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Beyond burnout: One teacher’s trip back into the classroom

Photo: Kimberly Paynter | WHYY

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Tim McAleer’s day job is part stand-up comedian, part host to hordes of sunburned tourists aboard Philadelphia sightseeing buses.

It’s a pretty big departure from his last gig, as a middle school English teacher in West Philadelphia.

In Philadelphia, public school teachers drop out at a higher rate than students. Seventy percent leave the profession in their first six years, according to a 2007 report by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.

McAleer’s experience supports that statistic. At first, he thought leading tours around Center City and parts of West Philadelphia might just be a summer job.

"I knew I would enjoy it," he said. "I knew that it would allow me to entertain."

On any given weekend day, he leads three tours, simultaneously pointing out historical sites and ushering patrons on and off the route’s 27 stops. Oh, and he takes a lot of cracks at New Jersey (where he lives).

McAleer left teaching in 2013, after four years at Catholic and charter schools in Philadelphia and five years of substitute teaching in New York City. In many ways, that path was preordained, although it took him a while to get there.

"My family was pushing me in that direction, and I think that pushed me away from it," said McAleer. Instead, he worked as an on-court security guard for the US Open, stand-up comedian, substitute teacher and sports coach.

"I’m starting to sound like Forrest Gump," he said, ruefully.

‘I was going to change the world’

The pull of the classroom proved irresistible. "Right before I moved out of New York, I coached a varsity [baseball] team, and I saw I could have an impact," he said. "That’s when I decided I was going to school and get my degree."

Almost immediately after he finished his studies, a midyear replacement position — teaching 8th grade — opened up in a Philadelphia Catholic school.

"They had run two other teachers out before me," said McAleer. Still, he said he was optimistic. On his first day, "I came in all inspired. I was going to change the world."

His ideals quickly crashed into reality. In response to an essay prompt from McAleer, one of his students took him to task. "He said he’d seen this movie a thousand times before, the young Caucasian was going to come into the inner-city school and inspire his kids with words."

"Then he compared me to Michelle Pfeiffer," he said. That is, Pfeiffer playing an ex-Marine-turned-inner-city-teacher in the 1995 film "Dangerous Minds."

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

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