Investing in teachers can positively impact classroom experience

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Growing up, I moved schools often. By 7th grade, however, my family moved to Palo Alto and I finished high school there. I went directly to UC Berkeley and after meandering my way through my undergrad experience, graduated with a B.A in comparative literature. As a student in the Palo Alto Unified School District, I have very few memories of working through a textbook, taking daily or weekly quizzes or even studying for a standardized exam. Rather, we wrote essays, marked up novels, had debates, created projects and participated in weekly labs. And at the end of the year, my standardized scores were fine.

Perhaps I just think like a middle-class white male. Or maybe my district had the resources to hire teachers that were well-versed in their craft and could provide the support and resources that allowed them to give students a rich learning experience. On Facebook, I’m friends with a few of my favorite high school teachers, who are still teachers now. Some of them have been teaching for longer than I have been alive. This is definitely not the norm where I teach.

Where I teach, it is normal for a teacher who has been around for at least five years to be labeled a “veteran teacher.” In many low-income schools, it is normal for a coach or principal to have only taught for two to four years before moving into a leadership role. It is rare to have teachers who are also parents, since the demands of teaching in an under-resourced area requires so much from you. There is definitely high teacher turnover.

I’m now in my ninth year in the classroom, seventh in the Oakland Fruitvale neighborhood and fourth at my school, Lazear Charter Academy. It’s a science, technology, engineering, arts and math, or STEAM, school and a beautiful expression of the amazing work that comes from a tireless and effective leadership team and a strong community. When I first began here, Lazear was, frankly, a hot mess. There were constant teacher and leadership turnovers and kids were literally running out of the classroom. But in a short period of time, we were able to turn this around to the point where although a majority of our kids are still not “at proficiency,” they are growing at a robust rate.

Yet whenever we celebrate growth, I then return to my initial discomforts and comparisons of my kids’ learning experiences versus mine because theirs feels so shallow. Yes, I know we need a minimal baseline, and yes, our kids (and most kids in Oakland) are not meeting this baseline. At the same time, a nagging voice in the back of my head reminds me that when I was in school at Palo Alto, I never knew or cared really about how the state saw my proficiency. It’s nuts that just across the Bay, kids at a higher socioeconomic level get a drastically different experience.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m super proud of the resilience of the kids at my school and the amazing work of my coworkers, but on the other hand, I wish we put as much thought and strategy into building a richer, more robust learning experience as we do into preparing for state exams.

A final caveat I have though is, as we continue to grow in the direction of providing rich learning experiences, I would also love to do all this without normalizing all the extra hats teachers have to wear. One coworker directs the school musical, organizes and occasionally coaches the soccer team, advises our student council and organized school spirit events. Another heads our community outreach, started a coding club and is currently on the bargaining team for our new union. Annually, the staff at our school provide holiday gift parcels to our most vulnerable students. These are but a few examples of what grown adults with great degrees do. Although we are making this work, it should be obvious that this is not the most sustainable.

I feel this lack of sustainability the most around March. This is not just because March is the longest period of time without a school holiday but because this is when you start seeing other job offers. Every year for older teachers, there is a tension about whether to continue to stay in an urban, low-income district or to move to a richer one. Since usually in public schools they will only transfer up to 10 years of previous work experience to their salary scale, many teachers end up moving to Berkeley or Castro Valley or the like after putting in their time in Oakland. This is always a tough decision, and honestly, I get a bit frustrated since this shouldn’t be a decision if Californians cared more than many seem to about true equity.

We already know that more experienced teachers help our most vulnerable kids. We already know that teachers are underpaid, overworked, undervalued, et cetera. Most people also know that school funding is connected to property taxes. And if we want to brush off old history, you can then even go back to how redlining led to segregation and income disparities, which affect the quality of schools today. And most people value the public school system. Yet at the end of the day, there has to be more than lip service towards improving schools. I love LeBron James’ funding model because he basically partnered with a local district and shelled out money for the unglamorous expenses. Most organizations want schools to pilot something shiny or provide concrete benchmarks to drive strategy. But given that our “products” are literal human beings, it gets harder and harder to want to put any of my kids through this or characterize their success by cold numbers. Their access to resources should not be tied to their performance.

It also makes zero sense that one of the richest economies in the world also happens to be on the lower end of the spectrum when it comes to spending per student. While companies and people in Oakland and San Francisco continue to grow in wealth, my school continues to lose students and funding because our kiddos are being pushed out of their city and the cost of living is rising. And my school is definitely not the only one experiencing this.

Last year, during the backdrop of all the strikes, I helped organize and start our first teacher’s union. Currently, we’re in the bargaining process, and in my district’s rather lean business model, it’s hard to figure out how to fund even the basics. I suppose this is where the citizen comes in. The upcoming election cycles have quite a few hot education bills related to funding and schools. Take some time — look to see where you want to put your tax dollars. Proposition 13, for instance, is definitely a hot topic.

And yet at the same time, even if these bills do go through, I’ve been in this gig long enough to know that whether or not this money will actually make it to the schools is a completely different story. But everything starts with a step in the right direction!

While we wait, you can find me and my kids in room 19.

Junia Kim is a math teacher at Education For Change Public Schools and the co-president of its new teacher’s union, Coalition of Educators for Change. She graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education with a master’s degree in language and literacy and from UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature.