When I was in the fourth grade, every student in my class got a chance to play “teacher for the day.”
When it was my turn, I took the exercise seriously, creating reams of handouts for my fellow students to complete and delivering numerous slide presentations. The teacher didn’t bat an eyelash. She didn’t question any of my choices. I was in heaven.
I have wanted to be a teacher ever since.
Having grown up in a military family, I have the reputation of being fairly tough and resilient. I admired the teachers who pushed me to be the best student that I could and I was determined to become the best teacher that I could as well.
Moving eight times during elementary and high school teaches a person how to be tenacious. This trait — along with my first years of teacher study, student teaching and then actually teaching — helped shape the teacher that I am today.
And then I got lucky. I got to work for a very strong, and very tough principal.
She had a plan and taught us how to implement the plan. It included detailed assessments on every student. The plan was rigorous and pushed staff to their limits. She told us explicitly what to do and in turn the teachers set a high standard for the students. My class’s test scores shot up. Kids would come back the next school year and tell me how much they missed me even though I was “tough.”
This principal transformed our school. She also inspired me to seek new solutions. For instance, when I realized that our group “literature circles” weren’t working for struggling fourth-grade readers, I instead imposed a one-on-one buddy system in which I worked individually with students.
But the principal left. A few years later, I switched schools. In my next post, I ended up with the bottom performing quarter of the grade, including most if not all the student with behavioral issues, and the five resource students who were in inclusion classes for the first time.
Our new top administrator was very kind to the students. But sometimes kindness isn’t the answer. I felt that these students’ only chance for success was a rigorous program and I felt that I needed the administration to support me in this “tough love.”
I didn’t feel that I was getting that support. I started to question my own methods. Was I being too hard on the kids?
No, I decided. I had been and was successful. Kids were telling me they “loved reading for the first time.” I was able to make behavioral gains with some students.
Then why on earth was I asking myself, “Should I leave? What other job could I do and enjoy?”
Did I leave?
I did what many people don’t do. I sat down with this administrator. In real life, I explained to him, insubordination is not rewarded with a piece of candy. I explained to him that want to help students enjoy the books that I love, but by the same token I want them to realize that not everything they read will be the “best.” Most importantly, I explained that I needed him to back me up.
It was the single best decision I had ever made. We both wanted what was best for the kids and from then on, we worked as a team.
Kids today (more than ever) need teachers who aren’t afraid to stand up for what they know is right; who aren’t afraid to “help” parents out when it comes to discipline and learning because real life is brutal. More than that, though, life is what you make it; you have to decide, like me, to rise above the brutal and win.
If it means I can help kids be more functional citizens, bring on the tests, evaluations, and anything else.
I am going to stay in education and win.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Amber Brandon Chapman is a sixth-grade teacher at McLaurin Elementary School in Florence, Mississippi.