It’s a Trap! America’s Underserved Youth and Their Teachers Are Set Up to Fail

The second time a child set fire to my classroom, one of my assistant principals requested I attend a training on classroom management.  It was not so much a request as a requirement: there, in my inbox, stamped with the official Cc: to my principal were instructions to sign up on the online interface and to forward confirmation of doing so.

Admittedly, I overreacted.  My heart began to beat faster; a slick layer of sweat condensed on my palms; a wave of nausea overtook me.  My mind raced; my train of thought derailed.  This would be the second weekly three-hour training expected of me, in addition to the new Friday evening tutoring sessions I had signed on for.  My portfolio for the first training was due in six short weeks.  I had only a month to prepare my students for our state assessments.  While I recognized the potential benefit of this additional training, I simply did not have three hours to carve out of my day.  Was I to stop sleeping altogether?  I was already quite literally pulling out my hair over this.  How would I be able to implement any strategies I might learn when the last of my already truncated planning time had just died on the table?  When I found out the training began at 5 PM, leaving me just thirty minutes to travel across the city in rush-hour traffic—forget stopping at home to feed the dog or myself—my anxiety tripled.  So I decided to do the responsible, professional thing and approach my AP with my concerns.

This is how the conversation went:

Me: I’m looking forward to this training.  However, I’m worried I won’t have enough time between the end of school and the start of the program to make it on time.  I was wondering if we might be able to make some arrangement where I could leave school early or arrive late to the training, or if you had any other suggestions.  As it is, I will not be able to attend to my responsibilities at home.  Also, I am concerned about time management, because this will be the second three-hour training I’ll have each week, on top of our new science nights.

My AP:  What is this other training you’re talking about?

Me:  It’s my new teacher training.

My AP:  But it’s not related to the district.

Me:  Well, without it, I will not attain my certification.

My AP:  Well, you can’t just show up late to the training.  You have to make it work.  I have three kids, and I can’t just show up late to things.

Me:  Well, I don’t have anyone to help me at home, and I can’t afford to hire anyone to assist me, especially if I won’t be compensated for these trainings.

My AP:  You know, I was a single mom once.  You’re just going to have to learn to make sacrifices.   My thought is, since you have enough notice, you can make arrangements.

Me:  Okay.  Thank you.

And then I did what any tightly-wound, sleep-deprived, broke, overworked, overwhelmed, depressed person would do: I locked myself in my classroom, crawled under my desk, and cried at 9 in the morning, before I even had my second thermos of coffee.  I reflected on my assistant principal’s saccharine tone in dismissing my concerns as trivial—the same concerns that fueled my insomnia and churned my stomach on the drive to school.  I wondered just how much sacrifice would suffice.  Was it not enough that I had no time to myself and no friends?  Was it not enough that I worked through normal business hours when I might schedule a dentist’s appointment or go to the bank?  That I never spent time in the sun, on account of leaving for work before sunrise and not getting home until after the sun set, so that I could tutor my students before and after school hours for free?  Was it not enough that I devoted my weekends to agonizing over learning strategies and excel spreadsheets of my students’ abysmal test scores, only to have my best-laid plans go up in flames when tested on unmotivated kids?  Was it not enough that I showed up for work every day in anticipation of the next attempt on my life by bored 13-year-olds?  Or did I now have to sacrifice my only comfort and reliable friend: my seven-month-old Australian shepherd?

Who could leave this face at home for >14 hours a day?

Who could leave this face at home for >14 hours a day?

The common response to my complaints is that the focus should not be on the educator, but instead, on our shared goal of improving the lives and opening the minds of our students.  It was the reason we were all here.  It was the reason I chose to teach in an inner-city school, where I might have been much more comfortable conveying knowledge to yuppies in my hometown, where I was fortunate enough to come home to a mother who could edit my essays and a father who knew how to work out trigonometric identities.  Where, by the ninth grade, we had already read Shakespeare and Homer and filmed successful multi-media projects in French and could carry on an informed discussion about US imperialism.  Because I had this sinking feeling that there was nothing intrinsically more valuable about my life—that I was no more deserving of a rewarding education than a child born into a less affluent family—I wanted to try to instill my love of learning to children who were not as fortunate.  And I knew it was going to be difficult.

