I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I decided to become a teacher in Hawaii.
The day that my Hawaii State Teachers License came in the mail, my husband and I excitedly danced around our kitchen. We tacked it on our bulletin board and clinked our coffee mugs to celebrate. Neither of us realized that it would cost us our financial security and my health.
Discovering Education in Hawaii
My husband tells me regularly that my heart is too big for this world. I spent two years as the special education component in an English inclusion classroom. I quickly became attached to the enormous hearts of my students; I wanted to help them uncover their potential through literary analysis and writing.
As a teenager, my life experiences differed from many of my peers. In 2002, at thirteen years old, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and inflammatory arthritis. From then on, I became a pincushion for toxic medication that suppressed my immune system, but in doing so, also made me feel quite sick most of the time. I missed a lot of school throughout the five years that followed.
My experiences as a student with Crohn’s disease motivated me to pursue my degree in education. My professors fostered my enthusiasm but were also very realistic in sharing the woes of what I was getting myself into within the realm of public education. I remember the first day of my foundations course; the professor went around the room and asked every single student why they wanted to be an educator. After everyone shared, she told us to remember that reason, to hold it tightly to us, because we were about to go into a low pay and low respect position where we would be blamed for every societal woe.
The last year of education programs require students to fulfill a semester of “practicum” where they teach for one day a week with a mentor teacher, while also taking a full course load, followed by the last semester of our college education where students are required to complete “student teaching” where they teach full time with a mentor teacher. This was the greatest experience of my career thus far; I had three mentors over the course of two semesters that challenged me and shaped me in a way that solidified my belief that this is my calling and my purpose in life.
I taught freshman and sophomore College Prep English, resource English, and inclusion English every day. Students were required to do homework every night to extend their learning. One of my mentors taught me the importance of having a predictable schedule for students to follow; every week, students knew that Mondays they would have grammar homework due and we would spend the first ten minutes of class going over it, followed by a quiz. On Tuesdays, we’d begin class by reading a poem aloud, and they would then write a reflection in their journals. On Wednesdays we would go over their SOAPSTone homework, in which they were required to do a close reading of an assigned article. On Thursdays, we would go over their Vocab homework to make sure each student understood the words they were assigned earlier in the week, and could prepare for their vocab quiz on Fridays. After the Vocab quiz on Fridays, students spent the rest of the period in writer’s workshop, which was sometimes structured and other times individual work time. Mondays through Thursdays, the rest of the class period was time for literary analysis of the novel that they read at home. Sometimes we read in class, but most of the time, students were required to do the reading at home. Why? Because they are in high school, and the Common Core Standards that we are required to follow across the country require teachers to guide students to analyze literary and nonfiction texts, as well as make inferences – if we are reading in class, that doesn’t leave much time for students to be doing higher level thinking.
It was amazing. My students were engaged. When they struggled, they told me. We had lunch tutoring sessions every day – they would bring their lunch to the classroom, and we’d all sit around the board, eating lunch and reviewing any information they needed clarified. It was awesome. It was hard work – I worked around the clock, but I was inspired me every day, so I didn’t really mind.
The English Department Head at the school I was teaching at was incredible – she supported her teachers on every level. She created opportunities for English teachers to design curriculum that they were passionate about; one teacher taught an English class called “Super Heroes and Villains in Literature” while another taught an English course on feminism in literature. Upper classmen had the academic freedom to choose which English course to take, and regardless of their choice, it counted as an English credit. The department head taught one class per day, and spent the rest of her work day organizing curriculum, providing feedback for teachers, and doing observations, among many, many other responsibilities that she juggled seamlessly — always supporting her teachers, first and foremost, along the way.
The school’s principal was supportive and engaged with his faculty. By midnight on Sundays, teachers were required to turn in their lesson plans for the week to the online portal. The principal would then randomly review a dozen teachers’ plans for the week and send those teachers feedback. I jumped for joy when my mentor said that the principal reviewed my plans and was blown away by the immense research that went into my lessons. Now I realize even more than ever how important it is for principals to show their support and appreciation of teachers’ strengths, and guide them towards their potential.
I thought all schools functioned that efficiently.
The Move to Hawaii
In 2011, a year before my graduation, my husband and I decided that we didn’t want to stay in New Jersey after my graduation – we wanted to try something new. We heard that Hawaii was in need of teachers, and decided to venture out here to see what Hawaii was all about and look into the cost of living.
We realized that it was going to be expensive and that our life would be different, but we fell in love – fell in awe – of Hawaii. People here are kind and diverse; they are dreamers and visionaries. They are creative souls with a deep attachment to nature. We knew that living here would fuel individual growth in us beyond our wildest dreams – and it has.
