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The Suburban Myth: Musings from a recovered suburban dreamer

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Green everywhere.  Sod-lined streets carpet large uninviting lawns, drawing people in, yet threatening outsiders with their vastness.  Money seemingly disposable like the oak leaves that umbrella the streets and dim the daylight serving as natural shades to this oasis.  No sidewalks, only grass and trees for as far as the eye can see.

Education dawns on these horizons, no differently that elsewhere, yet most young professional educators dream of being a part of this alluring fantasy.  The alternative urban environment with its cold, empty landscape beckoning to few it would seem.  Tall buildings, with a solitary tree planted for posterity and sad dedication, on the gate lined playground and fenced-in windows.  Certainly not the environment any idealist imagines themselves at home.

The stark contrast of affluent districts and communities to urban, city-funded schools is evident to anyone who cares to look.  The setting is different and so are the students, but not in the most obvious ways.  The outlook on education is supposed to be the same, but clearly statistics prove otherwise. 

starr2I was a young inner city teacher lured away from the ills of the city to a small, suburban district with the promise of longevity, support for my creativity and the green so apparent in my new surroundings.  I was sure that working there would be a positive change for my career; I had paid my dues nearly bleeding heart to death.

My first few years of teaching were trial by fire.  Thrust into a classroom with little to no experience and given a modicum of support.  My direct administrators seemed ready for my imminent failure; they reveled in my fear.  The students were frustrated and apathetic, but they didn’t want to be.  They tested me constantly, but I rose to the occasion.  I grew to love my job as a teacher working for the kids who could have been called “the little engines that could.”

I started in a failing school which is probably how I got the job so easily with no experience.  They were desperate and I was hungry; it was a winning combination.  I hadn’t realized that when I shook hands with the Assistant Principal on Thursday that she would want me to start working on Monday because the vacancy had already been developing a life.  I later discovered that I was the third teacher to be brought into the position I filled, all within the first three weeks of a school year.  This was not an uncommon incident in my school which was also something I became well acquainted with as the years passed.

On a Spirit Cruise with my high achieving city students. Was a great opportunity to reward those who's hard work truly paid off.
On a Spirit Cruise with my high achieving city students. Was a great opportunity to reward those who's hard work truly paid off.

After three years of service my opportunity to head east arrived.  My school that was failing to begin with was now falling apart.  The only people who cared about it were being ejected and the state was ready to give it a facelift due to its consistently worsening grades.  It was growing increasingly more difficult to do the work that I loved without constant oversight and changing tides.  We had a sea of red tape that was drowning even the most well-intentioned and now after successfully being removed from NYC’s Impact school list, we were transferred to the SURR list.  In retrospect, the school was longed for closure and in December of 2007 it was officially announced that the school would be closing.

I grew up in the suburbs and had often longed for the opportunity to work with kids “who were bound for higher education,” kids that I perceived to be more like me.  (Ironically, I never liked the people I grew up with and never felt like I fit in.)   I wanted a job that would reward my hard work and time with the money that would compete with the high paying technology job I left to pursue a career in service.  I was filled with optimism that this would be the beginning of my career, one that I hoped would last a while.

Driving up to my new school in summer, preparing for orientation and the new school year was exciting.  Set far away from anything and everything else, it was truly a school on a hill, beach side.  I thought foolishly that appearances would be faithful and that my new home would be a warm yet challenging one.  I was eager to begin.

Soon after my first term began, I noticed that things were not as I had pictured them.  It took much longer to develop relationships with my students and my colleagues were leery of my less traditional ways.  I was described as “free-spirited” and “liberal,” words and phrases that I had not realized were taboo.  Needless to say the fantasy crashed quickly.

It started when I let administration know that I was expecting my first child around the beginning of December.  I was dutiful to my job detail, but also had to take care of my health.  When I spoke with the personnel administrator about my situation (as I was working there too short a time to qualify for the family medical leave act), it was decided I would take unpaid leave once my sick time was exhausted.  I specifically recall asking this person if my maternity would negatively influence my chances of a timely tenure, he was reluctant to give me a straight answer.  Let the record show that this was one of the first signs that something was not kosher.

