Education is one of the few areas where everyone is an expert – from my neighbor whose expertise is based solely on having once attended school, to the President who criticized NCLB and then gave us something just as onerous in Race to the Top. Everybody has something to say. Among the loudest voices are businessmen successful enough to set up foundations and then sit back and yank a few chains. Because when it comes to education, money doesn’t just talk, it sets up a press conference and gets personal. Granted, eponymous foundations have their hands in many fields like medicine and art, but you don’t find them maneuvering to take over operating rooms and galleries. It’s taking over the classroom that seems so inviting and easy, especially if that classroom is in a poor, urban neighborhood. Just ask the Mayor of Los Angeles.
These foundations and their experts are in a holy grail quest for a quick educational fix for even the hardest to reach, most challenged populations. But if you have been paying attention, then you know they have yet to offer one. What they do offer is educational practice based on the business model and this translates into competition and innovation. Sounds good, right? Except no one can seem to determine what type of innovation and competition will actually work. And by work I mean work miracles. The kind that over come poverty, neglect, poor nutrition, 10 schools in 8 years and not speaking English. So here’s my invitation to my very privileged virtual colleagues: come down and work in an urban high school and give real teaching a try. You can prove your own theories. Or not. Let’s just see what happens.
Prepare yourselves, ladies and gentlemen, this invitation is for a real semester with real teenagers who have not been prescreened or prepped to impress you. You will experience what teaching is: the day in and day out weaving together of information and experience that culminates in understanding, all while attempting to meet the emotional, social, and economic needs of students who have many. Without that commitment, you are just a substitute and we all know what that means. Not much. Please come prepared to teach a subject you think you know, learn the state standards, the district rules and procedures, review and develop your curriculum, integrate your lessons with your colleagues in other disciplines like history and science, and create projects that maintain creativity and engagement while ensuring that the two kids in your class that just came from Guatemala and the five kids in your class that read on a fourth grade level all fully access the material, score well on the state test and pass the high school exit exam. No pressure. And by the way, be sure to bring food, lots of it. The kids will come hungry. Their families are poor. Be prepared to purchase clothes, shoes, and most especially school supplies. If you are not buying your tri fold display boards, three ring binders, and pencils and pens from Staples in bulk, you are paying too much. Because for this semester you are no longer wealthy, you are a teacher and your income will reflect that. Complete with furlough days. If you are want to be the hand up the back of teachers trying to manipulate what they do, you are going to have to live like one first.
Be forewarned, nothing is quite as scary as walking into a classroom full of urban teenagers without a clear concept of how a lesson should be constructed. The idea that you will be talking off the top of your head for two hours only works in the hallowed halls of your own mind. If you want to survive, have a plan, otherwise those kids will eat you up, and I am not just talking metaphorically. They will clean their teeth with your bones and then spit your heart into the trash can because the last thing they want is more heart. Nah, I am just kidding. The kids are great, you just have to know what you are doing and how to handle them. Which is why I am installing a two-way mirror into your classroom. You will provide lots of laughs.
You will have thirty-five minutes for lunch. This will become twenty-five minutes unless you are quick about getting those kids out of your room. This will prove difficult if they like you or if you have food. You may end up using this time to practice being a counselor, whether you want to or not. Some students will see your lunch break as an opportunity to ask for help finding a job or money for college because they are undocumented. This may cause you to wonder why a country spends huge amounts of money to educate students only to completely block them from pursuing a way to earn a good living with that education and to pay back the country in the form of taxes. But don’t. If you think about this too long, you will start to question everything. Instead, just talk about hope and change and then pray the kids don’t call you on it. Heads up: if they are in AP English, they probably will. Just consider that kind of brainy, incisive response your tax dollars at work –at least until they graduate. After that there is no work for these kids.
