Drugged Out

Why I gave up teaching kindergarten at a troubled urban school.

WHEN I STOOPED DOWN TO KISS little Sophia, * she whispered “I love you, Mrs. Wright” in her raspy voice, and I could not hold back the tears. It was June 3, just five months ago—the day I said good-bye for the last time to my kindergarten students at northeast Austin’s Winn Elementary. As I hugged Sophia and her fifteen classmates, I felt a lump rise in my throat. With a mixture of regret and relief, I would soon be moving to another school in another neighborhood.

I had taught at mostly black Winn for seven years. Back when I started, it was a model learning environment. The school had 530 students—a manageable number—in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes and grades one through three. The many challenges we faced, from curriculum reform to discipline,, seemed solvable; we were a unified, optimistic staff. Our efforts to improved student performance, particularly test scores, won special recognition from the state. One year, we were awarded the Governor’s Award and $26,000 in bonus money.

In 1990, however, two things changed. One was the school’s size: It almost doubled, a result of adding fourth and fifth grades and many new faculty members. Suddenly Winn was overcrowded, making it harder for us to pay intimate attention to students or to maintain order. The older kids, who bristled at being returned to the “baby school,” vented their resentment frequently and proved to be a bad influence on the younger ones. The second thing that happened had an even more devastating effect. Drugs, a problem largely confined to the streets of the inner city in the eighties, suddenly shoed up in the hallways of Winn—not directly, but in the form of kids whose lives had been upended by addicted parents and relatives, drug-induced violence, and poverty-induced abuse. This made the already edge culture of the school even more so.

From then on, the hostility of the outside world seemed to seep through the classroom walls and ooze over the playground fence. At different times, a fourth-grade boy knocked a classmate to the ground, injuring him so severely that an ambulance had to be called; staff members were hit or berated by angry children whose home lives were collapsing; and a fifth-grade teacher (since dismissed) slapped the face of an impudent student in a moment of rage. It was more than I could handle.

Still, my decision to leave Winn came with a flood of conflicting emotions. Telling Sophia good-bye brought back fond memories of her brother and her two cousins, who had been in my class over the years. They were shining examples of what happens when the system works. Sophia’s mother, a single parent, cared enough about her daughter’s experience to send dozens of cup-cakes to class parties. Her aunt accompanied countless field trips. Sophia herself, on many dark days, cheered me with her enthusiastic giggle and her burning desire to learn. Their message was clear: School mattered. Was I betraying them by taking another job? Then again, Sophia and her family were exceptional case. Most of my students were raised in homes ravaged by crime, unemployment, and substance abuse. The instability of their private lives made it difficult for them to meet the more structured demands of a classroom setting. For me the reverse was true: The problems I faced at school affected my personal life. The amount of energy I was pouring into my teaching seemed instantly to be absorbed by the escalating needs of the children. The stress of my work took its toll on me and my family, as I succumbed to one illness after the next.

Exhausted and discouraged, I sought a transfer to my neighborhood school, south Austin’s Travis Heights Elementary, which also serves and inner-city population, though one with a more balanced blend of races and socioeconomic groups. Travis Heights has any of the problems Winn has—poverty, broken families, and drug abuse—but its active corps of parents and staff members work together much more effectively, and they have the same level of optimism that I did in my early days at Winn. That is critical. I loved teaching, and I did not want my momentary burnout to be terminal. But I was desperate to be at a school where I could have an impact. I wanted to make a difference.

WHEN I STOOPED DOWN TO KISS little Sophia, * she whispered “I love you, Mrs. Wright” in her raspy voice, and I could not hold back the tears. It was June 3, just five months ago—the day I said good-bye for the last time to my kindergarten students at northeast Austin’s Winn Elementary. As I hugged Sophia and her fifteen classmates, I felt a lump rise in my throat. With a mixture of regret and relief, I would soon be moving to another school in another neighborhood.

I had taught at mostly black Winn for seven years. Back when I started, it was a model learning environment. The school had 530 students—a manageable number—in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes and grades one through three. The many challenges we faced, from curriculum reform to discipline,, seemed solvable; we were a unified, optimistic staff. Our efforts to improved student performance, particularly test scores, won special recognition from the state. One year, we were awarded the Governor’s Award and $26,000 in bonus money.

In 1990, however, two things changed. One was the school’s size: It almost doubled, a result of adding fourth and fifth grades and many new faculty members. Suddenly Winn was overcrowded, making it harder for us to pay intimate attention to students or to maintain order. The older kids, who bristled at being returned to the “baby school,” vented their resentment frequently and proved to be a bad influence on the younger ones. The second thing that happened had an even more devastating effect. Drugs, a problem largely confined to the streets of the inner city in the eighties, suddenly shoed up in the hallways of Winn—not directly, but in the form

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