There are easier ways to earn a living.
Talk to any teacher in any district in the country right now, and they will tell you that an already-difficult job has gotten exponentially harder in the last few years.
Even before the pandemic, kids were struggling with immense spikes in anxiety and other mental health issues fueled, in part, by the explosion of social media. Vaping means more — and younger — kids are high in school. And despite our best efforts to protect students, the world — climate change, politics, hatred and violence delivered directly into their palms all day — weighs heavily upon them. For a lot of kids, the crisis is existential. COVID supercharged all of this, adding grief, learning loss, and social deficits to the mix.
Of course teachers want out. In a National Education Association survey last year, 55 percent of respondents said they were thinking of leaving the profession.
So why do those who stay stick it out — especially teachers who work in schools that have extraordinary challenges, even for 2023?
Ayesha Hoda leads the Middle School Academy at the Jeremiah Burke School in Dorchester. Students there perform far below state averages on standardized tests. A student was stabbed outside the Burke just after the school year began in September. In October, a 17-year-old shot an 18-year-old fellow student outside the school.
Hoda, 36, arrived at the school last year after 14 years working in difficult circumstances in the Bronx, so she figured she could handle it. But this moment in America, and the school’s unique challenges, made her feel like a failure almost immediately. Until she realized she had to think of her job differently.
“By December my mind-set had shifted,” she said, speaking in her office on a recent afternoon. “I was able to see this as a long-term plan, not something that was going to change in a few months, or even a year.” She had to convince her students that she wasn’t going anywhere, she said. Eventually, they began to trust her. And she had to recalibrate her expectations, to widen them beyond the abysmal math scores.
“I started letting go of outside evaluation systems of our success [in favor of] a positive culture and belonging and community,” she said. Some of these kids are in crisis. Some have lost parents, or siblings.
“How am I asking you to sit there and focus on a linear equation when this just happened?” she said.
Getting kids to show up every day is an achievement. Kids who cursed her out at the start of the year are now showing up for detention, accepting accountability. As she spoke, there were constant knocks at the door, from middle-schoolers who seemed to want nothing except to be with her. Some of them will show her essays they’re proud of. They might not show up on state scorecards, but these are huge wins.
“You have to focus on those wins, or you’ll go crazy,” Hoda said.
She has been struck by how much the Burke feels like a family. Those who work there are not just educating kids, but raising them as if they were their own.
So when you ask Hoda what keeps her at the school, the answer is easy.
“You don’t give up on your own children,” she said.
After 20 years at the McKinley Prep High School — the South End school for kids with emotional and behavioral challenges recently renamed for late Boston civil rights giant Mel King — Jason Samaha, 47, wanted a change. He had read all of the unflattering stories about Madison Park Technical Vocational High School over the decades — the academic struggles, the staff turnover (the school currently has 17 open positions), the herculean and so far failed efforts to make it a prized magnet. None of it turned him off.
“I talked to a teacher who works here,” said Samaha, who teaches 10th grade English. “I came over and took a look around and I liked what I saw.”
The students — in cosmetology, plumbing, and other shops — are enterprising problem-solvers, he said. For some of them, the school’s partnership with Bunker Hill Community College has been immensely successful, giving them college credit in addition to high school degrees.
When a lesson doesn’t go according to plan, “it’s never the kids,” Samaha said. It’s on him to recalibrate for the next time, he said, to provide better scaffolding so students are free to analyze a poem like the gorgeous “Ode to Dirt,” by Sharon Olds. If one lesson bombs, the next one redeems it, he said. He reckons 99 percent of his students have grown academically in the last year. But Samaha has grown, too.
“Every single day … a student has taught me something, or made me think about something in a new way,” he said. “I like to think I’m a smart and thoughtful guy, but they’ll say, ‘Hey, did you ever think about this?’ It always surprises me.”
He knows it may sound dishonest, but he never has very bad days at Madison Park.
“There is always light in there somewhere,” he said.
There is no tragedy that can befall Connell Cloyd’s students at Dorchester’s Henderson Inclusion School with which the seventh grade math teacher is not already personally familiar. He grew up in Memphis, in a neighborhood where drugs and gangs burned destructive paths. He knows the grief of losing parents when you’re young. Cloyd, 43, struggled at times to stay in school, but math — and great teachers — saved him, pushing him to excel, and to go after scholarships that got him to Phillips Academy in Andover, and then Tufts University.
“My story is real enough that it can resonate with them,” Cloyd said. When he comforts a kid who has lost his brother unexpectedly, he can say he’s been there, trying to get through that first day back at school, after his own mother died suddenly.
At the Henderson, students with disabilities learn in the same classrooms as those without them. The school has long been beloved by families, but in the last couple of years, violent episodes — and slipping standards — have led some of those families to leave. Most notably, the principal of the upper school was attacked and seriously injured by a 16-year-old student in 2021.
“These things have been happening in public education for years,” Cloyd said. “My heart goes out … but I am not affected in a way that is going to make me step away.”
The hardest part of his job, Cloyd said, is the pressure of “making the numbers,” raising math scores on which “your school’s existence is really predicated. The weight of that falls on me.”
But not heavily enough to make him consider leaving. He lives five minutes from the Henderson, so the school’s community is his community, too. He has stayed invested in his students up through high school and beyond.
“I share their fears and hopes and aspirations, their families invite me to things, I am part of their lives,” he said. “If I just walk away I would be another life that has left them.”
He can see how the work might burn people out.
“If you can’t let some things go, then it will consume you,” he said. “Every day you walk out of here with 60 lives in your head, then you’ve got your own life.”
And every morning Cloyd walks in and, no matter what is going on with him, “you put on a show that math is the most important thing you need to learn.”
Even on the toughest days, it’s not hard to remember why he keeps coming back.
“Education is still beautiful,” he said.