Yet in the attempt to stretch insufficient resources over the expanse of overpopulated schools and classrooms, the new teacher is treated not as a person or a professional, but as a disposable cog in a poorly functioning machine.  The onus does not lie with the government to provide more funding, or the district to decrease bureaucratic obstacles, or with the unions to shift the compensation paradigm, or the parents to instill values in their children, but instead, on the teachers, simply, to provide more, to work harder, to stay longer, to collect more data, to keep trying, and trying, and banging our heads against a wall.  And if we don’t, we’re not doing our jobs, and we are lazy leeches on the taxpayers, responsible for society’s ills.

After a bout of illness, one friend in my alternative certification program confided to me that she barely had the energy to come to school and turn on Netflix.  Another woman in the program is struggling with a classroom dynamic that frequently devolves into fist fights, and, as a result, her teacher observation scores have suffered, leaving her to question whether she will be out of a job, and consequently unable to support her family.  She said, in a moment of frustration, she asked her students whether they were aware that her livelihood depended on their behavior.  They laughed.

During lunch, one can usually find me under my desk with a salad, out of view from the window, lest any student, teacher, administrator, or district personnel attempt to encroach on my meager 27-minute break during the day.  However, if I am not feeling utterly defeated, some days, I will eat with the English teacher downstairs, a woman who is just shy of retirement age.  Her classroom management is impeccable.  The same students who throw crumpled-up paper, curse like sailors, pour crumbs of hot cheetos into the sinks, and tear the covers off of textbooks in my class, sit in hers silently, complying with her every instruction.  Some of my biggest behavioral headaches draw her pictures, captioned with such words of affection like “We love you, Ms. F!”  (To be fair, I have a few pictures like that, though I feel exponentially less deserving.)

One such accolade I received.  I the best!!

One such accolade I received. I the best!!

Yet the other day, she turned to me and admitted, “I’m just tired.  I’m tired of the disrespect.  It gets worse every year.  If I had an offer from somewhere that paid a little more money, I would leave in a heartbeat.”

The math teacher, whom everyone agrees is one of the best in the school, with his innovative approaches to problem-solving and easygoing rapport with the children, told me that this was the least motivated class he’d seen in his 13 years of teaching.

“They just don’t want to do anything,” he said.

I’ve watched the same man during team conferences dare a child not to come to school if he hated it so much, rather than disrupt his class every day and prevent the other 27 children from learning.

Did I say 27?  The number is more like 35, and growing every time we get a transfer, or a recent immigrant, or some other casualty of the bureaucratic jungle.  And with every student come parents or guardians who are of the opinion that their child is and/or should be our only student.

By the time students get to me, it’s already too late.  They don’t know how to read.  They don’t like to read.  Their attention spans are miniscule.  They don’t know how to take notes.  They liken their experience in school to incarceration.  Even my most studious and committed students are behind their critical thinking skills.  It’s no one’s fault in particular.  I was debating with a colleague whether testing is to blame for rigid currlica structures or whether unimaginative teachers were to blame.

“I look at some of these teaching methods, and I think, man,” I said to him over dinner, “If I had that classroom management, I would be doing activities, I would be letting the kids develop their own labs.  If I could get my kids to sit still for one minute, if I could trust them with fire and chemicals, I would not be lecturing off of a Powerpoint slideshow and making foldables.  They don’t get anything from it.”

“Yeah, but look at the challenges these teachers have to contend with,” he responded.  “The curriculum frameworks are so rigid, and we have to teach to the [state assessments].  It’s no wonder they opt for these methods.”

