School & District Management

Good Intentions

February 01, 1999 19 min read
Seven years ago, the author and 37 other idealists enrolled in a program that trains teachers for urban schools. Today, only eight are teaching in city classrooms. What went wrong?

Tal Troy was only a few months out of the teacher-certification program at Antioch University Seattle when he reported to one of the city’s beleaguered middle schools for a substitute assignment. A little more than a year before, Tal had been a civil engineer, but at Antioch, he had joined other adults abandoning often long-held careers in order to teach. The university’s training had been unusual: Geared specifically to prepare K-8 teachers for inner-city classrooms, it emphasized cultural pluralism and social justice as well as self-directed study. Like most certification candidates, Tal and his classmates did some observing and student teaching in Seattle schools. But the program also asked them to dive into new experiences unrelated to education and to identify the ways in which they learned. Members of the class volunteered in homeless shelters and women’s clinics, and they tried their hand at new skills such as snowshoeing. In short, the program was like an academic course, self-improvement workshop, and group therapy all rolled into one.

Despite such novel training, nothing had prepared Tal, 30, for his substitute assignment. Left without a class list, lesson plan, or even a door key, he went in search of the principal and instead found confrontation. The principal, an African American man, greeted the young white teacher with reserve and counseled him against using any “multiple intelligence, newfangled, liberal, feel-good crap"-- techniques, he made clear, that were not rooted in “true” inner-city teaching.

By day’s end, the principal had softened and invited Tal to stay for a longer stint, but the teacher declined. “It was a very long day,” he remembers now, “and a very valuable lesson for me about the disconnection between reality and academia.”

That disconnection is at the heart of many problems in our schools--theory and practice never seem to agree in education--and it’s at the core of the national teacher shortage. Thanks to booming student enrollments and the graying of the teaching force, schools open their doors every fall without enough teachers. Lawmakers and administrators are becoming increasingly creative when it comes to recruiting the 2.2 million new teachers that schools will need over the next 10 years, but the more pressing problem is not how to attract new teachers but how to keep them once they’re on the job. The exodus of new teachers is at critical levels nationwide, and it’s particularly alarming in inner-city schools, where as many as 50 percent of teachers quit in their first five years.

Reading such numbers in the newspaper, I nod my head with a certain degree of guilt. I am a certified teacher who is not teaching. Seven years ago, I was a classmate of Tal Troy’s at Antioch. Like many of my classmates, I entered the program filled with hope that I could help solve the problems of inner-city schools. Now, it seems, I’m part of the problem.

Over the years, I’ve put to good and regular use what I learned at Antioch, both about teaching and about myself as a learner. I pay my monthly student-loan installments without regret. And yet not only am I not working in an urban school, I don’t even live near one, writing this from the decidedly non-urban locale of Iowa. Although I work with educators as a curriculum developer, I cannot help but feel like the sheep who has strayed far from the flock.

Curious about who else had strayed, I began contacting my old classmates. Eventually I accounted for 32 of my 38 Antioch classmates, and my survey brought heartening news. Two out of every three are working in the classroom. Another handful are using their training in related fields, such as educational publishing. Only three are not doing anything related to education. The majority of us remain a proactive and idealistic group, still closely aligned to the progressive values emphasized in our training and still working for school reform, whether in our classrooms, districts, or communities.

The disconnection between reality and academia is at the heart of many problems in our schools—theory and practice never seem to agree in education—and it’s at the core of the national teacher shortage.

But my survey also turned up unsettling numbers for a country in desperate need of inner-city teachers. Of the 32 members of my class that I could locate, only eight are teaching in urban public schools. And that number dwindles every year, as more people move to suburbs or smaller towns. In fact, the urban element of the program--so strong in my memory and in the intent of its founders--has settled into an amnesiac blur for many of my classmates. When I asked about urban teaching, many of them had simply forgotten that aspect of our coursework or greatly diluted its significance. Most said Antioch’s urban bent had not been its chief draw for them.

Talking to my classmates, I discovered a few patterns as to why so many of us had turned our backs on city schools. Some left Seattle altogether in search of a different lifestyle. Others gave up in frustration after their teaching hopes became mired in the bureaucracy typical of big-city districts. And still others turned away after confronting the deeply rooted tensions of race and poverty that are the trademark of inner-city schools.

In the end, I was left to wonder whether Antioch and other teacher-preparation programs can do anything to stem the flow of teachers leaving city schools. Antioch is a wonderful program dedicated to training “change agents” for poor and impoverished schools; everyone I tracked down praised the school and what they had learned there. Yet only a quarter of my classmates are teaching in urban classrooms. If a program dedicated to such worthwhile goals can’t do any better than this, what’s the answer?

It was a rainy, cold morning in January 1992 when we gathered in the so-called “ballroom” at Antioch for the first time. Official records suggest we were a homogenous group--one person was Asian, and another was part American Indian--but we were wildly diverse in other ways. We ranged in age from about 25 to 50, and we had worked in restaurants and law firms, as policemen and engineers, for environmental nonprofits and interior design firms. One classmate had built his own forest hut, à la Thoreau, and traveled to meet the Dalai Lama in India. Another had worked in reinsurance, a field that he patiently explained again and again. In essence, we were all beginning a new chapter of our lives.

At the time, Antioch was in a part of Seattle that was being gentrified; within a few blocks of the school were chic little restaurants, service centers for the homeless, and the club that first staged shows by a hometown band called Nirvana. Roughly half of my classmates lived outside the city, commuting in from suburbs and nearby towns. These prospective teachers were older, their aspirations tempered somewhat by children and mortgages. Most were attracted to Antioch for the relative speed of the certification program, not for its urban focus. More of them have stayed in the profession than their younger peers, but, not surprisingly, only one of them chose to teach in the city, and he’s since quit.

At 26, I had more in common with the other half of the class. We were the mirror image of the commuters: Young and childless, we wrote monthly checks for apartment rent, not home mortgages. Eager to work in the troubled schools in our neighborhoods, we seemed ideal candidates for the inner-city classroom. But with age comes trappings. Marriage, children, and the search for affordable and safe housing pulled some of us away from the city and our original teaching plans. We exchanged some of our idealism for practicality, with varying degrees of regret. Gretchen Rowe, one of the more even- tempered, upbeat members of the class, has had two children since graduation and, at 35, has no plans to return to teaching in the near future. She told me with a half-laugh, “Since having kids, I no longer want to save the world. Now I want to save my kids from the world!”

If anyone seemed likely to stick it out in the city schools, it was Victor Prussack. A native New Yorker, he retains the frenetic pace and blunt demeanor of his hometown. In the classroom, he deftly switches gears between the roles of jovial pal, strict disciplinarian, and impassioned academic. Following Antioch, he spent four years working long hours in an alternative middle school near downtown Seattle where he helped define a team-teaching approach and quickly became a school leader.

Though Victor was happy and his teaching career relatively stable, other parts of his life changed. In 1992, Victor had been single; a recent West Coast immigrant, he had viewed Seattle as a small town desirable for its proximity to the mountains. But by 1997, he was married, looking for reasonable housing, and feeling increasingly confined by the city and its inherent hassles. After scouring maps, he and his wife landed in a small town in California where Victor now teaches just minutes away from hiking trails. It’s been a good move, but Victor misses the cacophony of his former school and its diverse mix of students. “Leaving that behind was by far the hardest thing,” he says. “But teaching is only part of my life, and I couldn’t stay just for it.”

Robin Miwa has no intention of leaving Seattle. She spent 12 years in New York City as an interior designer before moving to the Pacific Northwest. Today, from her high-rise apartment, she can see the building where she works. And it’s not a school. Following graduation from Antioch, Robin subbed in Seattle and, looking for a full-time post, narrowed her sights on two elementary schools. During the 1996-97 year, she took a long-term position as a substitute P.E. teacher in one of the schools. When I tell her that I don’t exactly recall her athletic prowess, she laughs with acknowledgment. Despite her cosmopolitan exterior, Robin is one of those people who can be silly with kids on their own terms, and they love her for it. This quality was reflected in her work that year; she won the school’s spirit award, given by teachers and parents.

When a kindergarten job came open in the school for the following fall, Robin expressed interest and was led to believe that she had an excellent chance of getting the position. Seattle is notoriously slow at hiring, however, and it wasn’t until a week before classes started that she heard anything definite. “I came home to a voice-mail message from the principal, who didn’t even bother to identify herself,” Robin remembers. “She just said that I didn’t get it. No explanation; no expression of regret or hope that I might do more work for them.”

It was the final straw. Robin soon returned to her work as an interior designer, joining one of the largest architectural firms in the country. Today, she has a phone, a secretary, and a beautiful view from her office window. Most important, she has respect.

Several classmates echoed Robin’s frustration. Looking for full-time work yet caught in the city’s substitute mill, these beginning teachers had been told by principals that central administration had tied their hands; central administration, meanwhile, said that the principals did all the hiring. “I never got a straight answer,” lamented Amy Brightman, who now works for the city’s ever-growing software industry. Another woman tried to get her foot in the door at several schools and was close to being hired when the principal with whom she’d fostered a good relationship was transferred. Since then, she has put together a career as a free-lance arts educator, teaching in housing developments, elder hostels, private schools, and a variety of other programs. She marvels that she’s doing exactly what she always wanted--teaching to many age groups in different settings--and disparages the climate of public schools: “I come into a school as an outsider and people say of my work, ‘How fabulous!’ But the regular teacher does the same thing and hardly gets recognized. I couldn’t deal with that.”

Entry-level teachers often are moved from assignment to assigment at dizzying rates and regularly wind up teaching outside their expertise.

Just as typical are the stories of people who are still teaching but with less enthusiasm and confidence than you would hope for from six-year veterans. Entry-level teachers often are moved from assignment to assignment at dizzying rates and regularly wind up teaching outside their expertise. The effect: Teachers hesitate to invest time and energy in creating new curricula. At worst, such shuffling leads to burnout. “This is the first year I’ve gotten to teach the same thing twice,” one man told me. “I’ve definitely come to rely on textbooks much more than I ever thought I would.”

During our student-teaching assignments at Antioch, many of us saw firsthand the divisions of race and class within Seattle’s schools and neighborhoods. Our cars were broken into, we were called names like “whitey” and “bitch,” and we saw teaching staffs divided along racial lines.

Such tensions continued to take a psychic toll on those who entered inner-city classrooms after graduation. Kris Cameron’s first job out of Antioch was in a predominantly black middle school in one of Seattle’s poorest neighborhoods. She often felt pitted against African American parents who didn’t trust her ability to work with their children, an experience echoed by others from my class--especially some of the group’s younger female members--and by a recent national survey of black parents. Nearly 70 percent of the parents polled by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan public opinion research firm, felt that too many white teachers didn’t know how to deal with black students because they were from different cultures.

Five years ago, Kris took a job teaching English as a Second Language in Wenatchee, a small town that hugs the eastern slopes of the Cascade range. About one quarter of the Wenatchee student population is Hispanic, mainly the severely underprepared children of migrant workers who come from “the Appalachia of Mexico” to work in the region’s fruit orchards. The parents of these students, Kris says, have welcomed her. “They’re cohesive and really open to working with me as an educator.”

Still, Kris has a bad taste in her mouth about the racial climate of the school she left behind. Though her decision to leave Seattle was largely a lifestyle choice--the urban scene was “toxic and unhealthy,” she says--her colleagues accused her of racism. “They said, ‘You just want to teach white kids,’ ” she remembers. “It hurt because it wasn’t true.”

Race issues have confronted my Antioch classmates in many ways. One teacher in Seattle says he is frustrated by “white parents who have successfully rammed through honors-level programs to help segregate the kids.” The school’s undercurrent of racism, he predicts, will ultimately force him from the job.

David Wilhelm, who came to teaching in his late 40s following a career in business, voices similar sentiments. During the program, he was one of the few older members of the class who lived in the city; today, he remains committed to teaching and working in the city’s toughest schools with kids who are increasingly ostracized by gentrification. His first job out of Antioch was at a middle school that has since been turned into a math-science magnet program--a change, Wilhelm believes, made to force minority students out of the school and farther from their homes.

Despite his resolve, Wilhelm admits that he has often been isolated from co-workers and hasn’t led any of the minirevolutions envisioned by some Antioch faculty. “It doesn’t make you real popular in the buildings to be trying to change things,” he says. “So I’ve kept quiet. I do things differently, but I do it on my own.”

Certification programs rarely dwell on the issue, but veteran observers of education can tell you that a person’s character plays a major role in good teaching. Teachers must have the “right stuff,” and that’s probably more true of inner-city teachers than any others. Perhaps my class at Antioch didn’t have the right stuff. We had ideals, but perhaps we lacked what it takes--whether it’s stamina or a predisposition for chaos--to teach in what are arguably America’s worst learning environments.

Though this may be true of some of my classmates, the fact that so many of them didn’t stay in the inner city suggests that other things are responsible, too--like the lumbering bureaucracies that run most big-city school systems. If we want teachers who are committed to building learning communities in our cities, then districts must become more flexible and responsive. They must place teachers in positions where they can do their best work rather than shuffling them in and out of subjects outside of their expertise. Nobody wins when an impassioned social studies teacher spends several years teaching a remedial math class that is draining him of his enthusiasm.