When we first arrived to Oahu, we settled into life on the leeward side. The consistent temperature and low barometric pressure made my body feel younger than it has in years. I realized that Hawaii was not only filling our dreams of living in a beautiful place, but it was also giving me my youth for the first time since I was diagnosed thirteen years prior. I soaked it up – we went for hikes, we kayaked, I learned to paddle board, and I maintained that if I could finally have my health back, I was going to celebrate it every day.
My husband quickly found work as a carpenter, and I began a long term subbing position in a fully self-contained classroom at one of the local elementary schools. I worked there for a few months, and then began working for The Institute for Reading Development over the summer – some of the best training I have ever received on teaching reading at all levels – and spent all of June and July teaching students aged kindergarten through adulthood skills for reading. That same July, I was hired to teach at a local high school. That was the beginning of my educational culture shock.
About a week before school started, I went to the front office to pick up my classroom keys to begin moving into my new room. I walked up to the building and my heart filled with excitement and my belly with butterflies.
As I unlocked the door, my heart dropped into my belly. There was writing on the walls and on the desks. The tile floor was scuffed with black marks.
I rationalized it, somehow, and put a positive spin on the situation – yay for more decorating! As I always have, I embraced the challenge and swept my worries under the rug. Agh, if only there was a rug to cover these black marks on the tile.
The school year began smoothly, but that only lasts so long. As the weeks went on and the honeymoon period waned, I felt the pain that they brought with them to school every day. They presented their troubles in different ways. Some wanted to talk my ear off during lunch, while others used attention-seeking behavior. As I grew as a teacher I learned how to give my students the tools that they needed to overcome their circumstances and streamline their energy. Some of them utilized the tools, but generally, those that displayed attention-seeking behavior were addicted to acting out.
One of my students that regularly displayed attention-seeking behavior showed up to class high as a kite one day. He walked in giggling and came over to my desk to say hello, an audacious move, since I wasn’t born yesterday. He reeked of marijuana.
All of the other students whispered and laughed. I got class started and he began disrupting the class immediately. I changed the plan around a bit in my head and had students work in small groups for a few minutes as a distraction while I called down to an administrator quietly to let them know that I was quite sure one of my students was under the influence. The administrator told me to take the student to the nurse because we couldn’t accuse him of being under the influence – the nurse had to diagnose him.
I asked the student to step outside, leaving the class with my co-teacher in charge. The student and I began the long walk to the nurse’s office.
He asked if he was in trouble. Being mindful to not accuse him, I beat around the bush.
“You’re not in trouble – but you just don’t seem like yourself today. I just want the nurse to take a look at you and make sure you’re okay.”
“Miss, I’m fine. I’m high. Let’s go back to class.”
“I know. That’s why we’re going to the nurse. Feel free to tell her that yourself.”
He laughed, and we kept walking. When we got there, she looked him over and asked him a few questions. I asked him to tell her what he told me. He said he couldn’t remember what that was, in an effort to back track. The nurse sent him with me back to class, and administration said there was nothing they could do.
I followed up with a phone call to a different administrator. Two weeks later, the situation was finally dealt with, and he was suspended for a day or two.
But the damage was already done. Every student knew he was high. Every student knew that the consequences weren’t immediate, and the consequences that did occur were a student’s idea of vacation. So, as can be expected, this wasn’t the first time or the only student that this situation happened with.
This incident was the platform for my realizing the issues I and every other teacher are facing: the lack of school culture and clear set of expectations for behavior, a consistent and immediate set of consequences for violations of rules, and the lack of support for especially the inclusion community to come together in unison to have clear academic expectations for our struggling students, as well as preventive measures in place to keep them on track, and social service opportunities to meet their needs.
Attempting to Balance Work and Home, but Never Able to Balance the Budget
Between my husband working full time as a carpenter, and my full time salary as a teacher, we were hardly staying afloat. My student loans were over four hundred dollars a month. The used car that I bought, to avoid having a car payment, died within months. We grocery shopped with a calculator to make sure we stayed within what was available in our dwindling checking account. We put the utilities on a credit card every month and crossed our fingers.
Later in the school year, I received an email late one night from a student asking if she could meet me at the classroom early in the morning. I agreed, and when I arrived, I quickly realized why. She walked in with a broken nose and bruises all over her face. I felt that familiar feeling of my heart dropping to the pit of my stomach. I quickly battled in my mind the best way to react: do I show her how much I care, and let myself cry, or do I play the tough cookie that is going to give her the tools to overcome this? I decided that it was best to go with the latter, though I couldn’t stop my eyes from filling with tears.