The problem is cyclical.  Kids in the first grade from underserved communities show up to school not knowing how to read and lacking social skills, on account of being raised by their older siblings or some other unstable family environment.  They need to be caught up, sometimes more than two grade levels, but teachers only have ten months to do it.  Thus, there is less of an emphasis on exploration, on learning habits of good students, as there is reaching an end-of-year goal that can be measured.  Because the task is so daunting, many students don’t make it.  So they show up to the next year, and the next, each time a little more behind.  But everyone agrees that education is necessary for cultivating good, free citizens.  And the quickest solution to catching them up is to test, test, and re-test.

One response to an essay prompt: "What is your favorite ecosystem, and why?  How do its factors interact?  How do pollution and deforestation affect your ecosystem, and why should we care?" as part of a requirement to collect writing samples for the state.

One response to an essay prompt: “What is your favorite ecosystem, and why? How do its factors interact? How do pollution and deforestation affect your ecosystem, and why should we care?” as part of a requirement to collect writing samples for the state.

Two weeks ago, instead of teaching, I had to administer some state- or district-required exam to my students every day out of the instructional week.  Every day!  When the district science specialist showed up in my classroom expecting results, I had to tell him that my hands were tied.  As a result of poor performance in science and math district-wide compared to the state of Texas, these district specialists got together and handed a packet of standardized lesson plans to every “regular” (re: the behavior problem teachers, since the “honors” classes are not so much more advanced as they are capable of sitting still for an hour) teacher in the district to make sure we weren’t going rogue.  The problem was that these lessons were made for 75-minute periods, whereas my school only has 60-minute blocks.  We were to derive our scripted lessons largely from a Powerpoint file, even though I rarely used Powerpoint slides in my classroom, as I have a couple dozen special-ed students to accommodate, as well as over 50 English Language Learners who don’t do well with large blocks of text.  Besides, my smart board is sequestered to a tiny corner of the room that is nearly impossible to see.  Despite these challenges, I was told to read paragraphs written in comic-sans font off of a hot-pink background to partially-illiterate students who couldn’t even see the board, in three-quarters of the time, and somehow, this was supposed to correlate to improved scores.

Needless to say, ours remained stagnant.

In lieu of showing my students a slide of the moon phases, I had them model the reflection of light from the moon with oreo cookies.  So much for solving the obesity epidemic.

In lieu of showing my students a slide of the moon phases, I had them model the reflection of light from the moon with oreo cookies. So much for solving the obesity epidemic.

It was not for lack of trying.  All of the teachers in my department tried our hearts out.  I spent hours after school splitting up blocks of text, translating it to simple English, and converting it to a readable, serif font.  This isn’t to say that there aren’t some teachers who don’t care, or who aren’t doing their jobs.  But in my experience, my coworkers are driven, committed, and compassionate, but are working against terrible odds.

I thought back to the first instance the district informed the regular science teachers of our change in lesson plans.  We had heard rumors, but no official confirmation until our district science specialist convened a secret meeting during our department planning time.

The science teacher down the hall who works in the language center spoke out.  “I’m sorry,” she said, “and I know this is unprofessional, but this is bullsh–.  I just got a student from the Phillipines.  My kids are smart.  They know the science.  But you’re telling me that because that kid can’t read what the test questions are asking him, that I’m not doing my job?

“I love my job,” she continued.  “I drive an hour to work every day and an hour home because I absolutely love my job.  And I will teach the hell out of these lessons.  But this is just insulting, and I’m so sorry that you had to be in the position of being the messenger.”

There is a body of evidence that suggests that the quality of teachers is correlated with student achievement.  However, with regards to just what constitutes “quality,” the jury is still out.  One aspect of a high-quality teacher that most scholars agree upon is the ability to motivate students.  But inspiration is difficult to come by in a high-needs school.

It’s obvious why my students don’t like school.  Psychologist Peter Gray, author of the new book Free to Learn, writes, “Our children spend their days being passively instructed, and made to sit still and take tests—often against their will. We call this imprisonment schooling, yet wonder why kids become bored and misbehave.”

He argued in a March 11 podcast for KERA that, in some ways, school is even more rigidly structured than prison, because at least prisons allocate time for recess on the yard.  Many of my students do not eat lunch because they prefer to go outside during their short break rather than to stand in line for their bland, dubiously nutritious free meal.  And then I am left to do battle against bags of chips and lollipops in the classroom.

