Bad Education: Two perspectives on the challenges of teaching in urban schools

Eric Rogers/flickr

Eric Rogers/flickr

I remember it all very clearly. First, the phone conversation with my father. “I’m definitely going to do it,” I told him, elated. “I’m going to be a teacher next year.” There was an uncomfortable pause on the other end. “What do you think?”

He gulped audibly. “Well,” he said, “I never thought you’d be doing that.” An unmentionable, a taboo possibility, a that. After all the blood, sweat, and tears I shed in four years at the University of Chicago, after all those grade-A papers, all those extracurriculars, I wasn’t headed to law school, or a doctoral program, or even an entry-level position at some prestigious publication. As far as my father was concerned, I had just announced that I was going to flush thousands of dollars worth of education down the toilet to choose a life of wiping snot off kids’ faces.

Then, at a luncheon last spring attended mostly by fourth-years, we were in the midst of the familiar “what are you doing next year?” circular conversation. A math major said dismissively that if he didn’t get into any grad schools he wanted, he would go join Teach for America, to “kill some time before getting a real job.”

Why is it that so many people seem to regard teaching as either a) something educated people don’t do, b) something only saints do, or c) a resume booster? It’s the third concept that Teach for America has had an enthusiastic hand in perpetuating, and it’s a major part of what has always disturbed me about the organization. So when I decided to seek alternative certification, I joined a program where most of the people in my cohort would not be recent college graduates. With a few exceptions (myself included) they are fully-fledged adults who have chosen to leave other fields to pursue a career in teaching. My cohort, with whom I’ve shared tremendous highs and lows in the last year, includes people from all walks of life, from law enforcement to Irish dance. It has been a great fortune in my life to meet them. Coming from the college environment, where a year is an eternity, it has been truly inspiring to meet people who have walked away from years of success in a career, because they feel it is the right thing to do and they are courageous enough to pursue that feeling. In other words, none of them is biding their time until they can get a “real” job.

And let’s be serious–as a job, teaching is about as “real” as it gets. This aspect of the profession–the down-and-dirty part that involves overwhelming obstacles and monumental power struggles–has been well mythologized by a spate of films that are all ostensibly “based on a true story”: “Dangerous Minds,” “Stand and Deliver,” “Freedom Writers,” and my personal favorite, “Lean on Me.” The plot is always the same: Idealistic Teacher gets job at a long-ago forsaken school. Idealistic Teacher is assigned class of long-ago forsaken students, who mostly enjoy sneering, throwing things, and listening to gritty, cutting-edge rap music. (In the case of “Dangerous Minds,” “cutting-edge rap music” means Coolio. These films don’t age well.) Because the Idealistic Teacher can tell that these sneering street kids, clad in wifebeaters and parachute pants, actually have Hearts of Gold, he/she refuses to give up. Eventually, unorthodox methods and perseverance seize the day, and the kids learn to love learning. Everyone goes home happy.

This film archetype, in all its incarnations, has perpetuated the idea that teaching is mostly like physical labor. To get through it, you have to be tough, and even a little masochistic. It’s like a really challenging hike–you strain yourself, you sweat, and when you’re done you can drink a lot of water and feel like you accomplished something. And every year, this hike appeals to thousands of top-tier college students across the country. Their brains have worked hard, and now they need a little break before they move on to take their rightful place in the upper echelons of intellectual accomplishment.

Teach for America is often likened to the Peace Corps; fittingly, it shares many of the same accomplishments and pitfalls. Both organizations offer their participants a once-in-a-lifetime challenge that changes their worldview forever. Both organizations bring willing bodies to places where they may be sorely needed. But both organizations are guilty of presenting incredibly complex pursuits as being relatively simple. Last year, former Peace Corps country director Robert L. Strauss shared this woe in an op-ed for the New York Times. “In Cameroon, we had many volunteers sent to serve in the agriculture program whose only experience was puttering around in their mom and dad’s backyard during high school. I wrote to our headquarters in Washington to ask if anyone had considered how an American farmer would feel if a fresh-out-of-college Cameroonian with a liberal arts degree who had occasionally visited Grandma’s cassava plot were sent to Iowa to consult on pig-raising techniques learned in a three-month crash course.” A healthy supply of old-fashioned American cockiness and condescension leads us to believe that because we speak English, we are automatically qualified to solve other countries’ problems. It’s the same spirit that sends thousands of America’s most successful students, from our most elite schools, running into the arms of TFA every year. “I have a degree from an excellent university,” they think, “and I am proficient at reading, writing, and algebra. I don’t mind wearing a tie every day, and I can tolerate having things thrown at me. I can’t wait to show those inner-city kids a thing or two!” And off they go, missionaries into the wilderness.

