Friday, March 19, 2010

If You're Not Outraged, You're Not Paying Attention

I assumed the emergency crisis meeting that was abruptly scheduled for the end of the school day was intended as a time when the higher-ups would finally hand out our supplies of Xanax and vodka. Heaven knows the entire staff could use them after the week we've had. Alas, that was not to be.

The high school where I work has been declared a failing school and is on the precipice of being taken over by the state. Our principal has been asked to resign and teachers have been told that none of us have any guarantee of having our jobs back in the fall. If the school fails to bring up test scores next year, it may be required to "release" 50 percent of us. To say that morale was low today would be a slight understatement.

The government's plan, of course, is to refresh our school with only the best and brightest young teachers who are to be lured from top colleges and universities. As someone who fit that bill when I started my own career seven years ago, I'd sincerely like to wish the government luck with that. Having prestigious academic credentials is an asset, but it certainly doesn't guarantee success in the classroom. Teaching well is hard work and a constantly evolving skill.

Additionally, you would have to be insane (or have a wealthy family member to fall back on) to sign on to teach at an underperforming school right now. I actively chose to work at an urban school whose students come from backgrounds that often result in them lagging far behind their suburban peers. I enjoy working with my students and I strive to serve them well in the classroom. Here I am, however, being punished for making the decision to teach at a struggling school. If I'd chosen to pursue job opportunities in suburban classrooms, my work might be easier and my head wouldn't be on the chopping block. I wouldn't be worried that I committed career hara-kiri by opting to take a position where I felt there was a real need I could fulfill.

In my 19 months at this school, two students or former students have committed suicide, four have been murdered, twelve of my students have had ankle monitors and parole officers, and a handful of my freshmen girls have had babies. I've seen two teachers and a security guard injured breaking up altercations, there have been weekly physical fights in the halls, and I had a student bring a knife to class with the intention of stabbing me. Many of my students' lives are like the epilogues of sad newspaper articles - Do you wonder what happens to the children of murder victims or adults who are sent to prison? Lie awake pondering where the toddler found wandering the street by himself will be in twelve years? I could tell you.

I don't mean to make excuses or come off as a pessimist. Some of my students have wonderfully supportive parents. There are kids who work tirelessly to succeed. I have many, many delightful pupils who make coming to work a pleasure. The fact is though, that students' home lives do affect their performance. If home life didn't affect behavior and academic achievement, then I and a lot of other parents out there could exhale, stop worrying that too much TV will lead to mushy brains, serve three meals a day of cake and ice cream, and allow our children to raise themselves. That's not the case though. A student who is worried about being pregnant, or her brother getting locked up, or the food stamps running out before the end of the month is not focused on school. If all the adults in her family have managed to eke out a living without graduating from high school then she may not feel the impetus to finish either.

I don't have all the answers, but I do know that the solution to fixing our failing schools is far more complex than simply firing most of the teachers who work in them. The vast majority of teachers I work with - not all, but most - are dedicated professionals who are committed to doing anything necessary to improve our students' chances of success in the world. Abruptly removing half the adults who have worked to connect with students will lead to a chaos that will be extraordinarily detrimental to the children who most need stability and consistency in their lives. To initiate that bedlam based on one form of standardized test and the review of a committee that spent less than a full day actually touring the school is criminal.


Christina said...

I've been sitting here for the last ten minutes trying to think of something to say. I'm coming up short (at least with anything appropriate for your blog). I am outraged.

Sarah said...

I'm with Christina. It's hard to find the words. In Chicago we are facing many of the same problem and the answer here so far has been to close the failing schools and disperse the students to non-failing schools. Definitely doesn't erase the problems that they face at home that you so accurately describe. I took a course once in which the professor dedicated her work to researching how we can encourage adolescents to connect to school and her answers were... (in short) mentoring, leadership opportunities for the students, etc. Mentoring is one of the few things that has repeatedly been shown to have significant impact on some of these students' lives. Big Brothers Big Sisters. Everyone should sign up. That's all I got. Good luck Betsy and you are a wonderful person for putting yourself in this difficult but crucial career position. I hope that you are able to retain your job and continue to offer the kids your caring support.

Ed said...

I wish you luck and hope you can keep your job, you are one of the few teachers who attemp to teach and not just baby sit for kids whose parents couldn't give a rats "A" for them. Keep your chin up. Maybe you shoud send your letter to the local papers????

Carrietracy said...

It is completely outrageous. I can't imagine why anyone would think that bright young minds are the solution, given how hard it is to teach, much less, teach well. Here in NJ things are just as ugly, with the governor cutting 23 million dollars in state aid to Camden (really a 15 million dollar cut, plus a refusal to renew the 8 million dollar surplus they've been using). What the heck does he think is going to happen there? Where exactly is the poorest city in the state going to come up with 23 million dollars? Oh right, they're not. It is unthinkable. Incidents like what's happening at your school, and what is happening with funding cuts in other areas make me feel like people in this country are just okay with sacrificing the well-being of its citizens, because I just can't imagine how they think their actions will improve the situation.

jana kelly said...

god, i'm so sorry about all this. i think it's ridiculous the way the government is trying to fix things in education by cutting funding and firing teachers. how much lower is this system going to fall before it completely collapses and we have to start over from zero?

Anonymous said...

God bless teachers and their kids. Please send this in to the paper.

cindy said...

amen. and i third the idea of sending this to your local paper.