With the end of the school year approaching, Dan Graves is close to completing his first year as a Milwaukee Public Schools teacher.
WUWM has been following Graves since September to learn what it’s like to be a new teacher in the large urban district.
He’s one of hundreds the district hired to replace all the veteran staffers who retired last June, after Act 10 changed the work rules.
Graves has been teaching second grade in a Spanish language classroom at Fratney, in the Riverwest neighborhood. He’s been sharing the joys and challenges of the job.
Two months into the school year, he was finding the job to be more complex than he had first expected.
“It’s a really hard profession. For people who don’t understand it, you need to try it before you can judge it," Graves says. "The demands are so high, the stakes are so high. These are peoples' most important things, their children, and they’re entrusting me with the knowledge that their kids are going to have by the end of second grade. It’s a very grave, almost like a sacred thing.”
Before joining MPS, Graves ran nature programs for children at the Urban Ecology Center. Graves started the year knowing that he wanted to share his love of nature with his second graders.
By March, Graves felt like he finally found his rhythm and figured out how to fit in environmental education into his lesson plans, with the help of his co-teachers.
And now, as the end of the school year nears, he walks his second graders to a community garden every week. He says they’ve loved learning about everything there – including worms and centipedes. He says for them, finding a decomposer is as exciting as if an adult found a bar of gold.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen second graders more happy than finding a worm,” Graves says.
He weaves nature throughout all the subjects, when he can. For instance, at the garden, he’s had the second graders work on math by multiplying the rows of plants.
“That’s been really good for me, because I feel like this year has been kind of stifling, in the fact that I’m in a room all day – one room -- instead of outside exploring things, so being able to go back there has been refreshing for my spirit,” Graves says.
He says he’s sought out projects that mesh with curriculum requirements, in order to meet standards, while allowing kids the chance to reflect and observe.
He’s also spent time this year figuring out second graders’ abilities.
“Now I know what a second language learner can do in Spanish: What are you capable of? What’s your reading level? What kind of text can we read as a full group? Can you read on your own? So now I know how to plan a lesson, (while) in the beginning of the year, I was like, ‘oh my gosh, get me out of here!’ I had no idea what I was getting into,” Graves says with a chuckle. Yet he’s serious. He says the year has been one of his toughest.
“There have been so many times this year (where I’ve thought) I would be fine just working in a factory, like 9 to 5, I’m done, I’m coming home and I’m hanging out with my kids. But it’s like I’m (in school) from 7:00 to 5:00 and I go home and eat, and put my kids to bed (then) 9:00 to 10:00 or 10:30 I’m planning lessons," he says. "So it’s like this unhealthy rhythm of life. If this is how I’m modeling living for my kids, what are they going to think of their dad, that he’s this stressed out guy that is always working and rarely has time for us? That’s just not really what I envisioned."
Yet Graves says it’s not just the long hours and his inexperience that have made the job tough.
“I love the kids, but there are days where there are so many issues, there’s so many issues like societal issues, bring them into the classroom and parents expect you to just deal with all of this stuff, like why isn’t my kid doing higher work? Well, because I’m dealing with a kid who’s hitting another kid," Graves says. "There are myriad issues of why the day is hard, or why the job is hard. It’s a great job, but it’s brutal."
Even so, Graves believes things might look better in fall. He will have completed his alternative teacher certification program – another responsibility he’s had this year. And his classroom will be combined with another, meaning he’ll work side-by-side with a second teacher.
“Am I going to stay with it? Yeah, I’ll do another year, for sure," he says. "If this year is like last year, am I going to do it more? Probably not. I mean, I want to like enjoy life, too."
Before Graves thinks too much about the next school year, he plans to decompress for about a month, hanging out with his four young kids, and working in his garden.