Published Online: August 6, 2008

Crisis in the Classroom

In 1999, journalist Christina Asquith wanted to cover the state of urban school systems, but felt she couldn’t make a difference from inside The Philadelphia Inquirer newsroom, where she had been interning for the past two years. So, at age 25, she decided to go into the classroom, becoming an emergency-certified teacher at Julia de Burgos Bilingual Middle Magnet School in a poor and primarily Hispanic neighborhood of Philadelphia.

She quickly discovered that she was in for more than she bargained for. She received no training and little support and was given only minimal supplies, even as she was expected to work with students with sometimes severe academic and social problems. “It was like someone was playing a trick on her,” Mark Bowden, Asquith’s former colleague at the Inquirer and author of Black Hawk Down says in the book’s forward. “The bigger trick, of course, which Christina was quick to see for herself, was on the kids.”

Asquith’s new book,
The Emergency Teacher: The Inspirational Story of a New Teacher in an Inner City School (Skyhorse Publishing), is a personal account of her year in teaching, as well as a warning to those who go into teaching wanting to “make a difference.”

We recently spoke to her about her experiences and what she learned about teaching.

The Emergency Teacher

In your book, you say you left your internship to teach because you wanted to make a difference. What type of difference did you hope to make and why did you choose teaching as your vehicle to do this?

Well, I was ridiculously naïve and I thought that I was going to make a difference on two levels: I thought that one, I was going to come in and really turn around a classroom of kids and give them this amazing education and get them on a path that would lead them to college. I would teach them how to read and bring them up to grade level. I thought that this was totally possible if there was just a teacher in the classroom that really cared. And then I also really wanted to get an understanding of what was wrong in the school system so that I could write about how to make a change and bring awareness on a more national level as to what was really the problem in the inner-city school system and what really needed to be done to be fixed.

Do you think you accomplished this goal that year at Julia de Burgos Bilingual Magnet Middle School?

I was totally naïve. I was 25 and I was so full of idealism that I could do this. And I wasn’t the only one. I think most new teachers really feel this way.

But, I think I did more good than harm. I think I made a difference in that I think I accomplished some goals, like improving the students’ reading level, piquing their interest in reading and to giving them a 6th grade that was relatively stable, peaceful, and organized. And that is actually an amazing accomplishment, but it fell far short of my expectations.

What would you say were some of your successes while teaching at Julia de Burgos?

You know you always point to individual students that you remember. There was one student that I literally rescued from a special education class that had no teacher at all. It was spring and he had been more than 6 months in a class that had a different substitute teacher every week, if not almost every day. He begged me to come into my class, and I let him, even though I had to kind of fight the school system and the administration to do it.

He was a great student. He stayed in regular education and when I went to back to graduation in 8th grade, I saw that he graduated with honors. That was one way I really thought I made a difference. Another was I think we read 8 or 9 books throughout the school year and by the springtime, the students who had sworn they hated reading and couldn’t read were so into these books that we were reading, particularly the book Where the Red Fern Grows. They would cry in class, they would argue over who got to read which character aloud, they would ask me to bring in more books because they would just blow through a book in 2 or 3 nights. So I felt like I created in them a real passion for reading that I was really proud of.

While teaching at Julia de Burgos, you often went what could be considered “above and beyond” — taking students on weekend field trips, visiting their homes, and keeping in touch with them after leaving your position at the school. To what lengths should teachers go to help students?

That’s a really tricky question. I think you ultimately have to respect the boundaries set by the administration, which is something that I didn’t do. What I mean is, if the principal has a rule of no visiting students at their home, I think the teacher has to respect that. I think that if you, as a teacher, are required to get parental permission to keep a student after school, you have to respect that rule even if you feel at the time it makes your job impossible. And I also think that teachers, like myself, fall prey to the expectation that they’re supposed to turn a life around, where if they just focus on their job, which might be to teach 6th grade math, or to teach these English books, or this Spanish class, then they would be doing a really big service.

Should teachers be worried about their sphere of influence after students leave the classroom?

I think that too many teachers burn themselves out by spending all their afternoons and their nights and their weekends trying to help rescue students from bigger issues, like poverty or parental neglect or whatever other sort of baggage they come to the classroom with; I really wouldn’t recommend that a teacher do that. I would really recommend a teacher respect their own needs and their own health requirements and the limitations of their reach.

How did your teaching experience affect your outlook on education?

The most significant impact was that I became really convinced that these students were not being given a chance at all to succeed. I really believe that America is a country of opportunity and that it’s supposed to be the “great equalizer” amongst the many different classes. There’s a rift as to whether students are not being given a chance or just are not taking advantage of the opportunities given to them. And after I spent that year at Julia de Burgos, I really realized that these kids were really not being let out of the starting gate when they didn’t have books, they didn’t have trained teachers. They were put in a school that was totally disorganized and mismanaged and corrupt. Society cannot expect them to be able to graduate; it just wasn’t their fault.

Now that you have experienced the position of emergency-certified teacher, do you support this type of hiring program in needy school districts?

I think the emergency-certified teaching program could be useful in bringing some older people who are looking for second careers and have a lot of experience in a certain field but don’t want to go back to school. I think that to fill vacancies created because the school is so mismanaged and disorganized with ignorant, vulnerable, inexperienced, idealistic young people who have no other choice is like a recipe for disaster, and it’s totally unfair to the students. So no, I don’t recommend that be the way to solve the problem of vacancies in inner city schools.

What else can be done to get good teachers into these classrooms?

I think teachers are definitely underpaid; you have to raise the salary for teachers in needy areas and create better programs to get good principals into these positions because a good principal makes all the difference. Higher salaries, more support from the school district, and a better system for picking principals is a part of the solution.

-Vicki Kriz

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