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“You’re gonna be a teacher?”

“You are going to fuck some kids up.”

“No offense but I wouldn’t send my kid to your class after knowing who you are.”

“You are going to go to work drunk and get fired.”

“I don’t get how you are going to be a teacher.”

“Your kids aren’t going to learn anything with you as the teacher.”

And we laugh it off like it is no big deal.

All things I have heard throughout my college career. I don’t blame them, I can admit that I have made some pretty terrible choices. That doesn’t dictate who I am as a professional.

Starting a new job or career is always nerve racking. We have our own doubts and often ask ourselves a variety of questions: “Will I be successful? Am I good enough? Will I fail?” To the extent of our knowledge we don’t know unless we try.  An attempt we are sometimes too timid or objective to take. And that is what I did, I packed up my bags and left for Arizona in an attempt to do my best and make a positive difference as a teacher. Many people have asked me why Arizona, why can I not be a teacher in Oregon? To answer that we have to reflect back on my past education and experiences to what makes me tick.

It was the winter term of 2014. I was taking this class where the cohort and I learned more about different aspects of education. As cliché as it sounds, this class was different. One of the main issues we discussed were the differences between bilingual educations versus English Language Development (ELD). As a cohort we talked about how different states implement various bilingual education and ELD programs where evidence-based practices/research are often overlooked by the politics of a state. To be sort, states whose politics influence how these types of education programs are implemented are often detrimental to a student’s education which leads to an entire student population to be disenfranchised. This ignited a fire in me to want to move to Arizona, a state with a poor ELD program that does not work, to be an ELD teacher in order to attempt to make a difference.

You may ask yourself, “How does he know ELD has a poor ELD program, he has never taught there nor has he ever lived there.” So, I’ll let some of the statistics do the talking:

Before the implementation of this program, in 2006, there was a graduation rate of 44% among ELLs. In recent years the graduation rate has significantly declined to 25% in 2010-2011. Compare that to the 85% graduation rate among Caucasians and 72% among Latinos; as you can infer, there is something wrong with how Arizona is handling ELD education. Regardless, I was still optimistic and eager to get into the classroom. I had the mentality of a first-year teacher, I can make a difference.

Five months later I was presented with not one but three opportunities to teach in Arizona – one of the lowest ranked K-12 education states. So which district do I go to? Of the three, two were the #1 and #2 best districts in the state. So me being me, I picked the district that was not ranked. If I was going to make a difference I want to work in an area that needs good teachers the most. But who is to say I am a good teacher? I guess I’ll just have to find out for myself.

As the days came closer to my move date I couldn’t help but ask myself the questions above, which left me feeling inadequate for the job. Eventually, I made it to Arizona where district provided a one week new teacher training with a first day breakfast mingle. I was definitely nervous, yet excited. Nervous that I didn’t pay enough attention in school, excited to meet new people and scope the babes. Needless to say, everyone was talking about how great their university was and all that garbage. To add to that nonsense, no one likes the Ducks. After the breakfast we broke off into our group trainings. This is where I noticed something big. Everything the trainers were trying to teach was redundant to the other Oregon graduates and me. We/I learned all of this stuff in my program at UO – at the time was #2 among public and #8 overall for graduate level education programs. What a relief, if the district picked a bunch of teachers who didn’t know this stuff already, then that gave me a little wiggle room and space to breathe.

Along with the group trainings were the separate ELD trainings. This is where I received my first dose of reality in the realm of Arizona ELD. I learned that the state implements Structured English Immersion (SEI) – an intensive program that uses the four hour ELD instruction model (explicit English learning) to a group of students who did not pass the AZELLA (a test that is extremely hard and only has to be taken if one person in the household speaks another language other than English – some students have to take it even if their first language is English). This was mind blowing to me, so of course I spoke my mind to my superiors during these classes. I even asked questions I already knew the answers to see how he or she would react. The looks on their faces were priceless when I was asking the hard questions. Sometimes they had to think before spoke, other times they simply had no answer. Which is fine, I would rather have no answer than an answer that is bogus.

Eventually, it was the first day of school and a thousand things were racing through my mind. “Holy shit, I am responsible for 30 students. What did I just get myself into? These kids are crazy! Why won’t they shut up? Did that kid just curse? I can’t believe I laughed at that. I’m definitely blowing it. I guess I deserve this for the shit of a student I was growing up. When do we start actually doing something? I hope the principal doesn’t walk in to this chaos. I need a drink.” The first day was a disaster and of course I winged it. Something I highly do not recommend doing. But, I guess that is just my style and always has been, why change it? I figured I would learn as I go, adapting my expectations to the chemistry of the classroom.

