The Starbucks is Closed on Sundays

Reflections on Teaching and Learning in a Dying City

Not Without a Fight.

“If you were a social worker you would be at the top.. social worker of the year.. but the teaching is just not there.”

-School principal

Something is fundamentally wrong with the state of American Education.

Just past 10am on a Sunday morning, I walk into my school carrying bags heavy with lesson planning materials, homemade math manipulatives, and fresh supplies from yesterdays $100 Staples run. I could have chosen not to buy the cool stickers and the project folders, but I have seen the look my students get when their hard work is displayed in neat, new folders, when the appearance matches their effort. I’d do anything for that look.

As I walk up to my classroom, I pass the auditorium where I see one woman, sitting alone singing hallelujah. I’ve never seen more than a handful of people at the Sunday services that meet at my school, but I’m glad they come, because without them I couldn’t get in on Sundays. I rearrange a few desks, accounting for last week’s quarrels. I make sure to put the students who need glasses up front, the students who struggle with English next to more proficient bilinguals, and to keep the tougher kids spaced out with well behaved kids who can hold their own. I do a little grading and organize my desk. I think about trying to fix the three broken computers, but the thought of sitting in front of a PC from 1998 for the next two hours is daunting, and I have other work to do.

As I leave the building, I side step several buckets and trash cans strategically placed in the hallway. Outside, the winter snow is melting and its starting to come through the ceiling. I don’t look forward to my student’s reactions to the mess tomorrow, it will put them in a bad mood to start off the day. Its hard to feel good about coming to school when the building itself is a reminder that your school is falling apart. Not that they need a visual reminder to know its true; any doubt they may have had about the state of their school was taken care of when Capital Prep Magnet School passed out fliers about how much our school was failing a few months back. They want our building, so turning the community against the school is a good way to boost their chances of a takeover.

I wonder if they would want it as much if they knew the ceilings were leaking.

If you look for it, you will find a large body of literature about how people in poverty often struggle with long term planning. Now I don’t necessarily agree with these studies, but one point often made is that people struggle to think long term because day to day survival takes precedence. This it what its like at my school. Day to day, week to week, or year to year, the focus is just on getting through. Surviving. Thats how things like the ceiling happen. Its hard to remember major structural concerns like that when you’re busy finishing the report from when we had to call the police on a 12 year old. Or putting together another data profile for the district so you’ll still have a job next year. Or following up with the mother of the third grader who threatened suicide last week. Ceilings end up taking a back seat. Just thank God for weekend crew custodians and pray the duct tape will hold through spring.

———————————————————

Today my principal will be emailing me a list of the reasons he has decided not to renew my contract next year. Its unlikely he will include the fact that he needs to show the district he is doing something in order to maintain control of the school. Or the fact that, as a first year teacher, I am easier to get rid of than others. Or even the fact that, once or twice over the year, I chose to do what I thought was right instead of what he said was best, and that by ignoring his directive I marked myself as potentially dangerous. He will definitely include my students’ low standardized tests scores.

In response to his email, I will be sending him a list of the reasons I have chosen to oppose his non-renewal instead of resigning and making things easy. I will give him the same reasons that I will be giving to Teach For America, the Hartford Board of Education, and the Hartford Federation of Teachers over the next few months:

Firing me will not solve the problems that my school, this district, and this country are facing. It will not account for the injustices that have been done to my students. It will not absolve the mistakes made by myself and every other staff member at my school this year. It will not bring more  resources to the school. Chances are, it won’t even result in the hiring of a more experienced teacher to replace me. More likely than not, another first year TFA will assume my position next year, because it is much more cost effective.

I may not have been successful in my first year as a teacher, but before that claim can be accurately made, it would be extremely foolish not to consider exactly what that statement means. First, we have to define success. I love my students and they love me. I have relationships with my students’ parents. There is not a single person in my school who will not tell you that I show up and work hard every day. Nor is there a single person that will tell you that my class has not made tremendous growth from where we were at the beginning of the year. So what is success? Test scores. Of course. Which brings us to the next point:

How does one achieve high test scores? Putting aside your knowledge about how standardized testing is culturally bias and lacks both reliability and validity, high test scores are the result of teaching. Remember, though, that I was not a teacher when I began this year. In fact, I entered the fall with minimal to non-existent content knowledge. Seeing as I never claimed to have a background in education, a great degree of onus falls on the organization that claimed to make me a teacher and the school that hired me, knowing full well I wasn’t a teacher. So what did Teach for America and my school do to compensate for the fact that I was coming in without background knowledge? The answer is not enough. Far from enough. I taught myself how to teach, while teaching this year. And although I have made major strides, at the end of the day it wasn’t enough for my students.

