This has been a tough one to grapple with. I left the classroom several years ago, and although I was recognized as a successful teacher, I did not feel very successful my last couple of years. So when I write about teachers leaving the classroom, my own story lurks behind the broader narrative. This year I am working with young teachers, trying to keep them teaching in Oakland, and that is causing me to revisit the issues I dealt with in my own decision, and trying to think about ways we could make things better.
There are things most people do not understand about teaching in an inner city school. I appreciate the research that shows an effective teacher is the most important variable in a child’s academic growth, because if I didn’t think I could make a difference, I never would have become a teacher in the first place.
But there is a way in which this ends up putting a very large burden on the shoulders of the classroom teacher, and when we look for reasons for teacher burnout, this is a big part of the problem. As teachers we sometimes feel as if it is our job to make up for whatever is missing for our children. Don’t get me wrong – I believe our students come from culturally rich home environments. They are blessed to have different languages spoken at home, to have parents and grandparents who share their heritage with them. But not all of the experiences in their home and previous school environments prepare them for success in school.
Many of our students live in neighborhoods rife with violence. The San Francisco Chronicle reported a year and a half ago that as many as a third of the children in some of our urban neighborhoods suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder -- a rate nearly twice as high as troops returning from Iraq. The recent shooting of a young African American man, Oscar Grant, was captured on video by onlookers from multiple angles, and for weeks the scene of a policeman shooting a youth in the back execution style was replayed on local TV stations and Youtube clips. A basketball game this week between two local high schools went off peacefully, but following the game on the streets gunfire sent students running. Luckily nobody was hit, but danger and death are just around the corner for our students, and they must be resilient to survive.
This creates a whole set of problems for classroom teachers. The way students learn to solve problems on the street is very different from the way they are solved in the classroom. Race enters into the equation as well. As a white male teacher, there are power dynamics at work when I seek order or quiet in the classroom. I work to establish good relationships with all my students, based on mutual respect. But it has not always worked. Sometimes students want to create a reputation for themselves by taking me on, and that can be tough to handle. I do not want to engage in a power struggle, but I have to stay in charge of my class.
I have felt in a bind, because my heart tells me the students need more space for creative expression, more time when they can speak and be heard about what is going on for them. But these same students are behind on their math and science skills. I feel an intense responsibility to prepare them for their future, so they can succeed in Algebra in a couple of years, so they can tackle problems in science and come up with creative solutions using the tools they have learned.
My awareness of the issues the students bring to school informs my approach to pedagogy. I know my students sometimes feel powerless at home or in their neighborhoods, so I try to give them some power in class, by putting them in charge of aspects of their learning. I want them to come up with questions to guide our scientific investigations. I want them to apply the math we are learning to creative projects, not just repetitive worksheets. These approaches take more time, and take us in unpredictable directions that often do not align with the state standards for science or math. That means I am “wasting instructional time.” If we are to meet the needs of our students, we must have standards that are flexible enough to accommodate more student-centered instruction, and less focused on memorization of hundreds of terms and concepts.
I also think our broader discussion of school reform misses the reality these students and teachers inhabit. “Raise the Bar!” “Every child must learn at the highest levels.” “Algebra for All 8th graders!"“Hold teachers accountable.” This rhetoric and the performance mandates that go along with it create a huge external pressure on an already intense educational environment. I want my students to succeed academically, but I want to be able to recognize them as individuals as well, and build on their strengths. The pressure to drive everyone up to same level of proficiency sometimes makes us feel like failures before we have even begun – and like convicted failures once the test scores come back in the fall.
Teachers need more time to collaborate and support one another in these tough times. We need to be able to talk and share what is troubling us, and what is working, so we can get fresh ideas. However, our time is growing even scarcer – with after-school tutoring, lunchtime tutoring, and meetings that must follow strict protocols.
There is an intense focus on increasing academic achievement, but that seems to sometimes blind us to the other aspects of our students’ lives. Teachers are in a pressure cooker, and the pressure just gets ratcheted up every day. I believe this environment has a lot to do with the high levels of turnover we see among our teachers – and perhaps the high dropout rate for our students as well. Many of the teachers who do stay adopt a stoic -- or even cynical attitude, because they cannot respond to these pressures with flexibility. If we want our schools to retain teachers, and to blossom as creative centers of learning for all, the environment must become more humane for teachers and students alike.
What do you think about the pressures facing today’s urban teachers? How can we make our schools more humane and sane places?
The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.