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Coffee Black, No Sugar: The Daily Life of a Teacher in Philly

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Teona Washington is a Southern belle born in Anderson, South Carolina, and raised in Philadelphia with a passion for education. Since she was a little girl, she was always involved in her school work. Washington loved learning. Coming from a family of people who never obtained a college education, she became interested in pursuing a career in education. She yearned for the opportunity to educate students that looked like her, inspiring them to achieve great things. 

While in college, Washington tutored girls in reading at Adamsville Elementary School in Atlanta. 

Upon matriculation from Spelman College in 2018, she received a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania. Her mentorship didn’t stop there. Washington devotes her time to tutoring middle school students in reading and writing while emphasizing fundamental reading and math skills with first graders. As a result of the global crisis, parents in low-income communities have the opportunity to get prorated tutoring for their children who have struggled to learn during the pandemic. The objective is to ensure that all Philly students are up to speed. 

Teaching Perseverance

Washington learned that internal and external factors influence students’ drive and behavior in an educational setting. She had a challenging student during her first year of teaching after transitioning from KIPP to the public school system. Initially, the students did not listen because they were used to learning from four to five different teachers. After the first two months, her students got used to a routine and abiding by classroom expectations. Washington decided to build a bond with Weston, the troubled student. He often fought classmates and even put his hands on Washington a few times. Regardless of his past actions and experiences, Washington wanted to reassure Weston that she would support him in a way that no other teacher had. Weston was not going to be left behind. Within a few months, he started to believe in himself, and gradually Weston began reading on grade level. If Washington had been in his shoes more than 15 years ago, she would have wanted her teacher to offer the same support.

“Teaching in Philly is enjoyable,” Washington said. “I think it’s fun to be a teacher in the same school system I received education through high school. Now and then, I see my old teachers at professional development meetings.”

Washington enjoys teaching, but finding success in the profession isn’t always easy. As a fifth-year educator, Ms. Washington teaches first grade. This year, her class is medium-sized with 20 students. Several of the significant challenges that she faces in the classroom daily include a lack of parental involvement, the struggle to adequately balance the plethora of students’ learning styles, and finding the time to keep up with administrative tasks.

Since the pandemic, there has been an extreme teacher shortage. Each teacher does the best that they can and goes home. Without the extra hands on deck, students with IEPS cannot get the support they need due to the shortage of staff.

“It’s sad because we constantly pass these students to the next grade, but they need to be held back,” Washington explained. “In reality, they are far behind. How are we supposed to meet students where they are, when we’re expected to follow a curriculum?”

The pandemic has made Ms. Washington question whether or not she will keep teaching in the future. The lack of resources and the lingering impact of the pandemic have burned out the most passionate educators. Another problem is the unfair workload in the educational experience. Washington preaches that learning starts at home, and most parents are not committed to their children’s success. She praises the parents who take advantage of resources and focus on their children’s development despite working long hours. 

Pandemic Anxiety for Teachers

Teaching has affected Washinton’s anxiety due to the coronavirus. The virus has caused her to live in fear that someone in her family could contract COVID-19. It has been a challenge for the school to take precautions when protocols are not being enforced. Washington has witnessed students taking off their masks in overcrowded classrooms, making it hard for appropriate distancing. In addition, ventilation systems are not functioning correctly, classrooms are not being cleaned, and a shortage in PPE to help stop the spread of COVID-19 puts students and staff at risk. This results in teachers spending their money on supplies that they are not reimbursed for.   

Washington details when the frequency of her panic attacks increased:

“It was a Friday, and I received a call from my principal that she needed to speak with me. She stated that she would come up to my classroom to speak with me in five minutes. After I hung up the phone, the phone started ringing again. I answered, and the nurse said, “Ms. Washington, you need to leave right away. A student tested positive in your classroom.” I could feel my heart racing, my chest began to get tight, and it was hard for me to breathe. The only thing I could think about was that my other students around him were unvaccinated, just like me. The principal walked in and confirmed that my student tested positive and that I needed to go downstairs to take a rapid COVID test. I informed her that I needed to leave because I was not vaccinated and I had to take a PCR test. After speaking with the school nurse, I was advised to leave right away because I was not vaccinated and needed to quarantine for ten days.”

Despite all the challenges of being an educator, Washington learned some things about herself. Her primary form of expression is to write things down as she processes everything around her. For example, at every teacher’s meeting, Washington jots down some notes so that she can address a particular issue after the meeting. She wants to be able to substantiate her claims with information to back them up. 

Besides education, Washington volunteers to feed the homeless and partakes in a prom dress drive that provides prom dresses to high school girls in West Philly. She also coordinates a college tour for high school students to show the importance of continuing their education. Washington’s overall goal is to impact youth in the greater Philadelphia area positively.  

 

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