But I will not resign. Instead, I will document everything that was done for me this year. Every time I asked for help, every time I received help, every time I lacked critical knowledge, resources, or support. And I will take that evidence to the people responsible and ask them, How did you allow this to happen? And what are you going to do about it now?

Because whether or not I have a job next year is irrelevant. Something has to change in a major way. The time for action is long overdue. The time for revolution is now.

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On the Merits of Surprise Self-Reflection

A friend of mine recently wrote an extremely thoughtful piece about the need to, “admit our own imperfections.”

It would do a disservice to his writing to try to summarize it here, you really should go read it for yourself, but one of his points struck a chord with something recently on my mind. Specifically, he described how we often, in an attempt to feel like we are part of the solution, hide behind big exclamations of intellectual outrage instead of carefully examining our personal impact on both the problem and the solution. We pretend as if opinions are equal to action in their ability to demonstrate character. For example, we can easily deconstruct racist, sexist, and classist institutions, and feel great about ourselves for doing so, without ever actually taking action against the problem, or without even acknowledging our own contributions. He says it best, “we’ve substituted the passionate politics of possibility for our own religious re-imaginations of righteousness in which we always come out looking pretty good.”

I am grateful because he expresses what I have been trying to put words recently. It is the reason I have written and deleted countless half-posts about school and teaching and big educational philosophies over the last several months. See, its easy to run my day to day experiences in teaching through a sort of standard, critical analysis. The big systems of oppression all have a hand in my school and its easy to step back in any given situation and perform a quick Paulo Freire inspired breakdown. Its even easier to let yourself feel justified, redeemed, excused, for having so astutely deconstructed the apparent problem. Its internalized oppression, you see. Its institutional racism. Its cognitive dissonance and a lack of priorities. Its our culture’s focus on retribution instead of rehabilitation. Its poverty. Its a willful disregard for the wellbeing of other people. Its cultural genocide.

Its all of those things and more, sure. But “its” not really the point, not the whole point anyway. All of my started and unfinished posts stalled at the same point, the moment when I had to reflect on what I had been doing, what I have done, in regards to whatever issue I was describing. And more often than not, the answer was “not enough.” Which is paralyzing to acknowledge. It inevitably leads you down a darker path of self reflection, one where you’re forced to see your own role in the problem. How you are part of the system even though you’ve been politely denouncing it for a while now. Most people are capable of avoiding this path of self-reflection except when choosing to do so on their own terms.

Occasionally, however, something will arise that provides a quick look in the mirror, a glimpse at yourself without the pretense of a carefully articulated opinion. It is in that moment that you have a choice. You can engage with it, look carefully at yourself, see what other parts of yourself it leads to, and maybe let it change you. Or you can tuck it in at the corners and set it aside carefully, just a small oversight, a little hiccup.

At school, these types of glimpses happen daily. The thing about kids is that they tend to have a pretty obvious take on the world. In an attempt to figure out how things work, they often reflect what they see around them. Up to a certain point a kid understands the world as what it appears to be. If you appear to be their friend, you are their friend. It is their obviousness that lets you see your reflection. It happens the first time you feel the real power in being taken seriously by a student. It also happens the first time a student dismisses the false power in authority.

However, conditioning to the world starts early, by elementary and middle school students have a pretty strong sense of things, even if their understanding is still simplistic. Initially its derived from basic attributes, these people are this way, others are another. Sometimes a student will show you your reflection and it will be dominated by his projection of what you are. You might be a collection of every teacher he has ever had. You might be the women in his life. You might be just another figure of authority, devoid of independent thought and feeling. Or maybe, you are yourself and the unfamiliarity of it catches you off guard.

It is what you do next that is the real show of character, however. You can dismiss it. You can file it into your preconceived notions about morality and values and systems in the world. Or you can take that moment and carefully examine it, reflect on the way you interact with your world. And you can then let it shift your actions the next time. To do this is extremely hard, which is probably why a lot of people never do it, because it forces you to let go of the notion that your perception is reality. That your way of seeing and experiencing things is the way they are. It takes away your cloak of rhetoric and forces you to stand behind your actions.

