Schmookler's Choice

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After four years of struggle, a young inner-city teacher bids farewell to the classroom.

"Kids in high school don't come up and hug you," says Ben Schmookler of his move from high school teacher to elementary school administrator.

The late John Holt, one of the most astute and articulate school critics to emerge from the 1960s, once said that expecting a good teacher to do good work in a bad school is like asking a surgeon to operate with a rusty knife. It's hard to be effective. The teacher, he believed, is better off doing something else.

Holt's comments cut to the heart of why it's so hard to turn around troubled inner-city schools. Thousands of young teachers, idealistic and full of vigor, enter such schools every fall, ready to do battle and "make a difference." But within just a few years, the schools devour them. Burned out, defeated, or just plain fed up, most move on to new challenges and better work environments. By one estimate, some 50 percent of new urban teachers quit within the first two years on the job. Meanwhile, the schools they leave behind remain tragically the same.

In the summer of 1998, Teacher Magazine featured a story about Ben Schmookler, a young, gifted African American struggling to maintain his ideals-and sanity-while teaching history at chaotic McClymonds High School in Oakland, California. The story hinged on one question: Would Schmookler, the kind of teacher every school district in America wants, stick it out at McClymonds? Just how long could he put up with crumbling facilities, bureaucratic mismanagement, indifferent colleagues, and obstreperous, foul-mouthed adolescents?

At the time, Schmookler was making headway with his students, but he was clearly frustrated. "There will always be a few teachers who will stay no matter what," he said. "But the rest will go; they won't tolerate it. They're going to ask themselves, What the hell am I doing here? Why am I spending all of this time hitting my head against the wall?"

To Schmookler's great astonishment, the article turned him into something of a national celebrity. "I got fantastic feedback, absolutely fantastic," the 29-year-old says now. "I received dozens of letters and phone calls from people all across the country, telling me not to give up, to keep teaching."

But the fan mail and encouragement couldn't turn back the tide. At the end of the 1998-99 school year, his fourth at McClymonds, Schmookler gave up classroom teaching. He left, he says, not because of burnout but to follow a path traveled by many teachers before him-into school administration.

This September, Schmookler started a new job as assistant principal at the 1,200-student, K-5 Webster School, also in inner-city Oakland. His goal now is to one day become an Oakland principal.

Schmookler says the elementary school is "night and day" different from McClymonds. "I love the challenge of both," he explains, "but the little kids are sweeter. Kids in high school don't come up and hug you, and kids in elementary school don't say, 'Who the fuck are you talking to?' I'll tell the little kids to do something, and they'll actually do it. They still show you respect."

Nevertheless, many of the children at Webster must contend with poverty, violence, and broken homes-all of which Schmookler sees as ominous portents of the alienation and anger they'll feel in later years. "One kid said I couldn't call his mother because there wasn't a phone," Schmookler recalls. "I thought he was lying, so I went to the house myself. It was absolutely empty, not a single stick of furniture, and he had been living there for two years. And he's not the only one living like that."

Working with Webster kids has been enlightening, Schmookler says. "It's helped me understand why kids are the way they are-why with so many students at McClymonds you had to start all over again, building both trust and basic skills."

As a mover and shaker in the Oakland school system, Schmookler has met several times with Jerry Brown, the city's feisty, in-your-face mayor. A strong proponent of charter schools, Brown has threatened to take over the local school district, long considered one of the nation's worst.

Schmookler supports the mayor and believes that good things are on the horizon for the school system. "I told Jerry Brown that I don't mind charters," says Schmookler. "I don't like vouchers because they'll drain money from the public schools, but I can accept charters. Not every doctor is the best in the world, and neither is every teacher. This is America, and you've got to give people a chance to vote with their feet, whether they're looking for better health care or better schools."

--David Ruenzel

Vol. 11, Issue 3, Pages 22-23

Published in Print: November 1, 1999, as Schmookler's Choice
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