Teaching Profession Opinion

Siegel: ‘Victories’ Still Resound With Teachers

By Jessica Siegel — October 25, 2010 7 min read
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“I never planned to become a teacher.” I wrote those words in the April 1990 issue of Teacher Magazine, for a piece accompanying an excerpt from Samuel G. Freedman’s then-new book, Small Victories. Critically acclaimed and widely read, the book chronicled a year at Seward Park High School, a large neighborhood school in New York City. I was its central character, a teacher at the school whose progress, and that of her students, Freedman followed.

My piece for Teacher described the circuitous route I had taken to the profession, and the way I’d “bombed” repeatedly in class as I got my sea legs, until finally, “little by little, brick by brick,” I constructed the teacher I became.

That was 20 years ago. Since then, the school has been closed and my students have gone on to become productive citizens, with a sprinkling of social workers and cops among them, along with one lawyer and a college professor. I’ve worked as a journalist, writing often about education. Perhaps inevitably, though, I returned to teaching, this time at a number of public colleges, where I’ve taught both journalism and education.

Samuel G. Freedman’s Small Victories

In those 20 years since Small Victories was published, I have received a steady stream of letters and e-mail messages from aspiring teachers, novice teachers, and people just interested in education. All of them have read the book and want to share their responses to it. More than 75,000 copies of Small Victories have been sold to date, and after 19 printings, the book is still very much in print. It is read in education schools, in New York City history and social history classes, in journalism and nonfiction courses.

The letters I get are a compliment, of course, to Sam Freedman. Two decades ago, he entered my life, the lives of my students, and the larger world of Seward Park High so completely that he was able to let readers share vividly in all the ups and downs of an academic year. The letters also say something about Freedman’s ability to depict the complexity of the craft of teaching. He was able to pull apart the convoluted array of elements that go into making teaching such a creative, challenging, and, yes, intellectual enterprise.

Living in a time that values the idealization of test scores, the worship of data-driven outcomes, and the rush to produce quickie teacher evaluations, readers find in Small Victories a much-needed counterview: all the work, help, support, and continuing self-criticism that goes into becoming a good teacher. And I don’t say “great teacher,” because Small Victories is not about an iconic superwoman who “saves” every student she touches. Freedman depicts me as a human being, and I think that is what so touches many of the book’s readers.

In March of this year, for example, I received the following e-mail from Robyn, a woman teaching in Baltimore:

“As I read, I could picture Seward Park and its surrounding world. … I advised the yearbook staff and taught (and continue to teach) creative writing, facing many of the same issues you did in teaching writing to students everyone else in the world seems to have left behind. Your tenacity, dedication, wit, and sense of humor are an inspiration to me. Like you, despite my suburban upbringing, I feel a connection to these urban kids of varying ethnic backgrounds and the harshest of living circumstances.”

What that teacher conveyed in her e-mail underscored how little had changed in 20 years for many schools: kids choosing to come to school when so much else is drawing them away; many arriving with a multitude of issues extending way past the schoolhouse door; teachers working hard against long odds; and schools being underfunded for all that they have to do.

Why is it that what Geoffrey Canada tries to do in the Harlem Children’s Zone, in supporting children holistically throughout their schooling, is seen as revelatory, something that is a new model that has to be bottled? Anyone who has been around schools for any length of time knows that most school people want and need this kind of broad-based support for their students—it’s not just a rationalization for shirking their responsibilities.

Over the past decade, though, teaching has become a “two or three years and out” career move. How could anyone call that a profession? I have taught Teaching Fellows, the New York City version of Teach For America. Some of these people, who have moved into teaching from other careers (or, more than likely, from very prestigious undergraduate educations) stay in the field and become outstanding teachers committed to the profession over the long haul. But others quickly move on. How is this creating a dedicated body of professionals? And can any profession call itself that if there isn’t a constituency of people who say, “This is who I am, this is what I do”?

Small Victories speaks to that kind of person. It portrays me struggling to figure out how to reach particular kids, it shows me trying to analyze what went wrong after unsuccessful lessons, and exults with me at my students’ accomplishments: winning awards, graduating, going on to the uncertainties of college.

In 2006, I received an e-mail from Victor, a teacher in Passaic, N.J., who wrote:

“Small Victories was required reading when I attended Jersey City State College. I recall reading it during my lunch breaks while working as a part-time produce clerk at Foodtown. Managing my time back then was tough. I worked about 35 hours a week and studied full time.

“I’m not sure what drew me to teaching, but I suppose as the son of Guatemalan immigrants it sort of became a challenge and goal to teach other immigrants or children of immigrants that the obstacles of poverty, race, classism, and ethnocentrism can be overcome if we keep an open mind and continually strive to improve ourselves through hard work.

“I currently teach bilingual social studies at Passaic High School in New Jersey. I started my career 11 years ago, and I’ve touched the lives of many students in and out of the classroom. I’ve been an adviser to clubs, have run assemblies, tutoring programs, fieldtrips, taught ESL to parents. …”

It is clear in his writing that, for Victor, teaching is “what he does.” And just as clearly, his comments show that he gets back as much as he gives. This is not an argument that teachers should accept appreciation as their reward, in lieu of dollars. But it does give a sense of why many of them do what they do, without financial gain.

Through my Small Sacrifices correspondence, I was also able to form a connection with a remarkable English teacher in Hyde County, N.C., the poorest county in the state. Cherrie, who died far too young, at the age of 40, several months ago, was a teacher much like the one I had in 9th grade, Mrs. Okulski, who opened up a new world to me.

Like Mrs. Okulski, Cherrie was a voracious reader and pushed her students in this rural county, both white and African-American, to read widely and to challenge themselves. Besides teaching the standard fare to prepare her students for the rigors of college, Cherrie taught a course on Southern writers and a unit on the civil rights movement. As a white woman raised in the South, she was eager for her students to learn from those who were there during the time of the movement. She had them interview members of their families and older acquaintances.

Like teachers in New York City, Cherrie also dealt with kids caught up in a world of drugs, abusive families, and low academic expectations. Every year, she brought her students to visit New York, to see its sites and experience life from a different place and perspective. She and her kids visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of National History, Ground Zero, and Ellis Island. They took in a couple of Broadway plays, explored neighborhoods, and stayed at a hostel in Harlem. I would meet them for dinners in Chinatown, or at Sylvia’s in Harlem.

I mention Cherrie and the other teachers who have written because I think it’s important for people who read Small Victories to know there are so many like me. What is most striking today, 20 years after the book was written, is that, in all the pushes for educational reform since then, all the babble over Race to the Top and the hoopla over “Waiting For ‘Superman,’ ” few if any teachers have been part of the discussion. Other than offhand comments on the importance of high-quality teaching in that film, the only teachers quoted or referred to are deficient ones protected by their unions.

Schools chancellors and superintendents now get their jobs based on their lack of experience in education, as if understanding the intricacies of the classroom were a detriment. As the late best-selling author and New York City high school teacher Frank McCourt used to say, whenever you watch a panel on education on television, you will see an education bureaucrat, someone from a think tank, maybe a professor of education, but never a teacher.

Thanks to Small Victories, I’ve gotten to hear from some of them. I wish other people could, too.

A version of this article appeared in the October 27, 2010 edition of Education Week as Small Victories, 20 Years Later


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