In 2005, before Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, the New Orleans public education system was one of the worst in the nation. Nearly seventy percent of students attended schools deemed ‘Academically Unacceptable’ by the state of Louisiana. The school board was corrupt. School buildings were in disrepair. Students were sometimes graduating barely able to read.
It’s been called the silver lining to the hurricane: Katrina presented the opportunity to scrap a failing educational system and build a new one from the ground up. Within weeks of the storm, most schools were taken over by the state-run Recovery School District (RSD) and re-opened as charter schools—open-enrollment public schools that have autonomy from a district. (Often, when a teacher chooses to work at a charter school they give up their collective bargaining rights). More New Orleans students now attend charter schools than anywhere else in the nation. This large-scale bet on charters—the first ever—is the subject of both high controversy and high praise.
Enter Devin Meyers, a painter, photographer, and teacher at an independent charter school in New Orleans’ Lower Garden District. Drawn to New Orleans in the immediate wake of Katrina to photograph rebuilding efforts, he soon found it impossible to leave. He moved there, found his way into teaching and, for the past five years, has been the middle school Social Studies teacher at the International School of Louisiana, a K-8 charter school that offers language immersion in either French or Spanish. Half the students are African American, a quarter are Latino, and a quarter are white; at least fifty percent qualify for the free or reduced price lunch program, which is used as an indicator of poverty.
Originally from South Carolina, Devin is red-haired and freckled, with an unassuming manner that quickly turns animated when discussing art, New Orleans, or, in a refreshing twist, his job. He is twenty-six years old and does not hesitate to say that he will be a teacher for life. At a time when teacher turnover has reached new heights, especially amongst teachers in high-poverty urban areas, this struck me as both unusual and inspiring. Here’s what he had to say about his art, his teaching, the state of New Orleans education, and how to have a life.
The Rumpus: So—you’re a painter. What is the relationship between your art and your teaching? Does one inform the other?
Devin Meyers: I get a lot of inspiration as an artist from the things my students do—the way that they write or the way that they draw. I’m often looking at child art and finding a detail that I love. I love the way you drew these hands. Or, I like your handwriting. And then I find myself incorporating that into my paintings. So I did a whole series of paintings where I used a certain student’s handwriting style. I painfully replicated the way he would write because I thought it was interesting.
And then sometimes I’ll paint things and bring them in as props. So I have a giant Abe Lincoln head and a giant John Wilkes Booth head and when I start teaching the Civil War they appear in the room. I mean, you have to make your lesson engaging and interesting and that’s a way for kids to get into it.
Rumpus: Do you ever feel that pull—like you don’t have enough time to devote to painting and you wish you could do it more? Or do you feel like you have a good balance?
Meyers: I think I have a pretty good balance. I remember somebody saying, ‘What if you could be a famous artist and make a ton of money painting, wouldn’t that be sweet?’ And I thought, that would be sweet—but I really like teaching too. I’m really happy with my job. The biggest question I have is, what if I worked in a really shitty school, would I still feel that way? I mean, I work at a good school. Sometimes I wonder if I would be able to hang in a really challenging school.
Rumpus: When you say ‘a good school,’ what do you mean? Good in what sense?
Meyers: I mean that they’ve [the principal and staff] created a culture inside the school where they have expectations for what their students are going to be and it’s a reality.
Rumpus: Everyone’s on board.
Meyers: Not even that everyone’s on board, but enough people have created that culture. And as a teacher, you’re supported by your administration. So I can say, ‘Hey, I have an idea and I’d really like to have these resources’—and it’s not that our school has a ton of money, ‘cause we don’t—but I can figure out a way to get stuff, and I can make photocopies. I taught summer school at a place where I couldn’t make photocopies. I mean, what the hell! They had a photocopier in the office, but they made me go to Kinkos and make photocopies there.
Rumpus: And spend your own money.
Meyers: Yeah. That was a place where there was very little control. You’d go in the hallway and you’d think, ‘Something crazy could happen.’ And a lot of bad schools are like that.
Rumpus: You started teaching shortly after Katrina. What was that like and what changes have you seen since then?
Meyers: Education in New Orleans basically got revolutionized by Katrina….Before Katrina it was your typical inner city school system. Then Katrina came and, for better or for worse—I mean, it’s really controversial because they [state officials] literally fired all the teachers. They made the school board irrelevant. They just said—we’re going to change everything. Right now. …Some of the charters have done really well and some have not done well. We’re just the guinea pig, basically.
Rumpus: So from your perspective as a teacher, how do you think this ‘revolution’ is working out?
Meyers: Well, I think, unarguably, the schools are better than before. That’s just unquestionable if you look at scores and the number of good schools. But I feel like education is just so controversial…There’s always going to be someone who is passionately upset. You’re always going to have these community meetings that are super heated, and there’s going to be people who are pro-charter or anti-charter, or pro-union or anti-union. So I feel like you could talk to a lot of people who would say this is super messed up and an injustice and then you could talk to other people who say it’s great, it’s revolutionary.
