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From Recurring Nightmares to Teacher Heaven: Erika McCarthy's Teaching Journey
Posted 11/21/2017 12:33PM

When faculty and staff gather each August before the start of another school year, two teachers share personal narratives describing their lives as educators: how they entered the field, memorable classroom moments, and what keeps them going when the job gets tough. Beginning this fall, we are featuring one teacher's speech—edited for length and style—in each issue of Fine Print.

Ten years ago, on the day I signed my contract to teach at Rowland Hall's Lower School, I whispered to then-principal Deborah Morhman: "I am in teacher heaven." Deborah smiled. She understood.

Flashback to the day in 1973 I declared my major at Westminster College and my grandmother quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson: "The secret in education lies in respecting the student." Today, over 40 years later, I still believe this quote is true. I have tried to not only respect but to build a relationship with each and every one of my students and their families throughout my career.

My first teaching assignment was at Roosevelt Elementary School on 3300 South and 900 East. Along with 10 other new teachers, I signed my contract the Friday before school started. If anyone has had that recurring nightmare where you walk into a classroom and nothing is ready—that was us.

Roosevelt Elementary had recently been remodeled, so the classrooms were modern and open—I mean wide open. There were very few walls. We teachers needed to change that and found creative ways to divide our classrooms up. I had 30 students, and together we had to put our space in order, clean out cupboards, and take inventory, all during the first week. The school operated on the "looping" system, meaning I taught both fifth and sixth graders. It was very confusing for me, as a new teacher, but I grew to know and adore my students—if they stayed. Roosevelt had a 57-63% transit rate, and free lunch was the norm. My attendance book was a mess.

I loved Roosevelt, but after 12 years and some unwelcome changes in leadership, I transferred to Mill Creek Elementary. I taught third grade there along with two fellow teachers, and because I was the new kid, I inherited the toughest group of students. Two weeks into my second year, the district came through and made changes due to enrollment numbers, which was not uncommon. By this time, I had seniority, so I moved up to sixth grade and bumped another teacher to West Valley. What I didn't know was that the teacher I replaced had not yet set up her room, and I was back to square one, with 32 students staring at me. It was my old nightmare, recurring yet again.

Within a few years, Mill Creek changed for the worse: the neighborhood became low income, and the transit rate at the school rose. Many children were on the three-month rotation: mom and dad paid the first and last month's rent on an apartment and then skipped out after three months. Due to their parents' poor choices, these students never had a chance.

I soon realized how many of my students were deprived of everyday necessities, let alone fun or memorable experiences. My colleagues and I begged for funds or collected box tops to enable more than one field trip per year. Too often, I had to contact Child and Family Services because one of my students was being abused. I learned the signs all too well. Along with our school social worker, I made home visits when students were tardy as often as 30 times, or when they had extended absences. Sadly, in most homes I found poverty, filth, and often drug paraphernalia.

After driving a girl home from school one day because she fainted during class, I learned to keep my closet full of snacks for any child who came to school hungry. I collected clothing, especially shoes and coats, so my students would be warm at recess. Along with fellow teachers, I ran intramural sports during the school year for many fifth and sixth graders. We had a system where students with a C average or higher could participate in softball, volleyball, or sometimes indoor hockey. No one paid us for this time, but we knew that because we had sports after school, there would be fewer kids causing problems in the neighborhood, and they would be working harder in their classes, too. It was the time of day when we let our hair down and played with our students—and sometimes their families. That was our reward.

The school budget was always tight. Some years we had just $5 per child to buy supplies or equipment for our classrooms. Any personal touches I wanted to contribute, such as pillows, books, or posters, came out of my pocket. Early in my career, my tax accountant had a serious talk with me about spending $1,000 on my students in one year. I wasn't making much money, but I had invested in a reading series on morals and values for my classroom—you can probably guess why. Over time, I did cut back, but I never stopped spending money on my students.

One of my best experiences in public schools was blending my class with one from the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind (USDB). For two years, a USDB teacher and I successfully put my mix of ESL, gifted, and regular kids with eight children who were either blind or deaf. Watching students ride tandem on a bike or play intramural sports together brought me tremendous joy. My students' parents were as grateful as the USDB parents.

One of my worst experiences came when I had to press charges against a fourth-grade student who slugged me in the face over a popsicle. He had quite a hook. I knew this family very well and hoped that he, along with his family, would to go into counseling. I never heard how it ended—that was confidential—but the judge did ask me if I was going to continue teaching. I replied: yes.

I have never regretted teaching in public schools for 32 years. I taught with some of the finest teachers ever, and we were always looking for ways to better our students' lives. I know that I have made a difference, and I am proud of how hard of I have tried to reach and teach every child I could, even if I haven't changed the world...yet.

However, when I came to Rowland Hall, I knew I was in teacher heaven. I have the best colleagues, the most interesting students, and the most amazing support from the community. I know I continue to make a difference in the lives of my students and their families. After all, children are children no matter where they go to school.

720 S. Guardsman Way | Salt Lake City, Utah 84108
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