Standing in front of my eighth-grade class, my heart palpitated to near-panic-attack speed as I watched second hand of the clock. Please bell—ring early, I prayed. It was my second day of teaching, and some of my middle-school male students were putting me to the test.
In a span of three minutes, the group in room 204 had morphed from contained to out of control. Two boys were shooting dice in the back of the room, and as I instructed them to put their crumpled dollar bills away, several others took off their shoes and began tossing them around like footballs. Before I could react, one boy broke into my supply closet. He snatched handfuls of No. 2 pencils and highlighters and sprinted out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
This was 2004. I was 22 years old and had been placed as a beginning teacher in one of Kentucky’s most troubled, underperforming, and dysfunctional middle schools. I had no prior teaching experience, nor had I studied education as an undergraduate. I’d only begun my alternative certification work at the University of Louisville a few months prior, having been recruited by Teach Kentucky. I’d enter the classroom only having completed two graduate courses—I was expected to learn on the fly. I wasn’t ready for the stress, the culture shock, or the pressure to increase student reading scores.
I resigned from the position before Christmas. I hadn’t even gotten my certification.
The district in which that middle school is located, Louisville’s Jefferson County Public Schools, is one of the nation’s largest, serving over 100,000 students in roughly 150 schools. Eighteen of them are labeled “priority schools,” meaning they demonstrate exceptionally low student achievement. Unsurprisingly, most of these campuses serve student populations with at least three-fourths of kids on free or reduced-priced meal plans, an indicator of poverty.