Why I Loved Prison (and other stories)

Lori Nazareno got me thinking. In her blog, “The Call of Something More,” she reminds me that many teachers want to be “more than assembly line workers in the industrial-age education machine we know as school … they feel a call to do more: to teach and lead their school, their district, and their profession.”

Amen, sister. I’ve felt this way from the first day.

My first job was at a private prison in Nashville. I was hired because one of the young executives spent quite a bit of time at the bar where I worked. He arranged an interview, and the company hired me to – wait for it – set up the whole school. I worked with the education director, who had never worked in education, to design the structure, curriculum, policies, and practices to serve 100 inmates. We hired staff, we designed classrooms, and we took pride in what we created.

For two years I took part in every decision we made about what was best for our students – a random assortment of medium security inmates hoping to make something of their extended stay with us.

When I left to teach in a public middle school, I never got used to the fact that no one expected me to have an opinion. I got in trouble a lot. My coworkers regularly advised me to keep my mouth shut. I sponsored the school newspaper. We published an issue that was critical of aspects of the school. After we distributed it, all full of excitement and pride, we raced to our classroom only to find our Journalism lab dismantled. No files. No computers. No table. And, no discussion.

Ironically, I had more freedom at the prison than I ever did at the middle school.

When I found my way to Western Hills High School in Frankfort, I joined committees, assisted with hiring, served on our SBDM, fixed computers – anything I could to have my voice included in all parts of my work. My administrators and colleagues seemed appreciative, and I loved it.

I am also fortunate to work in a district that has welcomed my work and ideas. I’ve served on our leadership team since its inception. But, this puts a cap on my official participation. After seventeen years in this district, I can expect no more.

When the CCSS brought me to the Center for Teaching Quality, I jumped at the chance to broaden my engagement with state and national initiatives.

And, let’s be clear. It isn’t necessarily more work I desire, but an opportunity to use what I’ve learned to make our whole school system better, more of a chance to do new and different work, to leverage my experience and expertise to find innovative solutions that might make all of us able to serve our students better.

Until working with CTQ on the Implementing the Common Core Standards team, it never occurred to me that this drive toward leadership could and should be a natural part of a teachers’ professional trajectory. Teachers are not encouraged to advocate for themselves and their work. When we try, others see us as upstart children rather than professionals, and we settle for precociousness. Also, I think we fear that any aggressive attempt at self-advocacy will suggest that we love ourselves more than we love our kids.

So, what do I want? I want to work with my amazing kids. And, I want to have a substantial measure of control about how to do that. I want my profession to reward me for my expertise and passion with concrete societal rewards like a higher salary and more responsibility.

It is hard to imagine that after twenty-four years of successful, thoughtful, and arduous work that the only way to raise my compensation and my status is to leave my students. This is unacceptable; I want more.

Prison photo by Tagger4Justice on Photobucket
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