Teaching does this to you. When you stand in front of a classroom of scrutinizing, curious faces you are forced to confront your own image. Moreover, you have to confront your image as it fits into their schema, their picture of the world. Consequently, you start to see your place in the world from a new perspective. Your actions acquire new consequence. And from there it is only a matter of time before all your carefully constructed philosophies are tested against the weight of whats real.

On Giving The Side Eye and Teach for America

Lets talk about Teach for America.

I was hesitant to tell people that I was applying for Teach for America. Upon accepting the offer, I was hesitant to tell people that I had joined TFA. Now that I’m six months into my first year, I still hesitate to tell people that I am a part of TFA. When pressed, I used to have this whole pitch I could pull out to justify my decision to join TFA.

It went something like this, “I am well aware of the criticisms of TFA. The thing is, I want to work in education policy and I think that as a general rule, people who work in education policy without first actually working in education are foolish and doing more harm than good. So joining TFA allows me to get some experience actually being in a classroom before I try to tell other people how they should run their classrooms. I don’t plan to be one of those 2 years and on to law/med/business school TFA-members though, I will teach for at least 3-4 years before I do anything else. Plus, working for TFA gives me the chance to see the inside of an organization that claims to be on the front end of education reform. Its like field studies.”

The last few times I was pressed to explain why I joined TFA, however, I have been unable to jump into my pitch. Not because the statement itself is untrue, in fact, for the most part, everything is still true. I want to keep teaching till I’m good at it. I want to work against the atrocity that is the current state of education and education reform. I am learning and seeing things that could arguably be described as field studies if you’re the academic type. Etc.

I can’t give it anymore because its been tainted by reality. The reality that I was sent in, high and mighty on my horse of academic achievements and social justice mentality, to a classroom with real students, who have real problems and need a real education. And immediately upon entering said classroom, it became wildly apparent to everyone that my horse of academic achievements and social justice mentality was a trojan horse filled with privileges and naivety. I’ve been working to dissemble the horse into school supplies (pencils, mostly) but I can’t bring myself to espouse (even hesitantly) the same old sentiments about why TFA is the perfectly logical career move for my well intentioned goals of saving the world. Because, really, its not about me. I’m actually pretty irrelevant to the bigger issue, which is that my students are being wildly underserved (and not just by me). But anytime I’m required to explain why I joined TFA, why I became a teacher, why I decided to dedicate my present life to this particular group of charming 9-12 year olds, the only real answer I can articulate feels inflated and self-involved.

Although I clearly have a well developed guilt complex about my own underprepared-ness, it is hard not to ultimately look to TFA for putting me in this position. In future posts, or perhaps in my tell all book, I will go into the details of the myriad of ways TFA set me up for failure and then failed to provide help when I needed it. For now, because there is too much to say and it would become too much to read, trust me that its a great story and that I am not alone in ultimately passing the buck. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of TFA is the number of people within the organization that are willing to publicly denounce it. I would estimate that if you talk to them privately, upwards of 70%* of people affiliated with TFA are serious critics of TFA. [I’m side-eying the other 30% from my keyboard.] Consequently TFA events end up becoming this totally convoluted experience where everything around you is all transformational changey but the people sitting on either side of you whisper under their breathe about bigger priorities and disappointment.

The fact that TFA became as big and powerful as quickly as it did is a testament to the organization’s ability to find good people willing to work their asses off. However, I believe we are starting to see cracks in TFA’s facade (negative press, cities like Pittsburg kicking TFA out, etc) for the same reason. The same good people willing to work their asses off for their students are often perceptive enough to realize that they were extremely ill-prepared and many are conscientious enough to stand up and say something about it. And good for them.

*this number is totally made up based on a rough estimate of the people I talk to.

How to Tell Someone You Are Closing Their School

Dear Sir or Miss,

Let me start by saying we are so glad you could make it today, we know it was sort of short notice. Good thing we were able to send out that automated voicemail last night, or you might not have made it!

We want to recognize your hard work and dedication over the past few months. Its not easy being a teacher, and you deserve respect for the day to day commitment you show. We recognize that the problems we see in your school, a lack of academic growth, mainly, is part of a larger, systemic problem. Specifically, we think you’re using the wrong system. That model you’re using is OUT, but we’ve got this shiny new one we just can’t wait to tell you about.