As a young teacher, as someone in his twenties, I’m kind of happy that I don’t belong to a bureaucratic system. I could care less that I don’t have a union to represent me for my salary and benefits. I know that stuff could theoretically benefit me, but they can be so problematic—the best example being New York City’s Rubber Room. If you’re a really crappy teacher but if you’re part of a system with a powerful union, it can be impossible to fire you.
Our clients are children and their families. I never think its good to let adult interests get in the way of that. I think political school boards and teachers unions are more about the adults than the kids. So I think it’s kind of cool that that’s not really a part of my life as a teacher. That being said, I think charter schools need serious oversight. And the challenge that New Orleans has is, how can you effectively have oversight of your schools, yet make them completely independent?
Rumpus: You moved to New Orleans as a photographer, right? How’d you get into teaching?
Meyers: Initially when I went to New Orleans it was to photograph a health clinic, and then I started to do other little photo projects with cultural groups or nonprofits that were there. When I returned to my hometown, I was creating events to sell them and trying to raise awareness. One of the things I did was I visited a high school and talked to a class about New Orleans…and that experience made me think that I enjoyed teaching people in a classroom setting. Then I moved to New Orleans and one of the first people I met was a family and they had me over for dinner and, because I speak Spanish, they suggested I get a job as a teaching assistant at their kid’s school. So I did that for a while, got certified….it just worked out, I got super lucky. Now it’s been five years, and I’m like, I love this job. It’s a really good job.
Rumpus: What do you love about it?
Meyers: It has the perfect combination of elements for me. On the one hand, it’s very challenging. It’s not for the weak. You really have to be dedicated to it and I like the challenge that brings. I’m also a very creative person and it’s a job that allows me to be as creative as I can be. I have to get kids to understand a history topic, but I can do it any way. We have art projects to learn history, writing projects, acting projects, and it’s really fun to be able to create that stuff. Then the other component is that I feel very strongly about education—how it’s a gateway for your life. If you’re educated you can basically have freedom, because you can choose whatever you want to do. So I like the mission of it. [pause] And I like the vacation time. [laughs] That’s really nice too.
Rumpus: So many people teach for a couple of years and then they go on to do something else. There’s that big turnover rate. And here you are, in your mid-twenties, saying that this is what you want to do for your entire career. Can you speak to that?
Meyers: Yeah, I have a lot of friends who are teachers in New Orleans and there basically ends up being this weeding out process. There are a lot of people who do the job for two or three years, which is a lot of time a product of Teach for America. I’m not completely against them or completely for them, I’m somewhere in the middle…but they [Teach for America] want to create leaders. To them, if you can get people to teach for two years and they have this network of support in their post-teaching professional career, they’ll be leaders and they’ll kind of understand education. Which is cool, but it’s not really the same as: we are going to create long-term good teachers. And with anything, the first year you do it, you’re not going to be as good as, say, the eighth year that you’re a teacher. And it’s not an easy job. So I look back to my first, second, or third year, and where I am now is just on a whole other level. It’s regrettable that so many people do it and are out before they’re good. And the way they train teachers isn’t that great either. It’s a ‘learn as you go’ type thing.
Rumpus: So how do you make sure that you don’t burn out? It’s such a demanding job. It seems like you’re conscious of that possibility.
Meyers: Yeah, I think you have to be. And I think the biggest mistake people make is that they allow their job to consume them and it wears them down. And then they’re just exhausted after a couple of years. I actually discovered this accidentally because of Mardi Gras. I was organizing this parade [the Red Bean Parade, a parade Devin invented that involves making costumes exclusively out of red beans] and the first year of the parade I had this moment where I realized that in order for the parade to happen, I had to dedicate 100% of my ‘after-4pm time’ to it. I wasn’t going to be able to do any of my teacher work at home, I wasn’t going to be able to grade papers, do any lesson planning. So I thought, well, this is going to be a really crappy couple weeks, but I’m just going to push through it. I was expecting to have really awful classes. But the opposite happened. I was coming to school way more refreshed. And because I was more refreshed, I was way better as a teacher.
Rumpus: Because you had that down time where you did something besides teaching—or thinking about teaching.
Meyers: Right. And then it just struck me: no one is going to make that happen but you. No principal is ever going to go out of their way to tell their workers, don’t do anything at home, go have a life. Among the teachers I know, it’s an accepted thing that you’re not really going to have a life. It’s socially accepted within the teacher world that you’re going to be grading papers for three hours at home. So I work really hard to not work at home—at all.
Rumpus: Do you have a lot of discipline? Do you get there early in the morning? Or are you able to just fit it all into a day by being efficient?