We sat down and she recanted to me the events of the night before. After first period started, I walked this student down to the counselor’s office, and the police and Child Welfare Services were called.
When the police arrived, they walked in and looked at her, and the one said, “What did you do to deserve that?”
After I picked my jaw up off of the floor and reattached it to my head, I respectfully let the officer know that it didn’t matter what my student did or didn’t do, she was all of ninety pounds soaking wet and a child, and no one had the right to touch her. To my shock and dismay, Child Welfare Services did nothing. End of story.
My heart sank.
I went home that afternoon and got in bed. My body ached from the emotional stress of the day. My shoulders and neck were tight from holding my breath for eight hours. My back burned. I curled into the pillow I’ve had since I was a kid and couldn’t muster the tears to cry; I only felt numb.
My Crohn’s disease was manageable for a couple of years prior to when I began teaching. I learned ways to get around flare ups, by managing my diet and stress level. After I began teaching, I felt frazzled constantly. As I went through the first year, the stairs up to my classroom became harder to climb. My body was coming out of remission and my joints were inflamed.
As the year went on, I tried to channel my frustration in more productive ways. I found a group of teachers that were just as aggravated but were focused on finding a solution. We discussed the issues that plagued our system: chronic absenteeism, lack of common academic expectations, as well as issues like individualized professional development differentiated between veteran and rookie teachers. We also discussed the importance of allowing teachers the time to focus on teaching instead of administrative tasks that take up the majority of our time. I felt inspired by the conversations.
I was inspired enough to convince myself that I wasn’t going to be another statistic; another one of the fifty-five percent of teachers that leave in the first five years…but inspiration doesn’t pay the bills.
As I looked over the budget and crunched the numbers, I realized that we were still in the red at the end of every month. A friend of ours told us that if we wanted to make it here in Hawaii, we had to learn how to hustle. Sean took on weekends and I picked up five to ten hours a week in the afternoons tutoring students home on medical leave from school and also put up an ad on Craigslist to babysit as often as I could. We scraped by.
I hustled between campus, tutoring, babysitting, and policy meetings. When I got home late at night, I propped up my swollen, arthritic legs on pillows while planning lessons and grading papers.
The Education Gap
I wanted to inspire my Hawaii students the same way that my New Jersey students were – but that required both parties to do the work. My students quickly let me know that they had better things to do than homework. I fought them on the subject. I told them that reading at home allowed for us to do fun stuff together in class – and I jumped in with examples of how literary analysis could be fun and inspiring. I talked about how literature made me feel like I wasn’t alone in the world when it was falling apart. I told them that authors have been recording their ideas for thousands of years so that we never have to feel alone, and we can journey through parts of the world that we might never see in person, all by reading.
But I was wrong. My veteran counterparts told me that I was not going to win that fight. Other English classes read in class, even if they couldn’t make it through the whole book.
I was fighting a battle that couldn’t be won. How could I expect my students to read Things Fall Apart on their own at home? Over half of my student population came to me with a third to fifth grade reading level. How are the Common Core Standards helping me raise my students up to grade level with reading comprehension? Am I really supposed to write IEPs with goals at grade level when that student isn’t at grade level? But the drop down menu in ECSSS doesn’t give me the option to switch grade levels for different standards, and even if it did, how in the name of Mary and Joseph am I going to differentiate my lessons every day to reach all students, some at a third grade level, others reading at post high school?
And how am I supposed to get all of this done when my prep periods and afternoon work time is taken up by meetings (that could have been summed up in an email), and administrative tasks?
I continued on with channeling my frustrations into policy meetings with colleagues, politicians, and community leaders.
We were making headway on the policy front. I kept my head up and kept myself surrounded with positive minds that channeled their frustration productively.
As I started the school year in August of 2014, I felt revitalized and ready for the challenge of the year.
I wasn’t, however, ready to accept that every time I ate lately, it felt like little people with knives were doing jumping jacks in my belly.
I was due for a colonoscopy, as people with Crohn’s are required to get one every two years since we are at a greater risk for colon cancer. On August 23rd, I had my fifth colonoscopy and was told that I had an ulcer and several areas of inflammation.
Ok, well, I can live with that.
On I went with my life. I was busy. I wanted to do my part to help heal Hawaii Education. I wanted to save the world. I didn’t have time for ulcers. No thanks.
On nights, weekends, and breaks, my policy colleagues and I would take teachers on “field trips” to observe and engage with other educators. With my notebook in hand, I recorded these experiences with great detail; one of the experiences led to a series of educational activism articles that explored the relationship between public and private schools. It stirred much conversation. Part of that conversation came in early December when one of my administrators called me during 4th period, while I was teaching a class, to let me know that she had just returned from the DOE offices and they were asking about me. She then let me know that if I wanted to be successful in this school and in this state, I would tone down the articles a bit.
