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Teaching Profession Opinion

Can We Stop Saying That Teachers Work ‘In the Trenches’?

By John T. McCrann — September 01, 2015 3 min read
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This month marks the twenty-seventh September that I have spent in a public school. I attended elementary school through high school in the same public school system. I completed internships and school-based research in college and graduate school. Since graduating, I have worked in schools in Durham, N.C., the Bronx, and Manhattan. I literally cannot remember a fall when I was not preparing for the start of a new school year.

This year is unique as it will be the first time in those twenty-seven that I spend a significant portion of time sharing my experiences with an audience larger than my family and friends through this blog. I begin this journey thinking about a phrase that many folks use to describe classroom-based experiences as coming “from the trenches.”

For twenty-six years I have spent my weekdays learning and working in public schools and this experience has never struck me as particularly similar to the battle scenes from All Quiet on the Western Front. Certainly, writing stories in Mrs Faucette’s second grade class was never painful. Exploring limits in Mrs. Lee’s Calculus class was hard but not like getting gangrene. Working with my student, “Lil D”, in Durham to write a rap about polynomials was downright fun, no trench there. I did work with students on a project to redesign the kinds of containers the Red Cross uses to send supplies to victims of disaster. A somber task, but one focused on restoration, not destruction.

I think people use the “in the trenches” phrase because working in schools, particularly schools serving large number of students experiencing oppression, is hard. I certainly agree with that. Never, not once in human history, has a society sought to develop the intellect and critical thinking skills of every individual child within that society.

I work in and have worked the entirety of my career in schools where the vast majority of students come to high school with scars and wounds. Those inflicted by racism and classism, by abuse, by malnutrition, by negative experiences in school. While these injuries may not be on their skin, they are very real and they make it very hard to learn.

In New York state and across the country we have the added disadvantage of working in contexts in which we often find ourselves under attack. Over the course of my career I have seen a steady rise in class size coupled with a troubling drop in access to resources. We’re trying to do something that has never been done, in a context where many forces in society are working against us ... yeah, that’s hard.

While I do recognize the difficulty of the social justice pursuit in which we are engaged, I refuse to speak about the place I teach and learn as “the trenches.” To do so would frame this situation as a hardship to endure rather than a problem to be solved. I am a mathematician. I love searching for solutions to problems. Perhaps we can start to solve some of the problems facing public schools by agreeing that we will not use fatalistic and militaristic language when we talk about them. I am not asking that we pretend that our schools are perfect, just that we all remember that most of school does not feel like a dank pit constructed to shield us from incoming explosives.

As citizens in a democracy who care about our children and their future, we are not simply charging forward in the light brigade; in fact, ours IS to reason why:

Why are schools becoming more segregated?

Why are women, people of color, and low-income students underrepresented in STEM fields?

Why do we continue to make decisions about students based on tests that are bad at predicting actual student outcomes?

Why can’t we construct math curriculum that enables students to forge deep connections AND gives them the skills they need to perform in higher level math?

I hope to use this blog to search for solutions to these and other problems. I hope that you will follow along and comment on the dispatches which are coming from my school and my experiences, but never from “the trenches.”


Photo 1: Our “commons” area set up for the first day of professional development this week, does not look like the trenches. (John McCrann)

Photo 2: “CatonWoodvilleLightBrigade” by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. - Unknown. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CatonWoodvilleLightBrigade.jpeg#/media/File:CatonWoodvilleLightBrigade.jpeg


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