Being decent with a hammer and nail doesn’t make you a carpenter. Knowing how to floss doesn’t make you a dentist. Believe it or not, being academically successful doesn’t make you a teacher. Yet year after year, Teach for America lures in college students, using their own egos as bait. It promises what many students are looking for most in their final year of college: a buffer between graduating and deciding what on earth to do with their lives. And year after year, many people outside the field of education fail to recognize that teaching is far more than strenuous labor. To be an educator is a deeply intellectual and philosophical practice, and it requires a delicate mix of learned skills and natural aptitudes. As long as the American public believes that the only thing you need to be a teacher is time to kill, the most excellent teachers will never get the acknowledgement and support they deserve, and our children will suffer for it. (Eve Ewing)

Let me preface this entire piece by saying this: I still want to be a teacher. Teaching was hell–the most grueling and frustrating experience of my life–but on many occasions it was truly awe-inspiring. Many teachers, whether career teachers or short-term teachers in programs like Teach for America (and the two are not necessarily disjointed), can resonate with the platitude “teaching is the highest high and the lowest low.” We all hope for more of the former than the latter, and most teaching professionals have a good deal more than hope, finding ways to bring about success in even the least probable situations. Sadly, I can’t count myself among this number. After a slight three months of teaching in the North Bronx, I left my position as mathematics instructor at a public high school, feeling very dispirited and dejected.

The three months had been absolute madness–14-hour workdays (on average), 7-day workweeks, incessant disrespect, pathetic grad school drudgery, and going hoarse so many times that I thought my voice might alter permanently. But it was all tolerable, even readily acceptable, in the wake of the human element: the students. My students were hilarious, energetic, fascinating, and generally good-natured 15-year-olds, mostly wearing foolish grins that let you know they knew how to have fun anytime, anywhere. They certainly did–and I had a lot of fun working with them, struggling through exponent rules and proportions while they tried to solicit my favorite hip-hop artist and which teacher I was dating (Lupe Fiasco and none, respectively, but that wouldn’t stop them asking again tomorrow).

What was somewhat less endearing was their behavior within my class, which was, nicely put, not conducive to learning. All of my students wanted to learn math and to achieve, but that was not their first priority in my class. When they showed up every day outside my door–well, certainly not every day, but when they showed up–it was to be a spectator of and a participant in the circus that was Mr. Lee’s Integrated Algebra class. If learning came along with that, no one seemed to mind; but there were clear priorities in place, and my students were extremely effective at having their way. That was certainly problem #1: a successful classroom needs students to be invested in their own success. Without that pivotal starting point, I fumbled around for the rest of my stint as a teacher, trying strategy after strategy to realign my student’s priorities. I tried personal charisma and excitement with the subject matter. Not buyin’ it. I shifted toward systems of rewards and punishments, letting the impersonal system guide my students toward proper behaviors. Again, failure. I tested out personal relationships with certain problematic students, investing extra time, effort, and encouragement and waiting for the results to bear fruit. No dice. Sigh.

This whole while, we were slogging through the subject matter, with classroom instruction greatly hampered by the behavioral problems that abounded. Eventually, I didn’t know anything else to try, and resignedly faced my failure on the behavior front. This alone was a blasphemous thought for any Teach for America Corps Member–we never give up, relentlessly pursuing student achievement on all fronts, for every student, always. But while I had drunk the punch and believed it all firmly, I couldn’t see what new strategy to try, or old one to persevere in. Though doggedly continuing on in my instruction, I had to admit that my classroom management was disastrous, and I didn’t know what to do about it.

Over three months I sought out advice from professionals, was observed multiple times, discussed with friends and advisors, sought within-school assistance, sought parental assistance, sought divine assistance, tried, tested, discarded, threw myself at the onslaught, picked myself up off the floor, and swore before all that is holy that I wouldn’t quit just because it was hard. But in fact, I didn’t. I quit for a number of reasons, none individually sufficient but forceful in combination. I’ll touch upon them briefly:
– I quit because I didn’t think I was helping my students. I believed that I lacked the ability to give my students what they needed for academic success; namely, dramatic changes in their attitude towards learning.
– I quit because I knew there were other people that I was better able to help, and who needed my help more desperately–low-income students in America certainly don’t have a monopoly on misery.
– I quit because this lifestyle left me unable to help and be good to “my people,” both family and friends. This was a result of the sheer number of hours and the extent to which my daily happiness resided with my 75 students.

Any of these lacking, and I’m pretty sure that I would still be boarding the 2 subway at 5:40am to ride 100 blocks north to 210th Street, picking up my Dunkin Donuts coffee (double cream, double sugar), and descending into the dank basement of Evander Childs High School to prepare for the coming tidal wave of hackles and hormones. Instead, I am working in rural Kenya on developmental microeconomics research, focusing on child health and vocational education. I still want to teach, but I’m happy to be where I am, helping to the full extent of my abilities and along the whole spectrum of my human, relation-filled life. I don’t regret joining Teach for America, or leaving it after three months, nor do I resent the organization for foisting upon me an idealistic dream of changing student’s lives. I love that dream, believe in it, and hope to go back to it, whether in America or abroad. But I know now how challenging a path that will be, and I don’t plan to return to it until I can assure myself, and my students’ parents, that I have what it takes to be an outstanding teacher. (Andrew Fischer Lees)

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