As the first week of school was coming to an end I was getting to know my students better. I was beginning to handle my students and lessons more efficiently and effectivity. Of the 30, I only had 4 who did not speak English. Which I was fine with. I did not mind nor did I consider it a burden. I had a translator on my phone and students who could help.

A few weeks past and I was loving all the different characteristics my students displayed. A lot of them were goofy, some of them cursed, and others were quiet. The quiet students eventually came out of their shell. While this was going on I did not change my personality. I made jokes, shared stories, danced, and laughed with them. Knowing this side of them was only the beginning.

I eventually started to learn about their home life from what they have told me and what had to be told to me from my administrators. Shit was getting real over the first couple months. From students dealing with divorce, homelessness, anxiety of being in a new culture and the reasons behind why, all the way to the loss of a parent; I did not know how I could deal with this. It is literally heartbreaking knowing the kids I have grown to love to be so strong. One day I was told a story about one of my students. A story so traumatizing, it brought me to tears. Another example is of a story where a student came to me during the second week of school and said he was sorry for missing the previous week because he was at his cousin’s funeral. He hand wrote me a letter detailing what happened to him. I have multiple students who came to this country without their parents. For reasons, I can’t explain – I either don’t know or it’s confidential. They live with relatives, in a new area, and barely knowing the language. They are closed off to the world they once knew. The holidays were especially tough for the students whose parents were not around.

It was a normal day in December. I was talking about what was going on in a book we were reading and as I was blabbing on about something I noticed a student of mine, a little 4th grade girl and cute as can be, crying in her desk. Did I do something wrong? I stop the class and tell everyone to chill and keep reading. I walk up to her, kneel down, and ask her, “What’s going on, are you okay?” In Spanish, because she is learning English and I didn’t want to add more stress to whatever she was crying about. She keeps her head buried in arms and asks for another student to come over, as if there weren’t students already trying to help. I told her that it is okay to speak in Spanish, I’ll do my best. I understand everything.  With tears running down her face and hands trying to dry them away she states that she misses her mom and dad. My heart sunk. She is here, pretty much on her own living with her aunt. It’s getting close to Christmas and she can’t help but think of her family who are still in Mexico. I ask her if there is anything I can do (knowing the only thing I can is just be there. I see the majority, if not all, these kids more than their parents do on a daily basis.) I tell her that if she wants she can take her time and go wash up and that if she ever feels this way she can either leave or talk to me. I say this to give her space and to let her know that I care how she is feeling.

For every sad story I have a more stories of triumph and growth; from the littlest wins (knowing basic multiplication facts – which I get stoked on) to huge demonstrations of character growth academically, socially, and personally. Now, you might get some sort of impression of this 4th grade girl who does not speak English but this little girl is resilient and strong. More so than myself and a lot of people I know. When up against a challenge she knows how to give it her all.

The school spelling bee, an event most students automatically dread. All the kids in the school were there along with teachers and some parents. Due to having a class made up of 4th and 5th graders I had to nominate one from each grade. Of the two students, only one spoke fluent English. The student who didn’t speak English was the student described above.

Before the spelling be I asked her if she wanted to compete and told her that the words will only be in English. She knew that and wanted to proceed anyways. I was nervous yet proud of her. Nervous, because I knew this bee could be detrimental to her confidence. Proud, despite her huge obstacle she was willing to take it on head first.

I was ridiculed by some of my colleagues for my choice because, “she didn’t speak a lick of English” among other things. At first I was confident that she could compete and hold her own with the other mainstream students. After being mocked for my choice I was beginning to become discouraged.

Her self-confidence is on the line (something strive to build with all my students). Did I make the wrong choice? I did not know what do to. Before the bee started I gave then both a few words of encouragement and told them no matter what I would be proud. Both of the scared looks on their faces began to fade.

The bee started and I had an incredible nervous feeling for both of them welling up in my stomach. Scared that the 4th grader would miss the first word. What have I done? It was almost time for her to go up in front of the whole school. I could see the scared and nervous feeling she had on her face. It was her turn and I was on the edge of my seat. Slowly and nervously, she walked up to the microphone in front of an audience of a few hundred students and staff.  She was given the first word and had a few moments to think. She slowly spelled the word out, “s-o-r-r-y.” Before the judges could tell her she was correct I jumped in the air and was the loudest person in the room. Definitely was not modelling proper spelling bee behavior, but I did not care. My student lit up with the biggest smile on her face and trotted back to her seat. The rest of my class jumped up and clapped for her, and I did not care because they were supporting a classmate. Let me tell you, no other teacher as close to being as pumped on their own students as I was for mine. The rest of my class jumped up and clapped for her, and I did not care because they were supporting a classmate.

