Two years.

It’s January 2014, and that statistic echoes around my head as I arrive at work. Two years is the average shelf life of a special-education teacher in Hawaii.

I’ve made it a year and a half at this middle school, but it’s felt a lot longer than that. I’ve worked during every break teaching ESY (Extra School Year) in the FSC (Fully Self-Contained classroom), and that’s to say nothing of the part-time job and full-time grad school schedule I’ve also been juggling.

I turn the engine off and sit inside my car for a few minutes to gather myself. I try to rub the exhaustion off my face, but it feels like I’m only spreading it around, like how a child attempts to clean up spilled juice with a paper towel. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere about feeling like a child when I’m here at work, but I let it go and heave myself out of the car. I try not to look at the gas meter.

Robert Pollack via Flickr
Robert Pollack via Flickr Robert Pollack via Flickr

I’m one of the first to arrive. Not by dedication so much as necessity; I live on the other side of the island, and there’s a narrow window of traffic I have to hit in order to be on time. If I leave my house 15 minutes later, it adds 45 minutes of commute time. 

I sign in and check my mailbox. My pay slip is on time – a punctual reminder that I’m broke: $919.49. I get two of these a month. Rent eats up 81.6% of this check. The rest goes to gas, and my second check will be dedicated to utilities and groceries. My part-time money gets put aside for the next time my 2002 Mazda POS breaks down. Since I’m in grad school, my student loan payments are deferred, but god knows how I’ll handle those when I have to start paying them. 

A desk of messy paperwork awaits me in my classroom. More letters in the form of acronyms: A BSP for this student, an SLD form for another student’s IEP, an ungraded SDRT to calculate, forms for the SBBH to fill out. Of course, I have to input all of these in ECSSS afterwards. Don’t worry if none of this makes sense – SPED (Special Ed) is its own language, and it’s always changing.

I go over the day’s schedule in my head. The two periods of Language Arts co-teaching stick out as the low points. My co-teacher Clarisse and I don’t get along, and we haven’t for some time. I don’t even know why anymore, but it’s clear as day that she would rather conduct her class without me or my students. She sits them all in the back row and rarely interacts with them. She reminds them constantly that they’re my students, not hers. They’re supposed to be both. 

I’ve been charged with the task of teaching history this year, too. Technically, I’m not qualified to teach it; but it’s not like I have much say in the matter.

I’ve been charged with the task of teaching history this year, too. Technically, I’m not qualified to teach it; but it’s not like I have much say in the matter. I tried to collaborate with the history teacher at first, dedicating my one prep period of the day to sit in on her class and see how she delivers the material. She fills in blanks on a worksheet using an overhead projector while students follow along. I struggled to stay awake, even with my coffee. Luckily, my brother is a history teacher in California, and he gave me a year’s worth of interactive PowerPoints, worksheets, assessments and activities. My history class is great, and I got my prep period back.

Then I have my Language Arts class. To accommodate Common Core, the school rushed to buy scripted curriculum. I am supposed to stick to the script “with fidelity,” to borrow my principal’s verbiage. I don’t. If I did, I would be teaching how to analyze theme in poetry right now. The average reading level of my students is between 3rd and 4th grade. One of my students started the year unable to read at all. I tutor him three times a week before school, and he’s made significant improvements; but there’s a difference between reading “Captain Underpants” and dissecting “O Captain! My Captain!” Good thing no administrator cares to ever step inside a classroom; who knows what kind of trouble I’d get into if They found out I was teaching how to read and write. 

After school, we have another faculty meeting that could easily be an email. The cafeteria will fill with teachers on their phones, chatting with each other. Hardly anyone will notice which of the five principals or vice principals will be talking, let alone listen to them remind us that we’re “building the airplane mid-flight.” That’s their go-to line to combat the mounting frustrations everyone has, their tacit admission that they are as confused and frustrated as we are.

My phone vibrates. Xander’s dad texts me that Xander won’t be coming to school today because he’s not feeling well. He’s missed nearly a quarter of the school year by now, all due to alleged sicknesses that his parents never investigate. I text back to tell him that I hope Xander feels better, and that I’ll leave his homework in the front office. Xander won’t do it; but I have to cover my bases.

At least I know when Xander comes to school or not, unlike Aubrey or Hoku. They come when they feel like it. I text both of their parents. Aubrey’s mom doesn’t respond unless she wants to vent. Hoku’s dad calls me back shortly and tells me that she’s still missing. She ran away from home last week. I try to reassure him that Hoku is a smart girl (which she is) and that she’ll make the right decisions (which she probably won’t). It’s all I can do, really.

It’s 20 minutes before the day starts, and I already feel burned out. It’s the price you pay for actually trying, actually caring.

I write all of this down in my “Communication” folder. SPED is 30 percent educating and 70 percent documenting. I get why; students who receive SPED services are protected by federal law. God forbid I ever get sued, but it can happen; and I need to document everything – every interaction, every assessment score, every classroom incident – just in case I need to prove to a court that I’m doing my job.

I exhale, heavily, exhaustedly. It’s 20 minutes before the day starts, and I already feel burned out. It’s the price you pay for actually trying, actually caring. I go on my phone. Two Internet tabs are open. One of them is Facebook. A friend from the mainland messaged me, asked me how I’m doing. She wants to move to Hawaii to teach. She asks me for advice. “Don’t do it,” is all I can think to say.

I switch to the other tab. It’s the homepage for a recruiting company to teach in Korea. I read through the site in its entirety: how to apply, what to expect, testimonials and FAQs. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve read all of this information already, but it never fails to bring me relief. It helps me focus on the numbers and letters that matter most: June 26. The last day of the school year, when my two years will be up. 

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