As regular readers know, I think very highly of Bill Ferriter, writer of The Tempered Radical blog and a colleague in the Teacher Leaders Network.
He’s just written a very thoughtful and honest post titled “Learning from the Met: Great Expectations?” It’s his reflection on the year he spent teaching in a non-suburban school, why he left, and how it connects to a recent survey of teachers from MetLife that show over 50% of teachers questioning whether every student could succeed academically (you can read my thoughts on the MetLife survey here).
Bill concludes his post this way:
Nope. I don’t think every student can succeed academically.
But instead of being the result of unmotivated or incapable children, that’s a direct result of the callous and under-informed approach that policymakers take towards addressing the challenges of students living in high-poverty communities.
Their unwillingness to invest tangible resources—dollars, people and time—equitably instead of equally is evidence of our unwillingness to care for other people’s children as much as we care for our own.
Maybe I’m not the only one who should be ashamed.
I can understand, and agree, with most of what Bill has written in his post.
Except for the part about not believing that every student can succeed academically.
I believe they can. And I also believe that most of my colleagues feel the same way, and it’s a school culture that is supported by our principal, Ted Appel. And it’s that belief which keeps me going.
Many of the students at our inner-city high school have huge challenges — not having a home situation that can provide many educational enrichment activities; lack of health insurance; unstable family life; self-control issues; gangs; English as their second language, etc.
But, though they might have a long list of deficits, they also have many assets — their potential; their life experiences; their resiliency.
Many years ago, I had a conversation with a man who worked with Gandhi in the struggle for Indian independence. He told me, “Larry, the key to Gandhi’s success was that he looked at every problem as an opportunity, not as a pain in the butt.”
Now, I’m not sure that Gandhi would have put it in quite the same way. But I’ve been able to use that pearl of wisdom as a key guide in my life.
I teach in Sacramento’s largest inner-city high school. I experience many of the typical frustrations of any inner-city teacher, and I write about many of them in this blog.
I agree with Richard Rothstein, who writes that we can only narrow, not bridge, the achievement gap without public policies that will impact the problems outside the schoolhouse doors that affect student learning. And there are some days when I come home feeling emotionally-drained and wonder what it might be like teaching at a suburban school. And there are students who — for one reason or another — I am not able to reach during an entire school year, and have hopes that some other teacher will down the line.
But those days and disappointments are more than off-set by the successes I see — the students who had never read a book before and now are doing so regularly; the ones who are able to develop their own capacity for self-control and discipline; the boys and girls (and young men and young women) who go on to college after telling me in ninth-grade that they don’t need to work on their writing because they would never need it as a professional skateboarder or professional basketball player.
As a teacher, I’m a subscriber to what New York Mets pitcher Tug McGraw said in 1973 when the team improbably won the National League pennant (I’m a New York native), “You gotta’ believe!”
(You might want to also read what Renee Moore, another Teacher Leaders Network colleague, writes about the same topic)
Larry, I know you don’t set out to be, but you honestly are an inspiration.
I believe too!
I’m always in awe of teachers like you, Larry. To be as committed to seeing students in a high poverty school succeed as you—and your colleagues in Sacramento—are is inspiring. You’re looking directly into the maw of injustice and doing something about it.
But I also worry about a few things. Most importantly, I wonder whether or not you guys are outliers.
Are most students living in high poverty communities lucky enough to go to a school that is led by an inspirational principal who has been able to leverage his knowledge and ability into a building full of motivated teachers? Are most students living in poverty lucky enough to have more than one or two truly talented, committed and long-serving teachers during the course of their K12 careers?
I’m guessing—literally because I’ve spent the majority of my career in the ‘burbs—that the answer is no.
And if I’m right, I worry that policymakers will misuse y’all. Instead of addressing the very real disparities between schools serving high and low poverty communities, won’t they simply start spinning the “Well, if Larry’s school can do it, why can’t EVERY school do it” record? Isn’t that they easy way out for policymakers—to point to the one or two examples of unbelievably admirable performance (sacrifice?) and then expect to replicate it across an entire system?
