It’s June. The classroom walls are bare. The grit outlined empty spaces left behind by charts, posters, reading lists and student work jut out starkly against the grime. The books are packed away into crates labeled with room numbers. Chairs are stacked, the broken ones separated from those still hanging on. Hallways that had since August reverberated with the unmistakable cacophony of school now echo with silence. The diplomas have been distributed. The awards announced. The mailings stuffed. It’s time to go home. But this year is different. It’s my last one as a high school English teacher; at least for now. I’ve been in classrooms ranging from pre-K to 12th grade for the last 14 years. The last eight of those years have been at a charter school in West Philadelphia. Our first graduating class was in 2011. I was their teacher. I have taught nearly every senior that has walked across that graduation stage to receive their diploma. I have taught two, three, sometimes four siblings from the same families and innumerable cousins. I walk down the street and cars roll down their windows, voices yelling out, “Hi Mr. Wright!” Families know me. And I know them. And as I pack up room 103 for the last time, I am shaken with sadness, pride and, yes, shame. I have spent nearly a quarter of my life serving and learning from this West Philadelphia community. And now, as I prepare to drive away for the last time, I feel like I am leaving family. There is much to be proud of. Huge student growth. College acceptances, scholarships and graduations. Teaching awards. Memories and lessons that, at least for myself, will last a lifetime. But there is also the shame that I cannot separate from the act of leaving the classroom. I’m not leaving education. Indeed, I will be in more schools than ever, supporting first- and second-year teachers as they embark on their teaching careers. But there is the inescapable fact that leaving the classroom is akin to leaving the trenches and retreating backwards to the safety and comfort of the homefront. The classroom is where it happens. The daily interplay, the literally thousands of decisions that are made in the classroom every day, the innumerable connections and communications between teachers and students. Those are the times when the magic happens, the times when lives, of teacher and student alike, are changed forever. There is nothing,
nothing in this world, like the power and energy and magic of the humming classroom. It is intoxicating, draining, exhausting and electrifying. And even though I know it is time for me to step outside of the classroom, at least for now, it fills me with incomparable sadness and shame, exacerbated by the fact that as word spread through the school, it was the younger students, the sophomores and juniors, who came up to me and demanded to know why I was leaving now, just when they were about to set foot in my classroom. “It’s time,” was all I could muster. I tip my cap to all teachers who stay in the classroom, who take their summer to recharge, lace their shoes back up, and get back to the grind of doing the magic and work that so many people write and pontificate about, but don’t have the courage to actually do. You are all stronger than I.
Photo courtesy of Zachary Wright.
Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating ...