This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
I made the decision to become a high school teacher while sitting in Mr. Mendelson’s Honors U.S. Studies class in the 11th grade. Wiry with a wry sense of humor, he was not the first teacher to make an impression on me, but he was the first who made me imagine what it would be like to teach. He made me think. He made me want to do my best. He miraculously made The Red Badge of Courage interesting. Most importantly, he made me want to be a part of this world that includes inspiring students to think critically and creatively on a daily basis.
In that same year, I was given Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol as a Christmas present and devoured it. Though this text is perhaps now a clichéd introduction to urban education issues, it was transformative for me. I particularly connected with the chapter on East St. Louis, which forced me to reconcile the fact that an entirely different world existed just across the river from my suburban St. Louis high school. From that point on, I knew that I would always work in an urban high school, but I never knew that my path would take me to Philadelphia. I came here as a Teach For America transplant four years ago; for me, the organization was a means to teach in a city with the supports I instinctively knew I would need. Now that I’m here in Philadelphia, I can’t imagine being anywhere else, or doing anything else, and I plan to continue teaching here for as long as they’ll have me.
While I remain very much committed to Philadelphia public schools, I am also interested in exploring through this blog the idea of teacher sustenance. I hope to begin discussion on such critical questions for teachers as: how do you maintain hope in an environment that sometimes seems hopeless? How do you continue to bring creativity and commitment every day to a place that everyone is simultaneously trying to escape from? How do you ward off disillusionment, even as a new teacher? And, how do you stay connected to the passion that brought you into teaching when you passionately hate all the testing that takes you away from doing what you love?
Some of my teaching mentors began their careers in Philadelphia public schools during the 1970s. Besides admiring the impact they have had on students in Philadelphia, I have often marveled at how they stayed in the district for so long without losing steam or focus. Perhaps they are made of a different stuff than other teachers who struggle to stay, or maybe something truly is different about urban education today?
I have always appreciated the Notebook for validating the voices of the students and teachers of Philadelphia schools, which often go overlooked or overpowered, and I look forward to contributing to that chorus of voices here at this blog.