Near the end of my second year of teaching in a traditional public school, a massive brawl broke out in the hallway just outside of my classroom. Six or seven students—boys and girls—rolled around on the ground, punching and kicking, pulling hair, shouting. The two other teachers on my hallway were planning and out of their classrooms, so I quickly called an administrator for help—an understatement for what was needed. Ultimately, it was the final straw in a series of frustrations and challenges that led me to apply for a teaching position at a different school. The school I was at was failing; in fact, it had been “fresh started” during my first year, meaning the entire staff had been let go the year before and rebuilt from the ground up. Now, during my second year, it wasn’t showing signs of fast improvement. I applied to a charter organization that served a similar demographic of students (90 percent or more of the students were low-income and receiving free or reduced price lunch) and had been building its school out for the past several years. I secured a position as an eighth-grade writing teacher, a high pressure position considering the state planned to administer expository writing and multiple choice exams at the end of the year. It wasn’t my dream teaching position—I’d always wanted to teach high school—but it was a smooth transition from ninth grade and I was looking forward to continuing my work in a different environment. I didn’t choose this school because it had less fights in the hallway (it did have them, but they were rare, small and the consequences were steeper), nor did I choose it because I thought it would be easier (the hours were longer, the curriculum was new). I chose it because I saw it as a place where both the students and the teachers were deeply valued and where the vision of the school shaped every decision; school culture was a priority and student behavior that got in the way of instruction was unacceptable. To my surprise, I received a salary offer that easily compensated for the longer school day. My planning time was extraordinary, topping out at nearly two and a half hours some days. I never once broke up a fight and never witnessed one. My principal came and spoke to me regularly, sharing personal and professional wisdom and checking in on my classroom. My colleagues and I collaborated not out of necessity, but out of desire and genuine interest. Students drove our decision making and our vision. Still, it’s easy to only think of students when we hear the phrase “school choice.” If my child’s zoned school is failing, do I have anywhere else to send him? If I can’t get transportation to the school I want to send my student to, is it available? Is the best school for my child free of cost? These are all important questions to ask about our students, but it’s also important for us to think about our teachers. There’s a false war waged between traditional public schools and public charter schools. These schools can and should learn from one another. However, as a former teacher with experience in both, I know that it’s important for teachers to find schools that are the best fit for them professionally, just like it’s imperative that students are in a thriving school and environment that suits their learning. Teachers must have opportunities to grow personally and professionally; they must feel safe and supported, and they must feel as though what they are doing is truly valued by both the students and the staff. Teaching is a selfless profession, certainly, but it is not martyrdom and it does not need to be. School choice is an integral part of any healthy public school system, for both students and teachers.
Liz Riggs is a writer and educational equity advocate who lives in Nashville, Tennessee.