Maria Ciancetta isn't sure what to believe: Did she make a difference in students' lives, or throw away seven years?

When she walked out of Benjamin Franklin High School on a warm day in June, Ciancetta quit the Philadelphia School District - and the education profession - for good.

She started out starry-eyed, certain she would work in Philadelphia classrooms for decades. But things deteriorated every year. She said she lacked basic supplies, was ordered to teach in an area where she had no certification or training, and feared for her safety.

"My students weren't able to make progress this year," said Ciancetta, 28. "I did them an injustice. The School District did them an injustice. They did not get the education they should have."

Ciancetta's is one story, but it is emblematic of the plight of many teachers. The teaching profession has long had a fair amount of turnover, but in recent years the profession has gotten less stable, with higher numbers of teachers leaving in their first five years.

Ciancetta grew up in a small town outside Albany, N.Y. Her mother was a math teacher. Ciancetta felt called to the same profession, but wanted to work in an urban district where students' needs were greatest.

At Springfield College in Massachusetts, she earned a degree in health studies with a focus on education and a minor in math. She gained a spot in Teach for America and was placed at Tilden Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia in 2007.

"It was rough," she said of her first year, "but I ended up really liking it."

After two years at Tilden, she moved up with her eighth graders to Bartram High, where she spent four years and served as ninth-grade dean. When the district began having money problems, she narrowly averted a layoff.

Last spring, an administrator warned her of coming changes to Bartram and suggested Ciancetta transfer to another school. She switched to Ben Franklin, showing up in September to learn she had a full teaching load of classes in special education.

Ciancetta is not special-education certified, and she felt "not even remotely prepared" to teach algebra to classes of 27 students, most of whom tested at first- to third-grade math levels.

She asked for help and got some - fewer students in one class, and an aide. But there was no mentoring and no recommendations for different ways to reach students.

"I tried different strategies myself, but I had no idea what to do," she said.

Her classroom came with a smartboard but no cord to power it. Ciancetta had to spend her own money to get one. Like most district teachers, she spent hundreds of dollars on paper because her school had no money for that, either.

Discipline was a problem from the first day, not just at Ben Franklin overall, but in Ciancetta's classroom. That shocked the teacher, who had not experienced issues since her first year teaching, who was recognized elsewhere for her expertise in helping students stay on track, who keeps in touch with students years after they leave her classroom.

"I build relationships with kids - that's what helps them learn," Ciancetta said. She was eventually able to reach some of her students this year, but many of them had serious emotional issues and few sources of support to address them.

Ciancetta loved the day-to-day of teaching: finding a routine that worked, coming up with creative ways to impart knowledge, even planning lessons.

"It's really nice when kids struggle and then they get it, and you realize you did something right," she said. "That's awesome."

Inadequate staffing levels are tearing apart schools, Ciancetta said. It started to get bad at Bartram, but this year at Ben Franklin there were just not enough adults in the building.

"The fire alarm was pulled a minimum of three times a day," she said. "I would call for help with a fight, and it would take seven minutes for someone to respond."

That's not the administration's fault, she said.

"My principal was working really hard, but there was one of him," Ciancetta said.

Students' behavior is a clear sign that they know they're getting a raw deal, Ciancetta said.

"They don't verbalize it, say, 'This is an injustice,' " she said. "They act on it. They run the halls. They smoke in school. They cut class."

The final straw? Ciancetta had oral surgery in December and expected to be out for 10 days. But the district doctor wouldn't clear her to return to work for three months, because "there was no guarantee that I wouldn't get hit in the face."

Ciancetta is not the sort of person who stops thinking about work when she leaves for the day, and her job just became too emotionally draining. Her parents, especially her mother, encouraged her to leave.

"I'm exhausted," Ciancetta said. "We were all exhausted."

She has come to love the city where she has spent her entire adult life. Ciancetta lives in South Philadelphia, has a boyfriend from the area, and is staying - but she's starting over. She starts classes at Drexel University soon.

"I'm going to get a nursing degree," she said. "Teaching degrees don't get you anywhere."

Of the 10 or so friends she started her career with, all stayed in city schools past their two-year Teach for America commitment. Just a handful are left.

Ciancetta still believes in public education, but she worries that Philadelphia will end up like New Orleans, a city with no traditional public schools.

"They're making it really hard for people to become career teachers," she said. "They're heading to a model where people can only teach for a few years, and then leave."

To fix the system, more supports are needed, she said. More money and more supplies, too. She urges district leaders not to close more schools - part of the trouble at Ben Franklin was that kids from many closed schools were thrown into one building.

Teachers need to be valued more, she said. Too many people have an idea that educators are lazy and entitled.

"I've never met anyone who became a teacher because they're lazy," Ciancetta said. "If you walk past someone's classroom and they're sitting down, maybe they've been cursed out and screamed at and disrespected, and they just couldn't take it anymore that day."

With one chapter of her life closed, she says she's equal parts terrified, sad, and excited.

"I feel like I'm giving up on something I didn't want to give up on - that I failed," she said. "The people that run our district need to know that I wanted to stay, but staying was impossible."

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. hears her.

"I empathize with her frustration - she's right," Hite said when told of Ciancetta's struggles. "Every time I think it can't get any worse, we're faced with a budget situation like we have this year. This is a much harder job in this environment than it was when I was in the classroom, or when I was a principal."

Hite appreciates Ciancetta's service, he said, and he wants to send a message to other teachers feeling similarly: Hold on. Reach out to colleagues for support. He's listening. It's going to get better, because it must.

"We want to know what support teachers need to be more successful," Hite said. "They need to know that they're not in it alone."

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