After teaching math and science for eight years outside the US, I relocated to Austin in July 2009. For the first two months, I didn’t have an outside job. I spent my time in my small apartment, polishing up my first novel, Tribe of One and painting. Yet I was optimistic that I’d find a teaching job with my 13 years of international experience. A week after school had begun, I started teaching at a high school with the Austin Independent School District (AISD). I immediately sensed something “strange” beyond the reverse culture shock that an expat experiences when reintegrating into her home country.
I’d always prided myself for being creative, innovative and well-organized. Of those three qualities, only the last one was remotely appreciated since it best served the god of high-stakes testing. When I first started in 2009, science teachers who taught the same course were expected to have 80% of the exact same cookie cutter lessons. That made me bristle, but I still took small comfort in expressing my individuality in the remaining 20%, my classroom decorations of international cloth and dressing up on spirit days and for Halloween.
Three years later, I got in trouble for decorating my classroom with international cloth and dressing up for Halloween. Not for becoming more risqué with the decorations or costumes, but for speaking against the anti-teaching practices that we were being forced to implement. Here’s an example: in order to make the 5-question science quizzes more “rigorous”, students could only make a 100% or 0%.
When an underdog goes against the grain, she has to be subversive and endure a very short leash. I knew after the first year teaching with AISD I would not be part of the high-stakes testing machine for long. My top exit strategies were to pay off my car as quickly as possible (my only debt) and self-publish my first novel. I published Tribe in December 2010, around the same time AISD hinted about the money-saving reduction in force (RIF), which was implemented the next school year.
A lot of money pours into the city of Austin and Texas in general, but the state government taught me how little they valued public school teachers. Moreover, I learned that the Texas government cared more about making money off public school students than investing money in their education.
In January 2011, I began working on my second novel, The Adventures of Infinity and Negativa. At the same time, I excitedly brainstormed and burned through different ideas to set up readings and peddle Tribe. I’d bought a microphone, a microphone stand, portable speakers, 500 business cards with Tribe‘s cover and information, and ordered an additional 100 copies of my book on top of the 20 copies included in the self-publishing package. I made phone calls, press kits and drove around town with copies of my book in the back of my car ready to read, sell and sign. All that book-selling legwork took place during my spare time outside of being a full-time high school science teacher.
After the RIF, my classroom size doubled. Educational studies have long shown that at risk students and English as a Second Language (ESL) learners benefit from small classroom sizes. Yet, these academically vulnerable populations are precisely the students who get shortchanged. My students crammed 35 to 42 in a class where I was expected to give each a significant amount of individual attention and update their parents on their lack of progress and/or behavioral issues.
My increased workload clashed with my book selling ambitions. Besides, I discovered I didn’t like the whole PR and marketing side of being an author. For all my efforts to promote my book, the returns didn’t justify investing more time in securing venues where I could read and sell. I eventually moved most of my books from the trunk of my car to my closet, which lightened my load both physically and mentally.
During spring break 2012, I filed taxes and used part of my refund to print 72 Tribe of One T-shirts. I also sponsored my capoeira group so my brand, Mathdreads, would be on the back of their batizado T-shirts, which is a celebration ceremony where new capoeiristas receive their first corda and experienced capoeiristas get their next corda. Now, I had both books AND T-shirts in my closet!
After this experience, I came up with the radical idea I’d stop wasting my time driving around town, trying to set up readings to promote my work. Instead, I’d organize a monthly theme-based spoken word and poetry show to promote all featured artists. The Austin Writers Roulette was born.
The first season of the roulette took place in a capoeira studio. The most beautiful space I’ve ever trained capoeira, but the most challenging place to run a monthly spoken word and poetry show. First of all, hardly anyone could find the location. Secondly, once they arrived, no food or drink was available for purchase. Lastly, the room occasionally ran hot since on Sundays from 6 to 8, the automatic AC would cut off. Although I’d originally charged a $5 admission, I essentially paid people to attend. I hired a DJ, rented chairs and occasionally gave my capoeira teacher money for the space. Thankfully, the first season only ran the last six months of 2012.
