Julio C. Núñez describes his teaching experience in Philadelphia
Tears, laughs, museum visits, flawless and dreary lessons, fires, and street brawls were some of the highs and lows of my two-year tenure as a public school teacher in Kensington, one of the most poverty-stricken and dangerous sections of Philadelphia. There was also a constant: a deeper understanding of the needs of a community, and its perception of neglect from those who are supposed to support and advocate for it.
I started teaching in 2009, at the height of the recession, when the attitude towards teachers was rather welcoming. President Barack Obama, in his Inaugural Address, had just told Americans that “a new era of responsibility” was upon us; that “we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world.”
Even though it has just been a couple of years since thousands of individuals, like me, made the choice to teach, the current political atmosphere makes it feel like this fervent trend happened decades ago. Teaching was not only a way to serve our country; it was also the cool thing to do. So cool that even Tony Danza decided to trade his fame for chalk and a blackboard.
In 2010, the zeal for improving education had not subsided. In the midst of Waiting for Superman, and a less controversial back-to-school address by President Obama, Oprah Winfrey pledged a $6 million dollar donation to charter schools across the country–$1 million of this to Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg followed suit with a $100 million donation to Newark’s public schools.
A Bittersweet Exit
In the meantime, students, particularly English Language Learners (ELLs), like mine, are left in limbo. They risk losing essential support to make them advance academically, because their voice is not heard or understood, or deliberately ignored. Several bilingual and English Student of Other Languages (ESOL) teachers, and other bilingual staff, also received layoff notices—this, in a school where over 20 percent of the student population is identified as ELLs, and nearly 95 percent as economically disadvantaged.
My school is left with limited or no money for supplies. Copy paper is hard to come by, even to distribute important assignments like homework or tests. The students’ bathrooms are often without toilet paper. The sad part is that this appears to be only the beginning.
As the stimulus dollars expire, so does my employment. I leave this job in the middle of turmoil and palpable uncertainty, when attacking teachers is the easiest and most politically expedient argument to make to improve the education system. However, the focus should remain on our students because it is quite appalling what our leaders are doing to them in the name of helping them. The budget cuts affect us all. Yet, the real loss will be for students. For us teachers, it may be an unpleasant situation to go through; for them, it is a defining one.
My two years as a public school teacher have really changed my life. I had the honor and pleasure of serving amazing children with infinite potential. Every single one of them taught me something valuable. They taught me that giving them the benefit of the doubt is not such a bad thing; that it is better to ask than to tell; that it is better to hug than to yell. They taught me to write the letter ‘a’ with precision so it is not confused with the letter ‘u.’ Above all, they taught me how to be a better person, and for that, I will be grateful forever.
Along the way, I became entrenched with a community that welcomed me with open arms and gave me the benefit of the doubt; a community that is in need of all the support it can get and not the neglect it’s accustomed to getting. I learned to see these individuals as real people with dreams and aspirations, no matter how concealed they carry them. I learned to see them for who they are and not for what stereotypes say they are, because at one point, I was one of them.
Julio C. Núñez studied public policy at Georgetown University and is currently a bilingual elementary teacher in Philadelphia.