Gray insisted that all research points to this idea that children need play time to cultivate their curiosity, and that, “Playing with other children, away from adults, is how children learn to make their own decisions, control their emotions and impulses, see from others’ perspectives, negotiate differences with others, and make friends.”

Yet community activists in the North Fort Worth area would argue that, if given free time, students at my school would succumb to pressure to fight and join gangs.  A representative from the Big Brothers/Sisters program recently approached one of my assistant principals to inform her that there were rumors of a resurgence of the Latin Kings in the neighborhood.

Last year, left to their own devices, the eighth grade girls organized a “Fight Club” where they pitted sixth-grade girls against other sixth-grade girls in the school bathroom.  Maybe outdoors time in my childhood yielded hours of imaginative play that involved investigating the decomposition of trees in the woods while pretending to be wolves, creating makeshift seismic measuring tools, and emulating the strong female protagonists of Harry Potter, but in my students’ neighborhood, free time too often degenerates into violence and teenage pregnancy.  Opponents of this idea would say that my students have suffered too much sensory deprivation to be left alone, and that they crave structure and thrive in highly-structured scenarios.

I was able to make light of my “imprisonment” due to an abundance of resources and the fact that I actually liked learning.  Yet, for my students, many of whose parents are in the adult penitentiary system, school is just preparation for their own incarceration.  One of my new students arrived in my classroom freshly orphaned; his mother had followed his father to Mexico to investigate his death, and there, she, too, was killed in drug cartel violence.  When I asked him to tell me about himself, he responded, “Miss, you don’t want to know about me.  I am bad news.”  They may not be able to identify a metaphor in a text, but many of my students have interrupted my lecture to cry out, “This is like prison.”

And still, the response to them is, “Too bad.”  Too bad, sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do.  It was the same response I got from my Assistant Principal.

Like my students, I feel I’ve been set up, only Admiral Ackbar isn’t there to scream bloody murder about it.  In fact, it seems like nobody even notices.  Or, maybe the key stakeholders are somehow cognizant, but don’t want to admit that we are steering a sinking ship.  Admitting would necessitate ceding to change.  Changing would essentially entail gutting the system—updating the pedagogy, the class schedules, vacation time, the method of compensation, down to the very start of compulsory schooling and to the architecture of our schools.  Changing would involve the re-appropriation of funds in a manner that would not be amenable to the important people who have built their careers and reputations on the old institution.  It is much easier to fault teachers and require more trainings.  In fact, for the price of one experienced teacher, a school can hire two young ones, work them like dogs, and get rid of them if they don’t produce results—precisely the trial-by-fire to which I believe I have been abandoned.  All the while, educators are lambasted by the press, the government, and communities alike, who look at our academic standings among other countries, and demand to know why we are failing.

To me, it’s no wonder why a smart, ambitious, driven young graduate would opt to go to Wall Street or K Street if given the opportunity.  I’m beginning to question why anyone in that position would want to try to make the world a better place instead.

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5 responses to “It’s a Trap! America’s Underserved Youth and Their Teachers Are Set Up to Fail

  1. Very insightful post Lauren, thank you for sharing. I had a microcosmic experience similar to yours in a pro bono project I have undertaken. It is representing a women getting a Civil Protection Order (glorified restraining order) against her ex-boyfriend. In a nutshell let me say that after going to domestic court the whole day and seeing the other people (mostly poor residents of SE D.C.) in court it was quite clear that no amount of law, order, or welfare would change these people’s behavior. Maybe, though I do have one suggestion for you. With the adults I am dealing with, it is clear that they are beyond change. But with the children you handle, if you can get through to just one, not nearly them all, but just one lucky one, that should be your measure of success. Because after all, just imagine if you can steer one kid in the right direction, what permutations of positive change that one person can have on others in the future. Just one is a success.

