I knew from an early age I wanted to be a teacher, but I never imagined following those dreams would mean I’d have to leave my home far behind if I wanted anything else out of life.
I first felt this passion when I was just 12. I had an algebra class at my public school in Mesa, Arizona, that fascinated me so much I was inspired to come home after school and teach my younger brother everything I knew about algebra that day. By the time I was in high school, I wanted to make a career of teaching, but I was hesitant because I could see how poorly our teachers were being treated even then, in the early 2000s. Family members in the profession were openly discouraging me for those same reasons.
Fortunately I took an intro to education class at my local community college where the professor shared with us that teachers are often a confidant for many students in need, a safe place for children trying to navigate school and life from many different backgrounds. Thinking about that, the role I could play in making a difference in a student’s life, reignited my interest in teaching.
Throughout college, I student taught at a high school in the middle of Phoenix with a large refugee population. It was a really challenging environment to teach algebra to classrooms full of English-language learners with 14 different nationalities. I enjoyed the culture so much, and found a real love for public schools in the process. But my student teaching school did not need to hire a math teacher, while another school in my neighborhood did, and I was hired before I even graduated from ASU with my first day on the job coming before my graduation ceremony.
The school I was hired to teach at was a charter hybrid that partnered with a local school district to create a STEM-oriented school. But teaching in Arizona was- and I know I can say still is- tiring, especially since their charter schools don’t have to give you any prep time. I was always on campus by 6:30 am and I was there until at least 5 pm, plus I took hours of work home every night, and almost every Sunday was spent working the entire day grading and planning for the next week. One of the reasons for all the work was because our charter required same-day grades, and on top of that we were expected to inflate student grades so that we could diminish the priority towards testing.
We also had strict measures for students who had slipping grades, even requiring students who dipped below a certain threshold to sign tutoring contracts. We were required to do so much work to pump kids through graduation. My admin told me to “find a way to pass them” and one time we even changed a course, in content but not name, from precalculus to pre-algebra because the students were struggling from a lack of prerequisite learning. I was told “it’s not our fault these kids can’t learn what you’re teaching them.”
By my last year at the school, only my fifth, I was their most senior math teacher. I knew I had to get out of Arizona.
I took a job teaching in Washington, D.C., where as a new teacher I “float” without an assigned classroom in a public school hosting 2,100 students in a building designed for 1,600, but I love it. The culture of care and respect for the staff is a big difference.
I have prep periods and lunch breaks now, which alone is huge, and we also get funding to purchase supplies rather than having to open up our own wallets. And there’s ample support staff for our students. We also get a lot of training regarding how to be culturally responsive and supportive of our students, which would’ve been really helpful in Arizona. Also, here we have a lot more certainty about the next year. Every year in Arizona it was a guessing game to know if we were going to be hired again for the following year, and any raises we got came out of a communal pot, meaning any raise I got cut into the raise of someone else. It all contributed to a stressful and toxic work environment. But now, I know I’m here until I say I’m going, the Administration supports us by communicating what’s on the horizon, and I can feel happy knowing any raise I receive is on a predetermined schedule and isn’t coming out of someone else’s pay.
I love working with students and teaching. I always have. But now I get to enjoy it because I am supported and respected for my valuable talents. I truly hope other states can learn from the terrible and intentional destruction of Arizona’s public schools and do everything they can to avoid following in their footsteps.
Lee Casey is an algebra teacher in Washington, D.C. where he lives with his wife, Charli.