I write about American public education for a living. As someone who cares profoundly about inequality and the state of social mobility in the United States, I’ve come to truly love my work.
But it’s time for me to confess: I am a “teacher hater.” I’m also bent on “undermining public education” in service of my “corporate overlords.” Or, at least, that’s what my inbox tells me every time I write something about charter schools, Teach For America, or education politics in general.
And while unsolicited hostility is part and parcel of the politics writing game these days, this particular line of attack cuts particularly deep.
Look: I went to pretty dodgy public schools for my entire K-12 career. My hometown’s schools were — and are — admirably racially and socioeconomically diverse. When I arrived at college, I was shocked to find out from others relating their K-12 experiences that this degree of racial integration remains a rarity in American school districts.
Unfortunately, the schools were also academically moribund. Paradoxically, this is how I learned to love teachers; for every great instructor I had, I suffered through countless classes where significant learning was only a fantasy.
When people tell me that the “education reform” movement is a corporate enterprise run by wealthy adults who scorn teachers, I’m genuinely confused. I consider myself part of the education reform movement because I know the dire state of American public school instruction. I know the difference that great teaching can make—because it was so rare in my schooling. Those outstanding few were my heroes.
Which gets at another reason that the ad hominem hate mail bothers me so much. Because those great educators inspired me to make my professional start as a first grade teacher in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Of course, I often hear that I am not REALLY a former teacher, since I entered the classroom through Teach For America. During a school visit recently, an administrator snapped that my “teaching as internship experience” gave me no right to call myself a former teacher.
And it’s true that I left after two years in the classroom. It’s further true that there are TFA corps members who enter the classroom specifically to enhance the prestige of their CVs for law school applications.
But — like most TFA teachers — that wasn’t my approach. Nor was it my reason for leaving.
Rather, I left because I woke up bleeding in the hospital one fall night during my second year of teaching. I’d been found face-down and wallet-free on a street corner on the walk to the subway stop near my school. I barely remembered leaving our building—let alone how I’d been attacked.
I missed two days of school — one in the hospital, and one at the precinct, filing a report. Those were the first two days I’d missed since becoming a teacher.
Most of the scars aren’t visible (though I have a few persistent marks on my face). But the physical recovery has taken years. The post-concussion symptoms were particularly brutal; I had months of headaches and developed an incessant eye twitch. The rest of my body wasn’t spared: I limped on bruised knees for weeks after the attack.
But the psychological toll was far and away the worst part of the recovery. I was suddenly afraid of the dark — an occupational hazard for a teacher (especially as the winter days got shorter). Loud noises — like, say, enthusiastic first graders — triggered adrenaline spikes and panic attacks. I cried daily until I could no longer tell if they were tears of pain or exhaustion.
The anxiety took a toll on everyone around me. A bureaucrat at my school joked that he, too, was recuperating, since he’d recently had his tonsils out. I exploded. A week later, I started going to a psychologist.
I also applied to political science PhD programs. And generally muddled through the rest of the academic calendar — my students averaged just short of two years of reading growth that year (the year before it had been nearly two-and-a-half). When September rolled around, I was teaching recitation sections for Georgetown undergrads instead of guided reading sections to six-year-olds.
I don’t share any of this to play the martyr. Or, for that matter, to crown myself a hero. After all, I let the mugging drive me from the classroom. I’m neither — I’m just a guy who loves teachers, teaching, and public education. That’s why I rushed back into the classroom the week I was attacked.
It’s also why my wife and I are sending our son to our neighborhood D.C. public school in the fall. And while I’m open to the possibility that some of the education reforms that make sense to me may not actually work as well I hope, I’m tired of being told that I have no standing in these debates, or that I hate teachers. You want to have a debate on the merits? Fine. But don’t accuse me of being disingenuous. Because I care about public education, and I have the teaching scars to prove it.
Conor P. Williams, PhD is a Senior Researcher in New America’s Early Education Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @conorpwilliams. Follow him on Facebook.