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Education

Former Normandy valedictorian leaves teaching - maybe for just a while

Destiny Esper
Dale Singer | St. Louis Beacon | 2012
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This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When classes began last month, Normandy schools lost more than 1,000 students who decided to transfer to accredited districts nearby. The district also lost a former valedictorian who had come back to her old middle school to teach.

Destiny Esper, who had studied journalism and public relations before deciding  to go into education, started her career teaching English at Normandy Middle School last year after going through the Teach for America program.

At age 22, Miss E, as she was known to her students, was idealistically energized about the youngsters in her care and how she could help them learn.

“They’re fascinating," Esper said about her students in an interview with the Beacon last August. "I love them already."

A few months into her rookie year, a follow-up conversation showed reality had begun to reshape her outlook, if not drain her positive energy.

“I wouldn’t say I lacked realistic ideas at the beginning,” she said last December. “But being a teacher for as long as I’ve taught now has put a lot of different things into perspective for me. I’m definitely more realistic about what can be done, by when. But I’m still extremely enthusiastic and really love my students.”

In the end, though, Esper decided that the demands of uniformity and the emphasis on high test scores instead of creative teaching were not what she wanted out of her new career. She won release from her commitment to Teach for America, which generally requires teachers to remain for two years, and is coordinating an after-school program at an elementary school in the Los Angeles area, where her family now lives.

Talking about her change of career and her year at Normandy Middle, Esper wanted to make a few things clear from the beginning.

First, she wasn’t driven out of the classroom because of uncontrollable students, as clichéd stories of urban education often portray the lives of teachers.

“It had absolutely nothing to do with my students,” Esper said. “They were pretty much the only reason I made it through the year.”

And she hasn’t abandoned Normandy altogether. She has kept track of what is going on with the student transfers and with the less-than-favorable light that has been focused on the district and its students in Francis Howell and elsewhere – an attitude she branded as “nonsense,” one that comes from “fear and ignorance mostly.”

Instead, she fully intends to return to Normandy schools some day, but in a position where she can have more say over what and how the students are taught. That lack of control was a big reason she decided to leave.

“I couldn’t be the best me for them at the time,” she said about her students. “At the end of the day, it’s all about them. It’s not about me.”

Beyond the MAP test

Esper said her most frustrating problem was the rigid requirement that forced teachers to concentrate on material that would be on Missouri’s standardized tests, the MAP.

Such tests don’t necessarily prepare students for the world they will be in after they leave school, she said, but the results are too often all that administrators – and the public – care about.

“A lot of times,” Esper said, “especially in districts like Normandy, students aren’t where they should be when they come into the next grade level. It’s really not fair when they come into your classroom and automatically are in MAP mode from the first day of school.

“At the end of the day, when the MAP tests are over, they think OK, now they don’t have to take things seriously anymore, and that’s not how education should be.”

She said that she was “very, very passionate about closing the achievement gap,” but she did not have the opportunity to teach her sixth-graders the way she thought they should be taught. She wouldn’t get specific about how that message was conveyed, but it definitely came through.

Finally, Esper said, she had to make a decision.

“It was a struggle,” she said. “It was really, really hard. I’m getting a little emotional thinking about it. Every day, after leaving, I still question myself, thinking about whether I made the right decision. The short-term answer is yes. I know that every day I went through those doors, I wasn’t going to be able to create the change my students needed and make a major difference in their lives because I was going to be doing the same thing everyone else was going.

“They need something better. When you do stuff out of the box, sometimes you might get reprimanded, you might get told that’s not what we’re doing. But when someone wants to be a leader for the change that needs to happen, years down the road, I think I made the right choice.”

Asked whether she would try to talk anyone out of doing what she did and teach in a struggling school, she quickly said:

“I would never dissuade someone from going into a district like Normandy. Quite honestly, I see myself going back to Normandy, but I want to be able to go back and make a difference to teach in a meaningful way.”

As she has watched the Normandy transfer process from afar, and even heard from some of her former students, asking her what they should do and would they be safe if they transferred, Esper said she has felt the need to teach a lesson that much of the discussion of the school transfers has overlooked.

“It’s very hard, especially for our students – and I’m going to continue to call them our students – to believe in themselves and have a high self-worth when they have outside media and people like those in Francis Howell calling you thugs, even though they have never met you.

“What these people don’t know is that a lot of issues that Normandy faces all stem from oppression and racism, period. St. Louis is racially polarized. It always has been. Maybe I should have given those people a history lesson. Maybe that’s what I should have done before leaving.”

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