The first year I taught school was terrifying. A graduate of two weeks from the University of Tennessee, I was fortunate to obtain one of the six Knox County English teacher positions.
Hired to teach seventh and eighth grade English at Powell Elementary, I arrived that first day to find my classroom had no bookshelves, no textbooks and no curriculum of which I was aware. The other new hire, Brenda Waggoner, had the same problem. Assuming nothing was available, we did not seek help.
The weekend before school started, we spent a day cobbling together a curriculum and strategies; doing the best we could with what little we had. The in-services we attended were daunting, filled with the initials of programs and reports with the assumption that everyone knew the references. With a class load of 120 students per day, I was alternatively excited and scared out of my mind.
Occasionally, a Knox County supervisor would speak at a faculty meeting. At one of these meetings, the supervisor told us that every student in our classrooms should be able to function on grade level by the end of that school year. I wondered how I would reach the dyslexic children, the mentally or physically challenged students, students facing poverty, homelessness, abuse or ill-health?
After that meeting, several of us retired to the teachers’ lounge. I happened to sit on the couch next to Wayne Ballard, a very tall former basketball player who had been teaching for at least six years. Finishing his coke, Wayne threw the can across the room, into a trash can and said, “That supervisor has sworn on the Altar of Education to stamp out Stupidity, and she’s starting at Powell.”
It was dark humor, something we desperately needed at that moment. I thought, “I am not alone. Others will and are attempting this; I can attempt it. I am now a member of the club.”
I went on to teach English for 10 years, calming down, finding my pace, experiencing the thrill of student success, excited when a lesson plan went well, or when I saw understanding flicker across a student’s face. I sponsored clubs, rode the Pep Bus and frequently stayed after school. When our second son was born, and with a second degree in library science, I applied for and was hired as a librarian, a position I held at one school or another for the next 29 years.
During my 39-year career, I watched respect and confidence in teachers’ abilities and professionalism change. Statistics open to interpretation, using different variables, and with the government requiring some statistics as the basis by which federal funding is obtained, makes one wonder as to their reliability.
In place of the confidence in the teacher’s ability to reach the students in a manner that works for them, there is now an iron-fist approach of the latest guaranteed success techniques all teachers are required to use, variances in students’ learning styles and abilities ignored.
Riding a constant roller coaster of goals, expectations and rules, all the while listening to the rants of uninformed but well-intentioned people who assume the statistics, they read are solid and that the country’s educational system is hopelessly behind, it is unsurprising that Knox County begins school with 60 unfilled teaching position.
Teaching is a noble profession that often gave me great satisfaction, a profession that taught me more than I ever taught the students, a profession that is a calling.
As this school year begins, teachers and stupidity are locked in a constant war and teachers, like all warriors, need others to cheer them on, encourage them and then send them back to the battlefield, ready once again to face the enemy.
Cindy Arp, teacher/librarian, retired from Knox County Schools. She and husband Dan live in Heiskell.