Meyers: Well—I’m definitely pretty efficient. But I’m somebody who works well under pressure. I have that internal pressure on myself to get stuff done while I’m in my classroom. So I could go and socialize with one of my co-workers or something. But if I grade papers instead of doing that, I can go home and not worry about it. I mean, I find that once every two weeks I have to spend a night working on stuff, but for the most part I go home, I cook, I hang out, I paint. I have a life. So I know I’ll be able to be a teacher for my career because I can have a life.
Rumpus: Do you think you’re a good teacher?
Meyers: Yeah, I’m pretty good. I still want to get a lot better. There’s definitely things I could do better.
Rumpus: Like what?
Meyers: Well, the first couple of years, you’re finding your voice as a teacher. You’re finding your classroom persona, your classroom rules. Beyond that is: I’m teaching this stuff, but how can I do it better? …I keep thinking about this book called Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. It’s about this guy becoming a memory athlete and competing in these really random memory competitions. So—memorize the order of two decks of cards in, like, five minutes. But he talks a lot about…becoming a master of something. He discusses studies that have been done between rookie police officers versus veterans–how they analyze a situation. Or grandmaster chess players, how they look at the board…And he says it takes about eight to ten years of really doing something, really working at it, to become a master at it. So I’ve been a teacher for five years and I’m pretty happy with what I can do now. I know I’m good. But I hope that in a couple years I will be at another level. And that’s something that always drives me. So I don’t think I’ll be very satisfied…I don’t think I’ll get to a point where I’ll say, yes, I’m satisfied. I hope to be a badass one day.
Rumpus: You told me that you teach at the most diverse school in New Orleans. Do you see any divisions within your school based on class or race?
Meyers: The biggest division ends up being among my colleagues. It’s a language immersion school so a lot of the teachers are foreign nationals. So, for example, we have a ton of French teachers from France or Belgium, and we have a lot of teachers on the Spanish side from Mexico, Peru, Central America—a lot from Honduras. So we end up having these two worlds—the French world and the Spanish world. And they teach very differently too. French teachers have a completely different philosophy on education from an American teacher, for example.
Rumpus: So are the different educational philosophies an issue? Does the principal say, look, if you come on board here you have to align yourself to the school’s philosophy?
Meyers: Sometimes it’s an issue…In America right now it’s test scores and state testing and all that stuff that’s such a crucial component of our system, so I think that causes some headbutting sometimes…
Rumpus: What about in the classroom?
Meyers: There’s definitely a different vibe. In a French teacher’s classroom, kids are going to patiently sit at their desk and there’s a lot more order and structure. It’s stricter in a way. American teachers are more laid back, there’s more movement, maybe a little more joking around. And then Latin American teachers are somewhere in between I guess….sometimes it can be a problem. With our first two Chinese teachers, there was a big cultural issue at first. One of them felt like American children were unruly and disrespectful versus Chinese students who are uber disciplined. So it basically took us three years to find a Chinese teacher who could fit.
Rumpus: What are you like as a teacher?
Meyers: I’m more tough-love. I think it’s really important to have a lot of structure and to have a clear, challenging teaching style. I’m going to give my students difficult assignments and make stuff hard on them academically, but I joke around with them a lot. One minute we’ll be cracking jokes and laughing and the next minute we’ll be analyzing their tests. I try to be really fair, so they know that they can get in trouble if they’re not doing their job and meeting the expectations I have for them, but I think fairness is what’s essential. So I fluctuate between being a disciplinarian and being a super laid-back teacher. I’m all about duality in life. It’s really important I think.
Rumpus: So you’re someone who clearly loves New Orleans.
Meyers: Yeah. The people are really inspiring in the way that they are resilient and sincere. As an outsider coming to New Orleans after Katrina, the people I was around had just been through this crazy thing—at least 80 percent of the city had to rebuild homes and piece together lives and go through this incredibly stressful occurrence. I can’t really imagine what that would be like. But I’ve always been impressed with the grace with which they went through that. New Orleans has a soul that is not going to be replicated. The soul is the culture of the city. I kind of think that’s the only reason the city returned after Katrina…So you’ve got the musical soul, and the carnival soul that is under the radar with a lot of people. That’s the thing that really grabs me about New Orleans—it’s creative. As a creative person, you’re constantly inspired by it.
Rumpus: Do you see certain parts of New Orleans culture in your day-to-day work at your school?
Meyers: I mean, there are some things that you’ll find in our school that are very emblematic of New Orleans. In our cafeteria there’s a day when we have gumbo. There’s a day we have Jambalaya. Mondays we always have red beans and rice. At the end of second grade we have a second line parade. We hire a brass band and the children make costumes and march around the park.
Rumpus: That so cute.
Meyers: It’s adorable. So those are the moments when I think, this is only possible in New Orleans.
Rumpus: Last question: Do you think of yourself more as a teacher or an artist?
Meyers: Hm. I’m going to go back to the idea of duality. I kind of live by that. I think of myself as both at the same time.