You may also be privy to the most shocking and saddening domestic problems. The support resources you need to assist these students will either have been eliminated in the last round of budget cuts or will come from a community program that has a six month wait list. Try not to worry about it. Just remember, you are not here to care about teenagers as complete people, just as students. Being a trusted adult that may help keep kids out of gangs, out of jail or just alive is meaningless unless this concern can translate into decent test scores and a diploma in exactly four years. If that student needs an extra year to graduate because of all those problems, he will still count as a dropout. And even dropouts that are not dropouts, hurt our API. A creative administrator may find a way to ditch this potential liability before his senior year, especially if you are working at a charter. For them, the beauty of the fallback district home school cannot be underscored enough. Still, do not judge. That administrator is just trying to survive a statistical shell game beyond his or her control. I can hear your mumbled confusion — again, don’t ask why. Like most benchmarks in education, this four year rule has been determined completely outside of any meaningful context. Stop fretting this reality. Keep your focus! Your job here is to get these and all kids to pass your class and get out. You will be judged on the state’s bottom line: scores and rankings. And, if your foundation has its way, this will be the basis of your salary as well. Therefore, engaging in support that doesn’t translate into the hard data that increases API or meets AYP may indeed be screwing yourself out of a potential raise. In other words, consider the school as a corporation. It’s just business, it’s not personal. I think I am speaking your language here.
At the end of the day, you will be expected to attend a two hour meeting, probably about the inner workings of the school and district. But it may be a seminar of sorts called professional development. Regardless of the title, the theme is basically the same: how you, the teacher, should be able to do so much more with less by implementing yet another new way to teach. Don’t worry if what you hear from one session to the next contradicts itself. You won’t have the time or means to do any of it anyway. I am sure that you already recognize such “training” from your insistent funding of this kind of thing. I understand you prefer it to paying for teaching positions or paper and pencils. But that’s okay, at least the latter will be covered out of your paycheck. It will enlighten you to endure this training. You will then be asked to implement it — in your classroom with 40 urban teens. We’ll all come and watch through that two way mirror. You will probably feel confused about how you are supposed to incorporate these ideas and methods without demonstration and after just two hours of theory lecture. This will make the show even better.
By the way, you will be expected to support at least one club or activity on your free time. And by free time I mean anytime when the sun is actually down. If you work for a charter expect a lot more — which is why the lifespan of a teacher there is like three years. Your day starts at 7:30 and will end when it ends. If you work with kids who ask for help, like most of the teachers I know, add an hour. If you have papers to grade, a test to write, a lesson to prepare, a dance to chaperone and emails to respond to, your day will feel like it never ends. Even if you leave campus at 5 pm, your work could extend to midnight. At the end of the semester you can expect to be at the school site with students until nightfall and sometimes on weekends. We won’t hold you to our standards of giving your personal vacation time to take kids around to colleges or museums, but that’s what a lot of teachers I know do for kids whose parents are not able to provide those experiences. We are kinda hoping you feel guilty about this and get someone to pay our admission fees. We figure you guys have connections.
At the end of the month, you will be stunned to see that although you are in the highest teacher paid state in the nation, you are taking home less than 3000. This is after taxes and union dues (mother f**kers). Don’t worry, hang in for another 7 or 8 years and this will go up to 4000 dollars.
The school may compensate you in other ways, perhaps by paying for attendance at a conference, preferably sponsored by someone like you. This is three whole days of professional development. And if the earth is still spinning on its axis, then surely there will be someone speaking on ways to ensure that every student –and I mean every student — is four year college ready. Yep. Jorge who just arrived from Mexico, Alex who is in a gang, and Nicole with 50% attendance are going to go on to university because you have switched your questioning strategies or introduced a new way to write the five paragraph essay. Right after they pass Chemistry and Algebra II with a C. Uh huh.
At the end of the conference you may join the legions of teachers who want to hone a sharp nail from the hoof of the dead horse that was beaten and bore into your skulls as a reminder that no matter how hard you work and how much you give of your time, there will always be an expert somewhere who thinks the solution to the multifaceted, deep rooted problems in urban education is really you working harder, differently, or just their way. Every time some kid doesn’t graduate and decides to get a job instead, or to smoke dope instead, or to have a baby instead –remember, it’s all your fault. My fault. Our fault. If only we had listened closer during professional development. I am sure that new teaching methodology would have addressed those issues.
Okay, everyone, I think you are ready to fly solo. Enjoy your semester. I’ll send your remains to the next of kin.
When it comes to matters of opinion, discover some of the most intriguing, informed points of view you’ll find anywhere — at The Opinionator, from The New York Times