Mary Jane is a fourth grade teacher at a Title I public school in Phoenix, Arizona. Her and four other teachers began the school year as a completely new team for the fourth grade. They were given curriculum books and thrown into chaos, forced to adapt to teaching in the middle of a pandemic. “When I first arrived, no one taught me what was expected. Instead it was ‘here are the books, good luck.’ We all completely winged it.”
A Title I school is the lowest income bracket and the pandemic is impacting more than the children’s academic studies. “For my students, school is the only safe place. My job goes beyond the classroom. My job is about keeping them safe, their bellies full, and them feeling loved. And then of course I pray to god they learn something.”
80 percent of Mary Jane’s class has special needs; students have ADD, impulse control issues, behavioral problems, and some are survivors of fetal alcohol and drug abuse. She’s working with 10 year olds who can’t read. All her students are English language learners. Mary Jane is 25 years old.
She grew up in Phoenix and went to the University of Arizona where she received a Bachelors of Arts in Communication. If she could go back she says she would have studied education, but at the time she didn’t want to be a teacher. Upon graduating, she moved to Austin, Texas and worked a sales job for two weeks. She hated it and quit. She found nanny jobs to pay the bills and realized how much she loved working with children. Mary Jane tried her hand at substitute teaching then decided to get a masters degree and become a teacher. At one point, she was coaching girls’ lacrosse, working as an assistant teacher, pursuing her masters online, and picking up restaurant shifts on the weekend. Occasionally she’d nanny as well.
Her teaching job in Phoenix is her first full time teaching position. “I like kids better than adults.” Mary Jane laughs as she tells me this, “I just do. I think they really like me too. I was always the fun cousin. I knew at some point in my life I’d work with kids. They’re innocent. They just want to learn. They’re curious. I love my sweet little fourth graders, but they’re not as naïve as you think.”
Mary Jane began the school year online. Her first interaction was dropping off school supplies for her students. She saw gunshots in doorways and trash everywhere. “Me going to deliver school supplies was like Christmas for these kids. I realized I had to kind of alter our classroom and how I taught.” Mary Jane gave an example, saying she refrains from saying ‘parents’ since most of her students come from single parent homes. “They have pencils that I gave them back in August. They hold onto them because they’re special to them. Sweet responsible kids with just the hardest circumstances. I love that they love school, otherwise my job would be a lot harder.”
Mary Jane says that patience and compassion are necessary for her job. Though, she says that her greatest skill is her ability to foster relationships: “They know they can come talk to me about anything. I try to make the classroom as comfortable and homelike as possible. The more they bond with me the more they want to impress me and work harder. It reflects in their work. I’ve seen it.”
I asked her what she struggled with when she was a fourth grade student and what it’s like to now see things from the adult’s perspective. Mary Jane laughs and says “the mean girls! The little jerks are already starting! I tell my kids hurt people, hurt people. I wish I could tell that to my fourth grade self.”
Next year, she’s headed back to Texas! “I want to help. I want to make a difference,” she tells me. When Mary Jane was in eighth grade, her literature teacher diagnosed her as dyslexic. “She advocated for my needs. She didn’t think I was stupid. I actually ended up graduating at the top of my class.”
I asked Mary Jane what advice she has for those who want to be teachers. She laughs saying it’s obviously not about money. “Don’t hop into it thinking it’s an easy career, because it ain’t!” The main point she makes though is to not burnout. “If you need to take a break, do that. You can always come back to it. You’re doing yourself and more importantly your students a disservice if you’re working as a burnt out teacher. I refuse to do that. I’m going to be the best for my students.”