MPS Teacher: There’s Good Days, There’s Horrible Days & There’s Everything In Between

Aug 19, 2014

As the new school year approaches, we check in again with Fratney teacher Dan Graves.

He was one of hundreds of teachers MPS hired to replace all of those who retired, after their contract expired due to Wisconsin Act 10.

Dan Graves in his second grade classroom last year. He described his job as a new MPS teacher as “great” because he loved his students, but “brutal” because of the high stress and long hours.
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

Graves taught second grade at Fratney in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. We checked in with him periodically over the last year, hearing about his highs and lows.

In August, we watched as he set up his second grade classroom. He was eager to meet his 18 students.

“Bring ‘em on, I’m so excited to have them in the classroom, finally,” Graves said.

A couple months later, he found himself struggling. He said it was tougher than he thought, leading a bilingual classroom. Fratney teaches in English and Spanish.

“Everything is having to build background knowledge, and it’s expounded like 100 times, because for three-quarters of the students that I work with, Spanish is their second language,” Graves said.

At the same time, Graves was struggling personally. Just as fall report cards were due, he was overwhelmed by the heavy workload of his alternative certification program, and his son’s upcoming surgery.

“I’m glad you didn’t come at 8:00 this morning, you would have seen me, like, wiping away tears,” Graves said.

By spring, Graves had found a rhythm, and satisfaction in getting through to his students -- one in particular.

“He’s still a little bit below where he needs to be, but he just tries so hard and I’ve seen him grow so much,” Graves said.

And there was the joy of seeing students embrace nature, getting their hands dirty at a nearby community garden. Graves used to teach at the Urban Ecology Center, so he was in his element, showing children the tiny bugs and worms that live in the soil.

Graves has been spending much of the summer in his garden, one of his favorite places. He says it’s helped him “detox” from a rough first year as an MPS teacher.
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl

“Finding decomposers is basically the same as you and I finding a bar of gold underneath a rock,” Graves said.

By the end of the school year, Graves was ambivalent about his profession. He said he loved his students, but the long hours and other stressors wore him down.

“There are days where there are so many issues, like societal issues -- bring them into the classroom and parents expect you to just deal with all of this stuff. (Parents ask:) ‘Why isn’t my kid doing higher work?’ Well, because I’m dealing with a kid who’s hitting another kid. There’s myriad issues of why the day is hard, or why the job is hard. It’s a great job, but it’s brutal,” Graves said.

Graves planned to spend the start of the summer with his family, not thinking much about school. Last week, he said he kept that promise to himself.

“Yeah, I think the first couple weeks were kind of just like detoxing from the year and figuring out what our family looks like again when I’m actually here and present, that was June and part of July, and really just kind of getting back into a healthy rhythm of life,” Graves says.

Graves loves working the land, so he’s spent a lot of time tending his back yard garden, growing greens, cabbage, peppers and other edible crops. Now that the new school year is approaching, he’s wrapping his mind around returning to Fratney. It’s going to mean moving into another teacher’s classroom, where the two will jointly teach third grade.

In the next couple weeks, they’ll arrange things.

“Trying to fit 30 kids, two adults, in a classroom is a challenge, plus books and all the other materials that we’ll need, math materials and science, social studies, drawing materials,” Graves said.

Graves says they’re already working on lesson plans and on how to split duties. He’s excited to have another adult at his side, to toss around ideas and manage the students. He anticipates his second year will be better than his first, because of the wisdom he’s gained over the last 12 months.

“Remembering that teaching is just one day. It’s one day at a time. So there’s good days and there’s horrible days, and there’s everything in between. I personally get overwhelmed thinking about the scope of the year, but if I can remember and continue to remind myself that this is just a day-to-day thing (it is manageable),” Graves said.

That’s his advice for all new MPS teachers: worry only about the day before you.