I returned to work promptly, so as not to hurt my career, students and newspaper.  I wanted them to recognize my dedication.  Giving up time at home with my new child to appease some irate parents about the long term sub who was me for a few months and willingly resuming the many activities and commitments that beseeched me earlier.  I wasn’t going to let anyone down; it’s not in my nature.

I finished the year strongly.  A benefit to my maternity leave was the renewed sense of appreciation from my students which ensured smooth sailing through the end of the year.  I got stellar reviews and I felt more a part of the community.  Parents were happy.  The staff was happy.  I was happy.  But gray skies loomed on the horizon as earlier in that same school year, the principal who had hired me was promoted to assistant superintendent.  Great for him, not so great for many of us.  I didn’t know that then.  I’m sure that none of us knew the ramifications of that transition when it happened.  We were hopeful that despite the consistent changing of the guard (the school had consumed 5 principals in 5 years), we would be able to survive as a community.

Fervent to outdo my performance from the year before and to make a good impression on the new principal, I ventured up to school over the summer to meet with him about the newspaper I advised and meet with my staff to start preparing the September issue.  With my son in tow, I marched up to his office only to be kept waiting and then told that I needed to make another appointment or maybe I should just email him my concerns.  Remember earlier I said gray skies were on the horizon and that I should have seen the warning clouds, well here was another omen from the heavens that I chose to ignore.

I did email him… we seemed to agree on the direction of the paper.  The kids wanted more responsibility and I wanted to give it to them even if it made me a less favorable person in the community due to their honesty.  It was their paper after all.  The principal assured me that so long as the paper was fair and balanced and it represented the will of the students he had no problem with us being a little more forward in our views.  And we were.

This forward move didn’t only propel the paper though, it was the way I wanted to run my classes as well making me an easy target for anyone who wasn’t so interested in my success.  Evidently the new honcho had an agenda that none of us were aware of in the beginning.  It showed itself insidiously in the months that followed.  My days at my little oasis on hill were numbered.  I could sense it and it wasn’t just that paranoid tick a person gets when they feel like they are being watched.  It was real and constant and the presence of the fear was pervasive in the classrooms.

First it was the conversation about a parent who called because of a political discussion that was held in my senior class while discussing George Orwell’s Animal Farm.  Apparently I was “espousing my political beliefs” and therefore not acknowledging all student views.  My side was never taken into account.  I was only talked to and told to watch myself.  For the record, I still don’t know who the parent was as the person never contacted me to discuss the issue.  My union rep claimed she had never heard anything of this phone call either.

Second it was a look that I supposed gave a freshman student during an unannounced observation that showed the principal that I don’t like children.  Upon hearing this assertion about my feelings toward kids, I sat perplexed about what look I could have possibly given a student to make he/she feel like what they had to say didn’t matter.  It also came out in the post-observation discussion that he didn’t think I had good classroom management skills.  At first I tried to defend myself, but quickly realized the rocks on the steep cliff I was on were sliding out from under me quickly.  Fighting and defending was futile because he had his mind made up.  I knew in my heart how I felt about kids and I also knew that I had better than good management skills as I knew how to command the attention of 34 city kids who usually had no interest in English.  But this principal decided that I couldn’t and that was all that mattered now.

My current school is somewhere in the middle. It is in the
My current school is somewhere in the middle. It is in the "city" but not the inner city. I get to experience the best of both worlds.

I didn’t give up though.  I still pushed myself to get my students to think and to challenge what was given to them.  I even devised a student run grammar project that gave students the opportunity to teach each other complex grammatical ideas and constructs.  It was all so exciting, but it was also the last nail in my coffin.

The project had worked out so well in my honors class that I decided to allow my Regents students to take a turn at it.   I figured at the very least students would become familiar with their own topic and they were that much better off for that.  I had one pair of boys who didn’t take the project too seriously and allowed them to hand out a sheet that was not well made.  Granted, I should have made them do it over, but instead I used it as a teaching point when they got in front of the class.  My principal didn’t feel that this was an effective way to use class time.

