Surviving Success (Academy)

Most schools believe that “teacher” and “martyr” are synonyms. That's what I've learned after 3 years of classroom teaching. So after six months of mental abuse at Success Academy I wrote an email to the principal and never returned. I've also never regretted it. Before you judge me as an irresponsible teacher who did the unthinkable and “abandoned her kids,” you should know that it was them or me and ultimately I chose me.  

I was recruited by a Success Academy ambassador through Linkedin during the summer of 2015. She “casually” convinced me to apply to SA by sending me cheery messages of how “my credentials were the right fit for Success.” I believed it when I was immediately offered an interview and was given a classroom for a demo lesson the same day, no second interview needed. The fact that the demo was a different subject and grade than what was initially agreed upon didn’t bother me much. So after a brief discussion with the principal I was offered a “lead teacher” position teaching 5th grade history although it was not the job I initially applied for. I took the job to later learn that I wasn’t even going to have my own classroom. The signs were clear and I had every reason to walk away but I was excited to be teaching at the holy grail of charter schools in NYC. 

I was set to join “the team” for T-School, a brainwashing series of seminars aimed to mold you into a “Success teacher” because it’s different than a regular teacher. Success teachers are not regular teachers, no sir, they are above that. The seminars retaught me how to teach and fed my newfound Success ego while stealing an entire month of my well deserved summer vacation. The outcome? I was thoroughly convinced that it took a “special” kind of teacher to teach at Success and I was part of the chosen few. This mentality is what kept me there as long as I did despite looming depression due to my sudden loss of identity and free time to pursue personal passions.

I had heard horrors about SA prior to accepting the job: the long hours and pressure to perform, but coming from another charter school I had confidence that I could accept and overcome any difficulties; Besides I was coming from teaching in East New York and nothing toughens you up more than working in a school where someone is shot dead at the end of the school block during Parent-Teacher Night. So was I intimidated by SA? No. But once I began teaching as a newly baptized SA teacher I quickly realized the toxic environment SA strived to create and force feed educators who had real passion for teaching. SA had managed to create an educational environment that disregarded the well-being of the teacher. It promoted a cut-throat, monetarily incentivized corporate environment in which you prayed for the demise of your peers for an opportunity to inadvertently glorify yourself. Is this what teaching is about? 

My 6 months at Success forced me to reevaluate my teaching philosophy that before SA was rooted in genuine connections with at risk students. Success made me doubt my personal success every day. I became doubtful of the importance of teaching; if we could all be trained to be the same, think the same, and act the same then as educators we were inevitably relaying this same message to our students. Every day I relayed the message that just as all teachers had to think and act and be the same, consistency among classrooms, the same was expected of students. SA didn't celebrate originality or praise the individual, no, SA thrived on doubt, on the inevitable fear of not doing enough, being there enough, talking enough, thinking enough, preparing enough, or absorbing enough information. The underlying message was that this doubt and fear somehow made you better because it encouraged you to take immediate action as you strived to BE THE BEST at the expense of your mental stability, of course. If I couldn't survive here, I often thought, I had failed and I was not "one of a kind," I was weak and had no business teaching.

Survival was the word spoken repeatedly among teachers. You're surviving just fine. I can't believe I survived my first year. How are you? SurvivingBarely. My colleagues who had done a 2 year bid often laughed about their first year at Success and shared a feeling of immense accomplishment because they had somehow survived, they had proven themselves worthy. When did teaching become about survival? I often cried from the exhaustion of working 13 hours with an never-ending to-do list and still feeling like I wasn't doing enough. I was constantly working to be better, to manage my classrooms more efficiently, to implement the latest rule, to use feedback, and to look like I wasn't struggling while doing it all. I made a mistake of mentioning the horrendous time I was having at SA to another teacher. She told our manager. Our manager told the principal. The principal met with me. I was forced into an awkward conversation with the principal about the miserable time I was having. I was honest, a quality stifled within SA walls. I explained there was no work life balance and that I was losing my sense of individuality and the passion that drove me to teach. He faked interest in my concern and doubts and in response explained that as a principal he barely saw his wife or child and that if it helped next year they would be shortening the school day across all middle schools. I felt betrayed and worse after meeting with him. 

I started escaping to the art room on the floor below me and confided in the art teacher, one of the few people in the building who seemed to be struggling with accepting the ways of SA and was conscious of the creativity stifled as students were spoon fed what they were suppose to be passionate about, art certainly not being one of them. I was going crazy. My colleague was going crazy. But "it was a part of the job." Everyone begrudgingly accepted it and no one protested. Why would they? There was no platform for protest. It was an integral part of surviving at Success and if you weren't up for it, too bad. You were better off crying in the bathroom or when you got home at 7:30PM because talking to your "manager" would just give you more things to write on your to-do list, a lame attempt at a "plan" for your improvement, your "success". 

This abusive relationship made me hate teaching. It made me hate what teaching as a career was in this school and how it was an increasingly popular system, especially within charter schools. I resented myself for not willingly accepting my role as a martyr, for rejecting the opportunity to be a saint. I did not want to be living for my job; it isn't my idea of fulfillment or happiness. I realized I needed to stop feeding myself lies about sacrifice and overcoming obstacles and so I was forced to quit. I just couldn't survive Success. Although my definition of  educator requires hard work it doesn't require your survival to come into question. And I empathize with the passionate teachers whose genuine purpose for teaching deteriorates a little more each day as they struggle to keep that flame ignited. I empathize with educators at Success who accept the message that individuality isn't to be praised and that fostering creativity, a love of art or writing that isn't meant for a test is setting students up for failure. This system is bound to fail; a system that relies on the backs, blood, sweat, and tears of overworked and underpaid miserable teachers who don't have time to be themselves and grow as people simply cannot work. I love to educate children but I'm not a martyr. Leave martyrdom for religious figures not NYC public school teachers. 

My first bulletin board in SA