The End of Making Excuses

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The other day, a pregnant student of mine got into a fight with another pregnant student in the middle of homeroom. My co-teacher, worried about the unborn babies, tried to stop the fighting. One of the girls—they each weighed at least 200 pounds—shoved this 54-year-old veteran teacher to the ground. As she lay stunned on the cold floor (we were all wearing winter jackets that day because the heat wasn’t working, as usual), one of the girls burst into tears. “Oh, Miss S!” she cried. “I didn’t mean to hurt you!”

Afterwards, my co-teacher picked herself up, injured shoulder and all, and kept teaching. We all do. The kids need us.

I teach high school English in a mostly white, working-class, and high-unemployment suburban neighborhood in New Jersey. I have an M.F.A. degree, college teaching experience, certification in both English and special education, a perfect score on my Praxis (the New Jersey content-knowledge test), a scholarly book accepted for publication, and consistently excellent observations and test results. I am precisely the sort of teacher our leadership claims it wants. Yet instead of supporting the legions of teachers just like me, who shiver in our winter coats to try to change lives one student at a time, and including us in national conversations about how to improve the country’s education system, increasingly our leaders prefer to demonize us as the source of all problems.

The New York Times recently reported that “the South has become the first region in the country where more than half of public school students are poor.” It may be the first, but it won’t be the last. Across the country, schools are struggling to educate children from poor home environments, in impoverished or even dangerous communities, in poorly funded schools. Yet, while we are faced with rising poverty, cumbersome bureaucracy, massive class inequities, and an increasing disconnect between an elite few and the rest of us, political and policy leaders’ idea of solutions is to spout grandiose slogans and threaten … teachers. Just teachers. No one else. Race to the top! One hundred percent passing! No child left behind! Or else! This is the end of making excuses for bad teachers!

“People who say that learning can take place ‘anywhere’ invariably come from very comfortable anywheres. Down here in the trenches, what my kids see is distinctly uncomfortable.”

It’s so much easier to demonize one group—the one with the least amount of power—than to address the massive systemic problems that face the entire education system.

When I passed out our only book this year, a copy of “Macbeth,” I had to be careful—the copies had yellowed and moldy pages, some ripped, some missing, and the covers were gone. Ashley, a student with a deep gash on her face from her mother, who had slashed her and said that she wished Ashley had never been born, held up her book with a segment completely detached and said, “This school sucks. We suck.”

People who say that learning can take place “anywhere” invariably come from very comfortable anywheres. Down here in the trenches, what my kids see is distinctly uncomfortable. And they learn from it this simple equation: Expensive infrastructure equals deserving kids; decaying infrastructure equals forgotten kids.

Not far away, in an upper-class community, the entire high school building was rebuilt last year, at a cost of millions. Reading the newspaper account of this renovation, I felt like a peasant gazing into the nobleman’s house through a tiny window: “The 300,000-square-foot facility includes airy classrooms with projection capability and wireless Internet access for students’ laptops. … A choral room has acoustic ‘pillows’ on the ceiling; it’s flanked by a climate-controlled room for musical instruments.” I had to stop reading.

But it’s the end of making excuses for bad teachers.

After my last class, at the end of the day, I call parents. Many will never answer. Some are too busy working two or three jobs; others can’t be bothered. And a good 10 percent of my students don’t even live with their parents, who have given up parental rights, or lost them. In my college-prep classes, I teach students who were crack babies, students who suffer from the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, and students who were, for lack of a better term, “dropped on their head.” (I literally have four students with large scars on their foreheads from having been “dropped” as babies.) I call parents for various reasons: because their teenager hits another student with his cast (which he got from punching a wall); or because their son pulls down his pants in the middle of class, or their daughter curses a violent string of homophobic slurs, right in the middle of, say, an attempted class discussion on “Beowulf”; or because their child doesn’t come to school, or sleeps in class.

Yes, it’s the end of making excuses for bad teachers.

What is a “bad” teacher? For comparison’s sake, what exactly determines a “bad” professor? A “bad” firefighter? A “bad” CEO? Where are the peer-reviewed scientific studies demonstrating that there is a one-to-one causal link between “bad” teachers and failing schools? Or that there are more “bad” teachers than there are “bad” workers in other professions? Or that union rules protect “bad” teachers more than pervasive cronyism or bureaucracy or a “protect our own” mentality protects bad workers in any other profession?

There is a more fundamental fallacy, however: the notion that bad teachers exist in a vacuum and are single-handedly responsible for bad student outcomes, and that, if we get rid of them and somehow replace them with “good” teachers, our education system will magically improve.

This reasoning is eerily similar to how the country is fighting our current wars: Soldiers operate in relative isolation and no one else is asked to make sacrifices. In the school wars, parents can continue to fail at parenting; communities can continue to fail to provide a safe, supportive environment for children; unconscionable class inequities can still exist from school to school; children themselves can continue to disrupt whole classrooms; local and national leaders can continue to remove themselves—and their children—from the public schools they are seeking to change.

The last shred of power teachers have—their ever-weakening unions—are basically attacked so that teachers will have no power at all. The idea seems to be that, if we bundle all our failings into an imaginary straw man—the mythical “bad” teacher—and then run that scapegoat over a cliff, all our failings will disappear. No one else has to do a thing. And all politicians must do is come up with strict-sounding, punitive regulations they invent but don’t have to implement or provide empirical data—or sufficient money—for.

The hard truth is this: If our public schools need changing, the change must come from the roots up, rather than from plucking a few leaves off the top. The entire system needs to change: Funding must be equitable and sufficient; leaders must be personally involved; and schools must be recognized as microcosms of society, so that values are important and priorities change.

All of this will take hard work, determination, painful honesty, and sacrifice and commitment from all of us. It is the end of making excuses.

Vol. 29, Issue 31

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