I was furious. I felt like my first amendment rights were violated and threatened.
I began to understand that all of the work I had been doing to improve education wasn’t happening in a democratic setting – it was happening in a well-machined oligarchy.
As the middle of December rolled around, it felt like my stomach was too. To top it off, my joints were more inflamed than ever. I was in the bathroom several times a day, and dropped about five pounds. I went to my rheumatologist, who shared with me the results of some tests I had done – I now had osteoporosis, with the bone density of someone three times my age.
I was supposed to go to a policy pau hana that night. Instead, I got in my car in the parking garage and cried.
I carried on. I kept myself busy; my main focus was to somehow get our bills paid and keep my students engaged. I picked up freelance writing jobs when I could and babysat two to three nights a week.
As December crept up, colleagues complimented me on looking slimmer and asked what my secret was – I was too shy to say, I’ve been so stressed from this insane job that I can’t stop shitting! So instead I smiled and thanked them. I hadn’t accepted yet that my Crohn’s was going back into full swing.
I thought I’d feel better after Christmas. I was going home for the holidays and thought it would refresh and revitalize me so I could return in January with fresh eyes.
Instead, my symptoms spiraled out of control as I started up the second semester. I was up all night in the bathroom, every night. As it progressively got worse, I ran to the bathroom throughout the workday, praying to the toilet gods that there wasn’t a line. A week later, I was so malnourished that I struggled to put thoughts into words. In the end of January, on what ended up being my last day for the school year, I was in the bathroom seventeen times by second period.
In the three weeks that followed, I rarely left my couch. Sometimes I slept on the bathroom floor. The pain was so unbearable that to even sit still made me cry. In a matter of fourteen days, I went from a curvy 142 pounds to an emaciated 115 pounds. My husband woke in the middle of the night to find me throwing up and shaking from dehydration. We were in and out of the emergency room several times. I was terrified. I was afraid to go to sleep for fear of not waking up. I knew my organs could shut down from the malnourishment. One night, my husband woke up to find me sitting on the toilet sick as a dog, while at the same time throwing up violently into the bath tub. The look on his face broke my heart because I knew he was terrified. We knew that either the ER had to admit me that night, or I was going to be in significant trouble.
Luckily, they did.
There are several inflammatory markers that doctors look for when checking blood work of people with inflammatory diseases. One is called the CRP, another is the sedimentation rate, and another is the white cell count. Normal CRP ranges between 1-10. Mine was 168. Normal sedimentation rate is below 20. Mine was 77. My white cells were so high that I was in leukocytosis.
I was in the hospital for twelve days on a morphine drip and IV Solumedrol, which is a steroid anti-inflammatory. I dropped more than twenty pounds in a two-week period. The doctors told me that I needed a PICC line, which was my only option to get nutrition.
Even with high doses of anti-inflammatories, I was still in the bathroom anywhere between a dozen to two dozen times a day.
Over the course of the last five months, the hospital bills between my stay at Queen’s and a trip to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota have totaled over thirty thousand dollars. Luckily, I was approved for the Leave Share program so that teachers could donate sick leave to me, but it took about four months to process the paperwork. During that time period we were without my paycheck and paying over five hundred a month out of pocket for my health insurance. My sister started a Giving Forward page for us, which was the difference between us becoming homeless or keeping our apartment. I have learned that asking for financial support is one of the most vulnerable things a person can experience. I also learned that humanity is beautiful.
One of the most difficult parts of having a chronic disease is grappling with one’s identity. I am an English teacher. It’s what I know. Now, my existence as such has been compromised. I don’t know how to rediscover and redefine who I am and what my purpose is, but I have to. I love my students, literature, doing research for lesson plans, and collaborating with my colleagues – but I don’t love the bureaucratic nightmare that this system has become and which my union allows. I don’t love that my country has allowed for the gap between the rich and the poor to grow so great that the wheel perpetuates poverty and victim shames them into submission. I don’t love that remaining a teacher for life ensures that my family will never live comfortably. I don’t love that the stress of it all nearly killed me.
I became the statistic that I never thought I would. I am bidding farewell to the job that I thought was my purpose in life, and am venturing into the unknown. My Crohn’s has given me physical limitations that no one should ever have to experience, but in my limitations there is freedom – there is a beautiful mind brimming with an imagination that is limitless. Here’s to discovering a new way to serve the world, and Hawaii, while also honoring myself.