This Sunday, I spent the afternoon with a former high school student of mine, Max,…
I am having a hard time answering that question. I know that I hear the stories of young teachers, especially the ones who have decided that they can’t stay in the Philadelphia public schools. I hear them talk about lack of resources — not enough books to send home with students — not enough class sets of anything worth teaching. I hear them talk about the buildings — how they are dirty, unheated, with broken windows and mice and roaches. I hear then talk about the discipline problems, how students run the halls in the neighborhood high schools. I hear them talk about the truancy, their students’ lack of motivation, the inability to read on grade level, their refusal to do homework. I hear them talk about inept and insensitive administrators who hide behind their own lack of knowledge by intimidating rather than supporting their young staff. I hear them talk about two different extremes — either they are so minutely watched and supervised and their principals demand their slavish implementation of the school districts pacing schedule and curriculum ( regardless of their students’ knowledge, interests, aptitudes or abilities) or they are left totally on their own , given so much free reign that they are lost and without a clue as to what they should be teaching.
I hear all of these stories and I ask myself — is it really all that different from when I was a beginning teacher? Didn’t I and all of my colleagues who were hired in the 1970’s ( and stay in the system well into the 21st century) face the same kinds of problems too? Every last one of the complaints listed above have come out of my mouth and the mouths of my colleagues sometime during our career.
This is complicated. It is not a good thing that things haven’t changed all that much in our city’s schools. One would hope that things would have improved with all of the attention and hair pulling that has been devoted to public education by politicians and the media. It’s fair to say that they have not lived up to their public trust. And it’s fair to say that people of means only want to see those means support the education of their children — leaving the children of working class and poor people to languish in sub-standard buildings with little or no resources. And it’s also fair to say that NCLB has disproportionally impacted poor urban and rural schools — holding them to higher standards with no additional funding, while implementing punitive measures. This in turn creates a culture of fear among district administrators who put pressure on building principals who come down hard on teachers. Meanwhile, no one ever questions the efficacy of the tests themselves or the skill and drill curriculum designed to raise the scores on these questionable tests.
So yes, the times are difficult for teachers, particularly new teachers in urban schools, but I still believe that it was difficult for us as well. The difference is that we didn’t leave. We didn’t quit. We stayed.
Maybe we stayed because we needed a pay check. Maybe we stayed because we were not going to move back in with our parents. I have a distinct memory of my first year teaching where a young man said to me, “We’ll get rid of you by the end of the month” as he ran around the classroom overturning chairs and laughing wildly. What he didn’t count on was that my very first paycheck came at the end of the month and I wasn’t going to let an unruly 13 year old stand between me and my ability to support myself.
Later I learned how to reach him. I learned his life story and his challenges in school. I learned how to create opportunities to include him in class activities, to provide ways for him to use his energy in positive ways, and then I learned how to help him be a better reader and writer. It took time.
It also took time for me to learn how to be a teacher. I don’t think I felt really felt like I knew what I was doing until my fifth year. Young people today want it all so fast — Becoming a good teacher, particularly in difficult and challenging circumstances takes time. I continued taking courses during those years, trying to learn more about child psychology, curriculum design, as well as wring and literature courses to make me a better teacher of English. I took courses in African American culture, art and history so I could teach these texts to my African American students responsibly and knowledgeably. Eventually, I collaborated with other teachers who were also engaged in learning how to be better teachers and with them created programs for our students and made changes within our schools.
I want to be able to support these young teachers. They are the same age as my children and I would hope that in their respective professions, my children can find supportive mentors. But there is a part of me that thinks they give up too easily.
Maybe some of it has to do with the fact that many young teachers I know come through the Teach for America program and they entered the classroom with the intention of leaving after two years. Maybe you’re more willing to fight the good fight when you know that you are in it for the long haul and that you are surrounded by others who are in it for the long haul too.
If there is anyone out there actually reading this blog, I would love to hear what you have to say about this? Is it really that much harder for Philadelphia ( or any urban area ) teachers today than it was for teachers a generation ago?