For the new year, the roulette moved to a new location, which had excellent promotion, location and libations. The night before our first show, I received an email, stating “new and exciting” things were happening at the venue. Cutting to the chase, we lost our monthly slot to make way for bands. Since then, the venue has won numerous awards for bringing such a vast selection of live music to Austin. I’m proud my show had graced their stage once!
I scrambled to find another venue for the upcoming month. The theme for February 2013 was “Cupid’s Naughty Secrets.” I located another place where we could reveal those salacious secrets. We’ve performed there for over a year and counting to a growing audience.
In the meantime, the Texas legislature increased the number of standardized tests students needed to pass in order to graduate to 15. A whopping money-making scheme for those who gleefully profited from testing students that sent the educational community into a tailspin. Adding to that stress, in the spring of 2013 some students took the old test, TAKS, while other students took the new test, STAAR. In the last six weeks of school, some population of students were testing every two weeks. At my school, students who weren’t testing spent time in tutoring camps, going over the most commonly missed objectives in drill and kill format.
Thanks to community protests, the Texas legislature passed HB 5, reducing the number of standardized tests required for graduation from 15 to 5.
Over the years, I’d witnessed hordes of my colleagues leaving, most of whom were disgusted by how they were treated by the school administration. During the summer after my fourth teaching year with AISD, I optimistically joined a collaborative group of union leaders, other teachers and a teaching professor to improve the school climate. We led a day and half professional development to discuss teacher autonomy and professional communication–two big areas that recent surveys revealed were high need areas.
We agreed that teachers should have the autonomy to teach the standards, using a menu of best practices. As the year progressed, best practices were steadily crossed off that menu. Professional communication came in the form of carefully worded emails, such as the one I received after the first day of school stating that Bob Marley, who had been in my classroom the past three years, had to come down since he gave “unsavory ideas” to the students.
By spring semester 2014, “professional communication” was an oxymoron. Tense-jawed administrators whose tone of voice clearly held the teaching staff in contempt, talked down to us and ordered us to do exactly as they said.
At this time my exit plan was nearly set: I’d paid off my car, saved up six months worth of money, led the roulette into an impressive third season, and embraced my newfound career as a contract technical writer.
I looked at the calendar and chose Friday, March 28, 2014 as my last day of school, which was two weeks after spring break. The Physics curriculum had been ridiculously written so that the last six weeks of school were dedicated to “culminating projects and the final.” I’d covered all topics with my Physics students before I left and provided my long-term substitute with the first of several projects for them.
Most of my colleagues did not know that I was leaving although word had slowly spread, especially when my departure was announced at the science department meeting two days before my last day. On Friday, I told some teachers who I’d known for the five years I’d taught there. They all congratulated me for moving forward, but expressed anger at the school for motivating another good teacher out of the classroom.
I wanted the pleasure of teaching each class, business as usual; so I only said good bye to my last class of the day. When they asked why I was leaving, I told them I wanted to finish my second novel, which included painting. A true, but incomplete explanation. The dismissal bell rang. My students hugged me as they left.When I publish my third novel, a fictionalized account of teaching in AISD, perhaps they’ll understand. I scrambled downstairs to turn in my classroom keys and ID badge.
Before I could turn in my things, I spotted the principal. I’d left my “resignation letter” in his mailbox earlier that morning. I retrieved it and handed it to him in person. It featured my favorite Marley quote (Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds) and a copy of The Proclamation of Emancipation. I’d signed at the bottom, complete with the date of my employment: 8/2009–3/2014. He burst out laughing. I smiled, shook his cool clammy hand and dashed away to finish checking out.
I made it to my bikram yoga class on time and as a free woman. The stress in my muscles that had built up during the week melted away before the class had started. Just being free soothed my soul. Afterwards, I met a friend to celebrate.
As I review the week ahead of me, it’s a wonder I ever got as much done in my “spare” time outside of school. I’ve got many creative avenues to explore, networking contacts to make, pieces to write, paintings to complete, a healthcare system to enroll into before the looming deadline (tomorrow!) and taxes to file.
I take a deep breath and thank God I’ve finally arrived to a place where my creative energy is no longer limited by a principal, a school district and a state that actively drive out teachers like me to keep their lucrative, for-profit standardized testing machine oiled. Make no mistake, I’m still a teacher. I now teach in a classroom without walls.