During my first year as a teacher in the School District of Philadelphia, I was nominated to be featured on the district’s website’s “Inspiration Corner.” I helped facilitate the Writer’s Matter program for my students, helping one win an award. I ran for, and won, our school’s election for building representative. When the district did walk-throughs, my principal consistently told me that I was the “shining star.” When deciding if I would come back this year, she joked that she wouldn’t be a good reference for me because she wanted me to stay.
I don’t say any of this to brag but to show that I have been committed, dedicated, and respected. I also say this because last week, I handed in my resignation.
During my first two years at McDaniel Elementary, I have witnessed some terrible and tragic things — countless staff leaving and violence between students, toward staff, and from outside adults attacking students.
All of this, and I still decided to come back because I wanted to be part of helping to change the culture of the school. The staff who returned this year were strong and incredibly dedicated. Every adult in that building cares immensely for the well-being of our students.
But the situation only got worse this year.
During my first two years, I taught three very small sections. While still difficult, the smaller classes at least made my room more manageable. What did we do entering this year? We tried to save a couple dollars by closing the primary building and condensing all grades, K-8, into one building.
For over a month (beyond the leveling deadline), I had upward of 40 students in my eighth grade class — a class that, last year, was totally out of control while in three sections. Again, I continued to witness more mayhem and violence.
‘No one is coming to save us'
When I consistently brought my concerns to our principal and pleaded for help, I was told things like “no one is coming to save us” and “no help is coming.” I was told to hold them for lunch or after-school detention — essentially the solution was to rely on free labor and stretch us even thinner.
I was losing my mind. I was having panic attacks daily, perpetually angry, and severely depressed. I was afraid I would hurt myself, or say or do something at the school that I could not come back from. I had to resign. I could not be the person I needed to be in order to help our students. I was completely and utterly broken.
What is truly tragic about this situation is that McDaniel is not alone, and no one is surprised by my story.
While many of these situations have to do with student behavior, I do not blame them at all. They are traumatized. Nor do I blame the adults in the school trying to make the best of an impossible situation.
This happening because of a failed system — because of decisions made by our political and district leaders.
They are the ones who decided to increase class sizes, who wasted money on outside contracts for ridiculous programs like Jounce, a teacher development program. They did little to advocate for our students’ families as the failed war on drugs destroyed communities, who allowed the tax abatement to continue to steal our funds, who refuse to pay our climate and support staff a living wage. And yet, somehow we wonder why we are unable to attract and retain dedicated professionals?
If our adults are feeling this way, how must our students be feeling? For us, it’s a job. For them, it’s their lives. And we are failing them.
Enough Band-Aids on bullet wounds
I have to believe we are on the same side, so I am asking the members of the School Board to be leaders. To be proactive instead of reactive. Just look at how they have handled our district’s building conditions for a good example of reactive leadership.
I am asking the board to offer real and tangible support to McDaniel Elementary now. They need more qualified adults in the building immediately.
But bigger than that, I am asking the board to be bold and aggressive in advocating for our most neglected schools and communities. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, politicians in Harrisburg, and local real estate developers aren’t hoping and asking nicely to take our resources. They are unapologetically doing whatever it takes to enrich themselves at the expense of our most vulnerable.
I am asking the board to increase the number of support staff in schools and offer a living wage to paraprofessionals and climate staff in our next contract. These folks work with our special ed students and help monitor and assist with student behavior. They are also more likely to be women of color and from the neighborhood of the school. If we want our schools and communities to thrive, we need to support them.
No one is surprised by my story.
I am asking them to implement true restorative justice practices — not just the elimination of consequences — with trained professionals and programs in every school.
In the richest country in the history of the world, don’t tell me there isn’t enough money to fight for and win these things. There’s plenty of money. The will to organize and take it is what is lacking.
Stop begging for scraps. Enough Band-Aids on bullet wounds.
We need real leaders who recognize that our power comes from the people, and in order to win, we need to build authentic coalitions that support one another — not just show up for photo-ops and platitudes. Leaders like those in the Caucus of Working Educators who are trying to build a stronger union that can actually win what we need by empowering the rank and file. Leaders who realize that our students’ living conditions are our working and learning conditions.
Until we work together to radically change our approach, nothing will improve.
I have lived in Philadelphia my entire life, and I love working in the district. It is the reason I got my degree in education. I don’t want to teach anywhere else, and I hope to be back sometime soon.
Brian Gallagher joined the School District of Philadelphia three years ago as a teacher at McDaniel Elementary. This piece was adapted from a speech he gave at a School Board meeting on November 21, 2019.