That’s what bugs me so much. I’m sick of policymakers who rely on nothing more than altruism to staff our highest needs schools.
It’s almost like your excellence and determination—which I admire and respect times ten—is being used to resist real systemic change for EVERY child. Your students are the beneficiaries. Other kids remain in schools that are staffed by a few Larrys and a ton of itinerant teachers like me who come and go at the beginning of every year—or worse yet, the lemons who couldn’t get jobs anywhere else.
I have no doubt that the kinds of commitment and determination that you and your colleagues are willing to show every day that you pull up in the parking lot CAN make a difference.
I just doubt that we have enough teachers willing to make that sacrifice to ensure that every child living in a high poverty community can succeed.
Working in a challenging school where little is done to create the kinds of working conditions that most teachers need in order to feel successful and to remain motivated is not something that many people are willing to for nothing—and yet that’s exactly what policymakers are expecting us to do.
Does any of this make sense?
I appreciate this opportunity to have this kind of a dialogue over such an important topic with a talented teacher and deep thinker like yourself.
And I preface my response by saying that my experience is rather limited since I’ve taught at my present school for my teaching career (and one previous urban school for a semester) so I can’t talk directly about many others.
First, I would guess that students in low-income communities do get more than one or two talented and caring teachers during their teaching careers.
In fact, I would hazard a guess (and I might be naive) that there are many more urban teachers who believe that all their students can succeed academically than the MetLife survey results suggest. I truly can’t understand how a teacher can get up each morning and go to work day-after-day to face those kind of challenges without having that belief.
But that belief, and putting it into action, does not mean that we have the ability to solve the problems facing our students. Believing every student can succeed academically does not make it so.
By any evaluation method, the majority of students at our school remain academically behind students at many suburban schools. And, unless you’re teaching at a charter school that self-selects its students (and I have seen politicians use those in the manipulative fashion that you suggest, and am disappointed that they allow themselves to be used that way), I think it’s safe to say that there are extremely few, if any, inner-city public schools who can say differently.
No one’s going to point to us and say we’ve “done it.”
I’m sure there are many urban (and, I suspect, suburban) schools where there is not a positive teaching and learning environment. We’ve got to demand the resources — both within the schoolhouse walls and beyond — that are necessary to bridge the achievement gap.
In the meantime, though, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror. We need to be able to tell ourselves, our communities, and our students that they have the ability to succeed.
While I believe all can, I know many who won’t, and feel frustrated that neither I nor their other teachers can reach them. We do not face the level of poverty you do,although we have our share of less well off kids, including some who are homeless, and I believe that 3 of my current are undocumented aliens.
I call home and discover there is no longer a phone at which parents can be reached, so I cannot easily work with the parents to try to make a difference.
A part of me weeps each time a kid gives up on him or herself. We are now heading into 4th quarter. Some kids shut down this month. It is not that they cannot do the work. They simply won’t. I offer extra help before and after school, but they do not come. I try cajoling chastising, imploring. I talk with other teachers.
And Rothstein is right, that within school we can only do so much if the support is not there from the rest of society.
Thanks for your post.
Larry, I’ve been in more varied teaching situations with some of the same kids you have, only younger. The most challenging position I had (and eventually had to leave) was at Community Day School. In other states this would be a the BD (or behavior disorder) class. In California, students with behavior or conduct disorders are sent to these classes. Rather than saying, “These kids can’t learn,” or “I can’t teach them,” I came to the conclusion that I could not teach, and they were not able to learn under the conditions of that school. If I’m having problems teaching, and I’m doing everything I need to do, and the kids aren’t able to learn, I’m not going to blame them, or myself, I put it back where it belongs, which is the overall environment, and I say, “I can’t teach and these students can’t learn under the current conditions.” It stops me blaming the kids, and stops me blaming myself.