacher’s Day, I was invited to the White House. I was exhilarated. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm didn’t last long, as I parted with my colleague—Ms. Alicia Hudson, whom I had sensed was at a breaking point— just one month later.
Ms. Hudson had 16 years of teaching experience. Her frustrations began with the lack of focus on our professional development and support for our growth as educators. The system didn’t feel reflective of our commitment to our students or our true ability to thrive in the classroom.
Teachers are being asked to do more than ever before, making it a more difficult and demanding profession. The bar is being raised for kids, schools, and teachers.
Teachers do not desire to leave a profession in which they’ve invested years of time and energy. Ms. Hudson learned Spanish fluently as an adult and was a devoted educator of English language learners. Her fluency placed parents at ease during our conferences.
My students asked about my co-teacher early in September: “But Ms. Oliver, where is Ms. Hudson? Where is she? Is she ok?”
They stared at me with innocent eyes as they asked about Ms. Hudson. Our students suffer when we lose a veteran teacher—especially one of color. Ms. Hudson’s presence made our students feel accepted and validated their experiences.
Of course, I knew where she was—but I couldn’t tell them the truth. Last year we were introduced to three new software programs to implement along with a new grade-level of reading and math curriculum. The final straw was the implementation of a new format of quarterly computerized testing to accommodate national testing. Our third graders couldn’t type, or even manipulate a mouse, yet we had to meet expectations. Ms. Hudson was exasperated.
If we had significantly more time and support for teachers to succeed, including thorough planning and collaboration, we’d still have her with us. Our planning time was continuously interrupted with “meetings.” The design for professional learning should address the teachers’ needs, while fostering feedback for improvement in a non-competitive space.
Furthermore, urban teachers must confront societal ills, including poverty. Our students are constantly in transition, often with no one to help them on their homework. Supplies come out of our own pockets. We are expected to be positive and encouraging at all times despite the challenges. And yet, we weren’t provided adequate support or compensation to best serve our students.
So when Josue, one of her students who made impressive gains in speaking proficiency and reading, asked again in October, “Where was Ms. Hudson?” in quiet reverence, I responded that she is well, and working in another noble profession.
I know why she left—for all of the above reasons. After realizing the need to accommodate new students arriving from war-torn countries with little capacity with the English language, Ms. Hudson pitched a “Newcomers’ Program” to the administration. Josue’s participation in this program increased his confidence in academics. The loss of a veteran teacher like Ms. Hudson is experienced by all—colleagues, parents, and most importantly, the students.
I am cautious to likening teachers to superheroes. Yet as I reflect on my time with Ms. Hudson spent introducing peace to students with gang affiliations and sometimes instances of abuse, we were a dynamic duo.
As educators, we are on the front lines of education in America. Ms. Hudson and I didn’t need a new initiative or supervisors to be effective—we held each other accountable and when we didn’t agree; our solution always centered around what was best for our students. We needed someone to truly hear us.
I joined #TeachStrong because we teachers need support and tools to teach all of America’s students.
Shakera Oliver has taught at Brightwood Education Campus for seven years. She is a Washington Teachers’ Union Teacher Leader and an Army veteran. She believes a diverse teacher workforce is critical for educating America’s 21st Century learners.