Last school year I taught in an inner city Washington, DC school. In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week I think it is time for me to write about this experience. You should know before you continue reading that I am writing from a place of anger. There is a certain idea in the education world that has me steaming mad. Teachers encounter this simple precept everywhere they turn: the most important factor in student achievement is the quality of their teacher. Why does this concept boil my blood? My answer is going to take some explaining.
I entered the teaching profession through the Teaching Fellows Program, which is similar to Teach For America. Fellows are selected through a competitive process similar to the college admissions process. They complete a six week training institute that includes student teaching in summer school. We were constantly told to Be Flexible! Translation: put up with everything; if we don’t fulfill your expectations, you are still expected to fulfill ours. If you are going to teach high school English during the school year, but get placed in a math class or an elementary class for your student teaching, Be Flexible! If your mentor teacher sits at the back of the class texting and provides you with no feedback or guidance, Be Flexible! As a Teaching Fellow the expectations of us were inflexible. Our students must score at least 80% on their standardized tests (or was it 80% of the class must score in the proficient range? I can’t remember exactly) or make 1.5 years of academic growth. Above all, know that if you do your job well, you CAN achieve these goals. If you Teach Like a Champion there is no reason for you not to meet these marks.
Want to know how many students at my school scored in the proficient range last school year? 22% in Reading and 18% in Math. Man, they must have some horrible teachers! My fellow teachers and I were constantly made to feel that any problems in our classroom were our fault. Every time a student talked over my instruction, insulted a classmate, walked out of class, turned my projector off, cheated on a test or failed to complete an assignment, I felt that I was to blame. I taught juniors and seniors. Some of my students dropped out. My fault. If students didn’t come to school, and boy did they ever not come to school, this was my fault.
You may be thinking “Sydney, don’t make a martyr of yourself. Surely, everyone understood that you couldn’t be in each of those kids’ homes making them wake up. You can’t babysit their younger siblings for them so they can come to school. Surely, no one expected you to teach class and fix decades long attendance problems at the same time.” Let me provide an example of how deeply entrenched this blame-the-teachers attitude goes. During a staff meeting we were asked to draw an image of the greatest barrier to student achievement at our school. The teachers around me were somewhat stumped, because this is an abstract issue that is hard to illustrate. The majority of us drew a classroom with empty desks. It’s hard for a student who comes to school 2-60% of the time to make 1.5 years of growth, am I right? One of our assistant principals explained his drawing to the teachers and staff. He drew students who had fallen asleep because the teacher was giving a boring lecture that didn’t engage their interests, and some empty desks for students who were so bored by previous lectures that they didn’t come to school at all. See! If we didn’t suck so much at teaching, our students would come to school! Stop all your research! Look no further for the cause of the achievement gap! Teachers in high performing schools are fascinating and teachers in low performing schools are boring. That’s gotta be it.
I don’t teach at that school anymore, but my anger about this attitude toward teachers is very fresh. I encountered it earlier this week. I recently applied to teach at a very successful charter school. During the hiring process I felt that the principal had little to no interest in my previous experience. In fact he couldn’t seem to remember from moment to moment whether I had taught middle school or high school. I did try to talk about it, because I am proud of the work that I did at that school. I am proud of each and every teacher and staff member at my low performing school. More on that later. Back to this principal: I have never in my life felt as judged and misjudged as I did when I spoke to him about my old school. Everything I said about the challenges of teaching in an inner city school seemed to convince him that I don’t believe that students of every background can achieve at high levels. When I talked about the difference in student behavior between his Texas charter school and my DC school, he said that “regardless of school culture the most important influence on classroom culture is the teacher. No matter what the rest of the school is like, an effective teacher can have a well-managed classroom.” At that point I had to get off the phone before I started smashing my own belongings while PTSD sobbing.
PTSD? Yes, maybe. My students’ behavior towards me was verbally, psychologically and occasionally physically abusive. Almost every day I was called a “bitch” or worse. Certain students threatened to hit me about as often as I asked them to answer a math problem. During the 2011-2012 school-year a teacher at my school was punched, one was spat on and I was personally bitten by a student. I have hearing damage in my right ear from being screamed at by a student. When these things happen to a woman in her home we tell her that it’s not her fault, she should still value herself as a person. When that woman is a teacher and the abuse is happening in her classroom, we tell her that she is bad at classroom management, that the way her students behave in her class is her responsibility and her fault.
Now do you understand why I got so enraged when this principal implied that there was no reason for my classroom in a failing school to not be perfectly managed and effective? As a teacher I did not make those students behave the way that they did. I did not have the power to make them scream insults at me anymore than I had the power to make them stop screaming insults at me. I could only keep on trying to teach them, keep expecting them to be perfect students tomorrow even if they cursed me out today, keep coming to work and hoping to make it through.
In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week I feel that I need to show some love to teachers in tough schools. I know how hard they work, how little hope of success they have under the circumstances, how little job satisfaction they can expect. If you have read this far, I hope you know how sarcastic I was being when I wrote “22% in Reading and 18% in Math. Man, they must have some horrible teachers!” The teachers at my high-need school worked so hard. They taught like champions and I love them for it. I want the education reform movement to know how much sacrifice, how much blood, sweat and tears went into that 18% proficient rating. If you’ve seen “Waiting for Superman” and you think schools fail because teachers have no accountability and no reason to try to succeed at teaching, think about the following: The teachers at the failing school where I used to work would not have gone back to that place day after day if they did not passionately care about the fate of their students. Our job was crushingly dispiriting; we had to believe in the innate ability and worthiness of our students to continue doing it. We had to believe that the tiny amount of progress we made with a handful of students was worth the sacrifice of our mental and emotional health. We could not believe that we were the reason our students don’t achieve at the same level as students in other schools.
I have been enraged by the comments of that charter school principal for four straight days. Obviously, I needed to get all this off my chest. I will never let anyone make me think that I failed as a teacher at my last school. I will never be anything less than proud of the students and the teachers at that school. To anyone who has ever taught, is teaching now, or ever will teach in a high-need school: I appreciate you. So much. You are amazing. When Michelle Rhee blames you for low test scores, turn the other cheek. I know it’s hard to turn the other cheek for your students all day and retain any patience for full-grown adults who know better. I know it’s hard not to smash things. Believe in your students. Believe in yourself. Thank you for doing what you do.
I also want to say thank you to everyone who was nice to me and remained my friend during my tough year of teaching. I was a stressed out wreck of a person and you were so sweet and supportive of me. Even if you just left a nice comment on my Facebook page, it made me feel less alone and it made all the difference. I may not be so lucky in my employment, but I am the absolute luckiest in my friends and family.