The conversations with my classmates suggest that Antioch also shares some of the blame. A veteran teacher who has run Seattle’s mentoring programs for beginning teachers once told me that many talented teachers get pushed away from the field by a set of bad experiences. “Good teachers can be unmade,” he said. I’ve often wondered whether fewer of us would have been “unmade” had we been better trained. Could Antioch have given us stronger armor, or a set of amulets, to help us survive our rocky first years in urban education?

Over the phone and via e-mail, I asked my classmates if they thought we’d been adequately prepared to teach in city schools. A few, like Victor, said Antioch had done its best; only immersion in urban teaching can prepare you, he argued.

But others fired back with anger. The same people who had shared with me many fond memories of Antioch also expressed disappointment in its shortcomings. Many felt that we’d left the program prepared for private schools or alternative programs, but not for the day-to-day realities of inner-city schools. Tal Troy, who is still teaching in Seattle, offered a more even-tempered response: “I’m not sure Antioch prepared us to react to the realities of what to do when the ‘progressive’ approach we are so proud to advocate is not met with success or approval.”

My own decision not to teach in the inner city was the result of a number of these factors. When I entered Antioch, I believed I had at least some of what it takes to be a good teacher. My recently completed master’s degree in English certified that I had attained mastery in a core subject. More important, the freshman composition students I taught during my master’s program gave me high marks. Many of them, knowing that I was hesitant to continue for the Ph.D. and commit myself to the largely theoretical world of academia, encouraged me to teach high school instead. “You couldn’t swear at all,” one young woman earnestly counseled me in a holiday card, “But you’d be great.” Later, when I wavered in my decision to become a teacher, my Antioch professors urged me to continue. “We need you here,” read a note from my student-teaching adviser. “You’re doing good work.”

Still, I wasn’t a perfect fit for classroom teaching, particularly in the inner city. During the second month of the Antioch program, I scored nearly off the scale for introversion on the Meyers-Briggs test. The unrelenting noise and lack of privacy at most schools is not a good match for someone who needs a lot of time and space for quiet reflection. At one point, I thought I could find a niche in the schools teaching gifted students--I had great success working with kids in an accelerated program during my Antioch experience--but I knew that jobs in that area usually go to seasoned veterans.

And finally, like others in the program, I despaired at the hostility simmering within many urban classrooms. Several weeks into my student-teaching assignment, my mentoring teacher called in sick and I was left alone with several classes of middle school language arts students. I’d grown confident by the third period, but then a small, African American girl I hardly knew unleashed a barrage of expletives at me. The words stung as though I’d been slapped hard across the face. For a moment, the room spun away from me.

Over the years, I’ve come to see that I could have learned to deal with that kind of verbal assault. But at the time, I had neither an effective gut response nor a learned methodology for how to deal with such situations. It was a fire with no drill. Any number of things could have helped prepare me for such an encounter--a more proactive mentor teacher; a longer, more structured student teaching experience; an established procedure in the building for handling such situations. As it was, that incident became a defining moment in my decision to leave classroom teaching. I didn’t want to learn how to handle such situations on my own, without the support of mentors and peers and without the assurance that it wouldn’t happen again.

During our days at Antioch, my classmates and I spent many hours chewing over the practical difficulties we would face teaching in the inner city. Over lunch or beers at the end of a long week, we discussed the hassles of city life, the frustrations of the school bureaucracy, and the tensions related to race and poverty. Yet these topics went largely unexamined during our course of study. Many times, one of us returned from an assignment in the schools with a story about how race and poverty can fracture the classroom, stories that could have made for thought-provoking debate. But too often, these tales were discussed only briefly and brushed aside in favor of the order of the day.

Even if questions of race had been raised in our classroom discussions, we didn’t have the kind of diversity needed to thoroughly address the issues. There were no African Americans in the room to say, “This is what it feels like to be that kid who just called you an ugly name.” There was no one to explain, “This is what my Latino family valued about education.” Although Antioch has since worked to recruit minority students and to incorporate their perspectives into the program, our class suffered from its lack of racial diversity.

For teachers to make the kind of commitment that inner-city schools demand, they have to go into the job armed with as much information and support as possible. This means that teacher-ed programs must present the profession honestly and treat discussions of day-to-day life in the urban classroom as more than an accessory to methods and foundations courses.

Perhaps none of my peers at Antioch would have been better math teachers had we spent class time discussing how to buy a house on a teacher’s salary or what to do about the everyday fallout from racial inequities. But we would have been better prepared to withstand the pressures that awaited us in our first years on the job. With such training, perhaps fewer good teachers would be unmade.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1999 edition of Teacher as Good Intentions


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