The Straw That Broke the Teacher’s Back
My teaching career began at the age of twenty-one, straight out of college, in a second-grade classroom in a small town outside of Concord, North Carolina. Early in my career I thought I wanted to teach the little ones, but I learned rather quickly my personality was better suited to middle-school students. So after a few years of teaching in elementary school, I transitioned to teaching in middle school, where I remained for the next twelve years.
Throughout my middle-school years, I taught English Language Arts (ELA) and Social Studies. I coached sports teams and served as grade team leader, curriculum chair, and student teaching supervisor, mentored new teachers and initiated many programs and clubs in the schools I served in North Carolina and New York City.
I taught students firsthand how rewarding it is to learn while traveling. We took summer trips to the Grand Canyon, Canada, London, Paris, and Rome. I worked diligently every year to secure grant funds so I could have the most current literature in my classroom library. I also worked with local organizations to ensure my students could visit museums, attend plays, and have other cultural experiences so they could learn about the world around them.
After meeting my Brooklynite husband during the tenth year of my teaching career, I was ready for the adventure of city life. My first New York City teaching job was in Spanish Harlem. While some days I wondered if I would make it from the school to the train station alive, I fell in love with my inner-city students—their strengths, their struggles, and especially their big-city survival skills.
The last four years of my teaching career were in an excellent school in Manhattan. I had never taught with a more dedicated and unified staff. The students were also some of the most kindhearted and intelligent I had had the honor of teaching.
Upon accepting a teaching position in New York City, I was well aware I would need to return to college and earn my master’s degree, as this is a certification requirement for this state. I enrolled in Brooklyn College and began working towards a degree in Biology Education. I also knew that I would be losing the tenured position I had worked so hard to earn during my first ten years of teaching in North Carolina. While I wasn’t thrilled about the latter point, because it meant, once again, “proving” myself to a new school district, I accepted it. Within three years of teaching in New York City, my tenure had been granted to me once again.
In October of 2012, two months before I was to graduate with a my Masters Degree, I learned something that would change the course of my life and career. I had just been informed by the New York City certification department that I would lose my tenure, again, once I began teaching under my new biology certification the following fall.
I was livid. I cried. I screamed. I made phone calls. And with each person I spoke to, the news was consistent: Because I was switching from a certification in ELA to Biology, my tenure would be taken from me, and I would have to prove, once again, that I was a teacher worthy of keeping.
I guess you can say that I had had enough, 15 years into the career. And you know what the sad part was? I LOVED teaching…I still do. But I just got so tired of the policies and the “proving of myself” over and over again. I rarely felt appreciated, valued or heard in the teaching profession, no matter how high my ratings were, how much growth my students showed on the exams, or no matter how much work I put in.
So, I decided it was time to change paths—before bitterness and resentment set in. I turned in my resignation in June 2013, and I’ve been teaching future teachers at Brooklyn College, I became the author of my memoir about my exit of public education, and I have turned much of my time to speaking about student-centered education reform. (I can talk now openly, without being fired!)
Above all, I am committed to giving teachers a voice in education reform—because we shouldn’t be left out from the discussions. We are the very professionals who know what is happening in public schools. To help amplify the voices of teachers and students across this nation, I recently launched a podcast entitled Transforming Public Education: Creating REAL Reform Through Compassion, Love, and Gratitude. The goal of the podcast? To give teachers, parents, administrators, and students a voice—and to help transform schools into places where students and teachers can’t wait to get their days started. I do hope you will take a listen to the show—and if you’d like to be a guest, please reach out to me via email.
REAL education reform requires many voices, working on a variety of platforms, and a variety of issues. But the one voice that is consistently missing is the voice of educators. We can change that as a profession. We can blog, we can podcast, we can speak to our legislators. There are countless ways to get involved—in a way that feels safe and authentic to you. Because, in the end, there are many straws that are breaking so many teachers’ backs\ across this country. Let’s work together to change that.
M. Shannon Hernandez is a college professor, former public school teacher of 15 years, education activist, and author of the book, Breaking the Silence: My Final Forty Days as a Public School Teacher. Shannon’s podcast, Transforming Public Education is a voice for educators and a cry for student-centered education reform. Shannon blogs passionately about public education for her website and The Huffington Post.