Yes, actually, now that you mention it, I suppose I should add that this shiny new program comes with a few small tweaks. First, get excited, you get to re-apply for your job! Its a perk, really. No don’t worry, once we had a retention rate that was almost 50%! Plus, if you don’t come back to this school we will put you on a list to get placed in another school. See, nothing to worry about!

Aside from that, we don’t really know what the other tweaks will entail. Who’s to say, really. We’re all playing it by ear. Oh, you mean the shiny new program? Don’t you worry about that. We have used that program at other schools and its worked awesomely. Practically a guaranteed success.*

Anyway, there might be a vote coming up or something. We think it might be on Tuesday, but we’re not sure. You could consider going, if you wanted.

Best of luck, we really do think your the best!

Yours,

Hartford Public School District

*Yes, sure, those schools were different from yours. Yes, yes, they were magnets that could kick out the kids who didn’t buy in (kids that then came to your school instead). No, you still won’t be able to do that. But don’t worry, we are sure the kids will warm up to it.

A New Blog, A Feeling of Defeat

“Hopefulness empowers us to continue our work for justice even when the forces of injustice may gain greater power for a time”

bell hooks

Perhaps the greatest problem with deep physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion is its capacity to prevent you from thinking critically. First year teachers in November are like weary travelers. Weak smiles don’t reach puffy eyes save for those few, rare moments of clarity. Only in those moments are you able to feel that spark of hope. It takes a critical eye to see through the darkness.

During summer institute I had a conversation with a fellow core member about our discomfort with the expectations set at institute. As would soon become an ever present question, we wondered about Teach for America’s agenda. “I think its their goal for us to fail,” my friend theorized, “So many of the people here have never failed at anything in their lives. So they use this summer to break us, to make us fail. Then they can build us into transformational leaders like they say they will.”

This conversation was referring to the curriculum requirement provided by TFA. Five weeks, one hour a day per subject, and effectively a year’s worth of material. Our summer school students were to be taught one objective per day minimum, if they didn’t get it that day, too bad, the only chance of hitting every subject in time was to keep moving. Of course, the reality was that our summer school students were there because they lacked critically important foundational skills, like academic language and a comprehensive understanding of the meaning and value of numbers. What they needed was an intensive, targeted, intervention. Not a crash course.

The night after the conversation with my friend I sobbed to my Core Member Advisor, who lucky for me was one of the few to really get it. If TFA was setting me up for failure in teaching, it was guaranteeing failure for my students. He acknowledged the reality of what I was seeing and admitted to having sleepless nights over it himself. “You’re working in a system, and you have to do what you can for your students. Maybe they won’t learn anything this summer, but you can show them that you care. You can make them feel welcomed and loved and safe. That might ultimately mean more than any test score anyway.”

Fast forward three months. My head is barely above water. The scariest part of teaching at an under-staffed, under-resourced, urban school isn’t failure. No, failure happens daily. The scariest thing is the very real possibility of losing hope. Because the reality is that injustice has the hometown advantage. Injustice claimed this place a long time ago. It commutes into the city during the week and heads back out to its country home on weekends. Injustice is the special master, the colonizer, the district supervisor. Injustice looks on discerningly while people with hope gradually wilt and die.

Burnout is all too common in this place. Young, fresh hopeful teachers come in and give their whole selves. A few weeks, months, years later they wake up and realize they have nothing left to give, their resources are sapped. Then its simply a question to stay or leave. Those who stay often don’t get it back, they become the screamers, the teachers who don’t like children. The few who make it, who hold onto enough hope to stay strong are few and far between, but even they grow tired.

Essentially the dilemma is this;

Without hope and critical thinking, you can’t stay conscious as an urban teacher. If you’re not conscious, you can’t discern between the messages you’re given. And because of the nature of the system, the messages you receive more often than not push you towards a militaristic, banking method style of teaching. One that limits and oppresses students in a myriad of ways, while pushing them ever more rigorously towards achievement and standardized success. However, staying conscious, maintaining hope and using critical thinking skills requires massive investment. This investment competes with sleep, a personal life, and day to day planning, yet all are required. So it becomes a catch 22. You have to take care of yourself to succeed, but success requires some sacrifice of self care. Meanwhile your class of 21 students is in desperate need of personal, targeted academic intervention.

But you’re working in a system and you have to do what you can for your students.

You have to make them feel welcomed and loved and safe.