The end was in sight long before this “incident.”  I had the paranoia of a person who knows they are being watched.  They needed something and I handed it to them.  I had not been enjoying the year since early October.  I didn’t feel supported by my administration and the union wasn’t strong enough in my school. I actually started longing to be back in the inner city where I felt appreciated.

I announced my resignation shortly after that.  I knew that if I hadn’t potentially other bad things would happen.  I didn’t realize that working in the burbs came with so many rules that no ever told me about.  Being a good teacher and bring passion to my discipline just weren’t enough.  After all, my hippie like ways is what made me a threat in this particular district.  So it was with a less than heavy heart I started looking elsewhere and questioning my zest for the profession.  Was it just the place I was working in or was it the direction that education seemed to be moving in in general?

My answer would in come in the form of a new opportunity.  I was getting ready to explore my other options when I was told about a new small school in the city.  A school with a focus in journalism and a progressive take on how education can be different.  Couldn’t hurt to learn more, I thought.

One Saturday afternoon, I called the school to get a valid email address where I could forward my resume and cover letter.  I ended up getting the principal on the phone.  Sent the information right over and by the end of the day I had a call back asking me to come visit for the day.  At the time, it seemed excessive, but I agreed and went with an open mind.

The school was still dark when I arrived as I am notorious for early arrival.  Punctuality is kind of a rule for me.  So to avoid being late, I am always early.  I got to talking to the students and some of the other employees only to realize that I just found the Promised Land.  A progressive school it was and the other candidate for a position was not as turned on by the prospect.  I didn’t care though because the place to educate that I had always dreamed about did exist and it wasn’t private.  By the end of the day, I wanted the position so badly that the principal could have offered me a custodial job and I would have taken it.  The most important part was that she, the principal was just as excited about me as I was about her and her school.

It’s all about fit.  What the conservative school in the suburbs didn’t understand about me was the exact thing that this new school admired in me.  I quickly shed my infatuation for the riches and green shores of the suburbs realizing that most things are seldom what they seem from a far.  It’s easy to want what can be perceived as better, but the grass is always greener or browner depending on what side of street you are standing on.

More money comes with a bigger price than the paycheck I was taking home.  The ingratitude and lack of support was a dismal side effect that no one tells an aspiring teacher about when he/she dreams of the green.  Just because something looks beautiful doesn’t mean that it is.  That’s why believing that taking a job in suburbs is better all the time is a myth, because there really are no guarantees for it.

If you'd like to download this article to share, you can here: The Suburban Myth

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Starr Sackstein currently works at World Journalism Preparatory School in Flushing, N.Y., as a high-school English and journalism teacher. She is the author of Teaching Mythology Exposed: Helping Teachers Create Visionary Classroom Perspective, Blogging for Educators, Teaching Students to Self-Assess, Hacking Assessment, The Power of Questioning and Simply May . She blogs for Education Week Teacher on “Work in Progress” in addition to her personal blog StarrSackstein.com where she discusses all aspects of being a teacher. Sackstein co-moderates #sunchat and contributes to #NYedChat. In speaking engagements, Sackstein speaks about blogging, journalism education, throwing out grades and BYOD, helping people see technology doesn’t have to be feared. Follow her @MsSackstein on Twitter.
  • Jon Harper /  @Jonharper70bd
    Jon Harper / @Jonharper70bd Monday, 25 January 2016

    Wow Star! This is the first piece I read this morning with my coffee and it was happy, sad and eye-opening all at once. Thank you for always sharing so openly and honestly. I too have worked in all different types of schools with varying degrees of support. I am lucky to have found a place that celebrates children and exploration. I am glad you have found the right place for you and look forward to reading about how it is going.

  • Starr Sackstein | @MsSackstein
    Starr Sackstein | @MsSackstein Monday, 25 January 2016

    I wrote this post a long time ago... Yes, it was my reality for a long time and I feel fortunate now to have landed somewhere in the middle. I think many teachers dream of greener pastures, but what they don't realize is that every school has its pros and cons. I have learned this in spades.

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