  2. Wow what a mess to try and work within. No time for yourself, not paid for time at home. Most if not all corporations pay employees for working off job site. What a thankless job. If it were me I would try and get on with a private school. They ask the unruly or low IQ students to leave. Proably would not have the low IQ students because they test them on both IQ and the ability to pay attention. Either one can cause refusal to be admitted .

  3. I just stumbled across your blog and can’t stop reading. I don’t think I would have the stamina to survive in your position and I commend you for sticking with it for a year. I appreciate the commentary about the problems you see with our education system and your struggles to come to terms with how different these children are from those you knew when you were in school. I moved from Ellicott City to Oklahoma City immediately after graduating college, and I still grapple with culture shock (I may not encounter anything near what you did in that classroom, but there are certainly aspects of life here that are miles away from how I grew up and make me wonder what I got myself into). As an example, I have a friend here who can rattle off all her classmates who got pregnant in high school in a list that would require the use of more than two hands. And me? I scratch my head and might remember one person in all four years.

    But how do we solve the issues that come with education in low-income neighborhoods? I do agree that it seems you’ve been set up. More funding requires results, and results rely on positive change. But how do we foster that change with the resources and structure available? I don’t think it is possible in the current system. This is just another issue that is stuck in a messy, outdated structure that goes against (or at least does not work for) the best interests of the people it is supposed to be helping. So much of our education issues are interlocked with other problems that it would require some serious change to fix what needs fixing. Do you think that will ever happen?

    Anyway, I really enjoyed the few posts I read. I hope you continue to write; you have a compelling voice and many interesting stories to tell.

    • Hey Lauren, thanks so much for your response. I’m honored to have someone reading my ramblings! I think it’s pretty brave that you moved so far away and into the midwest… needless to say, it is one hell of a culture shock from our cosmopolitan suburban hub in the mid-Atlantic. What brought you out there? I was drawn by these romantic ideals of “wide open spaces” and this anxiety I felt to see the world… when I arrived, I was confined not only by my urban surroundings, but also by the limited scope of some people’s outlooks and experiences. This is, of course, a stereotype, hence the “some” qualifier. Nonetheless, I felt like an outsider.

      As for solving the education debacle, I don’t know if I agree that it is a problem we should be solving. I became really passionate about education reform working at the Center for American Progress. To me, education was the Great Equalizer, and everyone deserved access to this opportunity regardless of socioeconomic status. Why was one child “more deserving” of a high-quality education simply by virtue of his or her order in society? It seemed more than unfair–it was an injustice. It is an injustice. But I don’t know if we can justify rectifying this injustice at the expense of violating other people’s liberty. Ultimately, what the education system needs is an overhaul, which would require a lot more money. My ideas include expanding our Pre-K in content and hours to be far more robust, lengthening the school year, lengthening class sizes, eliminating traditional bells and schedules in favor of a more Montessori-esque model, decreasing class sizes and including two teachers in each classroom (one content-area expert and one reading/language expert), dividing students into classes based on ability rather than age, improving and requiring extracurriculars, reformatting and decreasing the number of standardized tests, removing the union influence and instituting a performance-based pay scale, and implementing non-academic apprenticeship tracks at the ninth grade. Some of these require immense funds, others require upending the system and angering people who have built their careers around sustaining the old, ineffective way. And whose job is it to pay? Whose job is it to advocate for change? It should be the priority of these children’s families, not some snotty upper-middle-class college grad (re: me). Yet it’s hard to cultivate this level of informed political engagement when these students’ parents are only slightly older than we are, and less educated. I don’t have an answer, other than maybe, as cold-hearted and radical as it sounds, if we stopped throwing other people’s tax dollars into the vacuum of the public school system and it was no longer a guaranteed free daycare center, people would realign their priorities and get involved. In other words, I think the only hope for education, barring extreme mitigating circumstances, is privatization. And I don’t know if it’s even ethical to expect those who are better-off to shoulder this horrible leviathan on their bank accounts.

      In short, my experience has transformed me into a radical, militant libertarian. I only wish I could have empowered my students with the agency to realize that they were being screwed over by the system, and to get mad about it.

      Thanks again for the feedback; it really does mean a lot.

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