Eventually, she misspelled a word. A word that is difficult for me to spell. My heart sank and I felt my face droop. The whole class felt the same pain I did and you could visually see it on all their faces, even from the 5th grader who was still on the stage. I could not let my kid see me like that, so I stood up to clap and cheer her on. She walked down with her head hanging. All I could do was say that I was proud of her ad give her a fist bump. The rest of the day she was cheeky.

Stories like these are what give me motivation to do whatever I can for all my students and students of the school. So if I have to butt heads with my superiors, then so be it. My kids come first. I know I have the knowledge and research skills to back up my talking points and questions. Before moving down to Arizona my cohort was told not to shake things up too much in fear of losing our first teaching jobs by our professors. If you know me, I totally ignored that advice.

After a few weeks I was getting super fed up with how ELD was structured. The ELD standards (curriculum), were in my opinion, stupid. Discriminating students based on if someone at home speaks another language pissed me off – I had one student in my class whose first language was English and didn’t know any other language (Her parents told me they felt discriminated against because of her last name (I can expand on this later if you want)). I have two students who passed AIMS yet failed AZELLA. AIMS is the standardized test that is given to all mainstream students and is harder than AZELLA. An academic test versus a language test. My students were being disenfranchised and it was really starting to piss me off. Especially since every time I tried to talk to my superiors, not my principal but my induction coach (a person who specialized in ELD and is there to help new teachers with questions of any sort), she would pretty much not answer the question or give a vague answer (I would typically ask the tough questions in front of large groups of people, kind of a dick move but whatever).

On a Friday afternoon my induction coach decided to come in to pay me a five minute visit to see how I was doing. That five minute check-in turned into three hours of discussion on policies, efficiency of the curriculum and ideas on how to carry it out, the discrimination of my students and others through the PHLOTE form (a form that asks if anyone at home speaks another language other than English and if so that student will have to take the AZELLA) and AIMS versus AZELLA proficiency. For the majority of the questions about how to carry out the curriculum she gave a sufficient answer and it was very helpful. But, for the questions regarding discrimination and efficacy of AIMS in substitution for AZELLA I received no sufficient answer. I asked my induction coach if a student was to pass AIMS is that a sign of English proficiency. My coach replied yes, going into detail about how AIMS is harder than AZELLA (which is where I received my argument from before). Using her logic and answer against her I told her the situation that was going on with two of my students who passed AIMS yet didn’t pass AZELLA. She did not have an answer. Instead she wanted to look at the data. I showed her their scores. My coach was stumped and struggling to find a sufficient reply. Her answer: they didn’t pass it enough.

I was furious but kept my cool. After the meeting we went our separate ways to the parking lot. I hoped in my car, hung up my keys, and yelled fuck as loud as I could. I tried to fight for my students and seemingly lost that battle.

“(Student’s name 5th grade) has shown so much growth at home. He is so much more mature now than he was in previous years. He used to hate going to school, but now he comes home, does his homework, and is excited to go to school in the mornings. I don’t know what you did but thank you.” – Student’s parents

“Thank you so much for standing up for my family. Before, when we brought this issue up with their previous teachers nothing happened. I’m so glad to have you here, now we can get her on the right track.” – Student who only knew English’s parent. Student is now in a mainstream classroom and doing working hard.

“I don’t know how to thank you guys (my colleague and I). No one has ever put this much effort into our son before. – translation” – Student’s parent who broke down in tears after hearing her son who has autism is improving

Do the quotes from above match the person you read about today? Every person is different and has more than one side to him or her. Something I will remember and implement in my own teachings. The student who acts out, gets in fights, and curses, there is more than one side to him or her and there may be something at home triggering those behavioral tendencies. As a teacher, it is not only my job to educate these kids but to nurture them. How I react to various situations can and will shape them. My success as a professional is based on the degrees hanging on my parents’ walls or the amount of money I make. My success stems from the achievements of my students, peers, and colleagues.

By David Crownover

About the Author:

David Crowner is a University of Oregon graduate and a teacher in Arizona.