Thursday, September 30, 2010

"We have met the enemy...and he is us"

I truly want this quote to not be true. I want to believe that our poor education system is not the fault of those of us who work diligently with our children every day, but over the last week or two, I am beginning to wonder.

Waiting for Superman has stirred up all kinds of conversations around our educational system. The film has shown people that not all families and children have the same opportunities. It talks about the desperation of parents as they hope and pray that their child is chosen to attend a school that can offer their child a quality education. It speaks of and shows good classrooms and teachers, but it also recognizes that there are teachers and school systems who are failing our kids. The film talks a lot about charter schools that have done well, like KIPP Academy and Harlem Success Prep...schools that recognized children were failing and faltering and did something huge and immediate.

Yet, after the film was released...after Oprah did her segment...and after NBC has created the conversation about Education Nation, Twitter blew up each time with teachers screaming, "We're under attack!!"

First of all, no where has it said that all teachers are terrible. No where have I heard anyone say that a teacher's job isn't challenging. My conclusion is that these teachers who are screaming so loudly have never set foot in the schools I have been a part of...and I would bet money that they wouldn't put their child in a school like some of the ones I've been in. However, if they have been in those schools and still feel like defending all teachers, then yes, I think they should go, too.

I have never been a classroom teacher. I have after school programs. And just from the small number of kids with many different learning levels and different behavior needs, I truly respect a teacher who can engage the diversity of 25 students. I have seen teachers who do it. Some who win their kids over with kindness and some who show very tough love. They build relationships with the kids and their parents. They respect the kids and they respect the art of teaching. They go home every day and tirelessly work often until 10:00 at night grading papers, writing lesson plans, and trying to squeeze in some time to read about new ideas that can help them teach better. They have a love for the kids in their classroom and a desire to see all kids succeed. They deserve the highest honor and they are not compensated or acknowledged near enough...and no, the conversation shouldn't be that they should put more effort in. They are already doing that.

But we have to be real. The "bad" teachers create difficulties for the teachers who work so hard. Studies talk about kids who have three "bad" teacher are at a huge disadvantage. So after a few teachers haven't done a good job, the other teachers have to work even harder to pick up the slack. How is that an effective system??

So, what defines a "bad" teacher?

When I first started in the education side of our non-profit, I had (and took) a lot of time to volunteer in the schools so I would know how things worked. I spent many hours in a day at one school. I was there so often, I became a part of the school culture. No one changed their behavior because I walked through the hall. The little room where I tutored kids was a storage area behind a chain link fence in a little "loft" so I was able to hear what went on in other classrooms.


  • 4th grade classroom teacher-- "Stupid! If you were smart enough to bring your glasses, you would be able to see the board! Yes, move up here to the front so maybe you won't be so dumb."
  • 6th grade male teacher-- didn't speak Spanish, but had a classroom of bilingual students. Three boys made his life very difficult. They saw his trigger buttons and pushed...in Spanish. After bursting out in a tirade (which I could hear from my area), he sometimes pushed them as if he were instigating a fight with them. I'm not sure why they never broke out into a punching match with him
  • 3rd grade teacher--talked on her cell phone during class. When a child didn't do well on their test or misbehaved, she called the child to the front of the class and called the parent in the middle of the classroom asking the parent to talk to her child about this or that behavior and handed the phone to the child in front of his/her peers
  • 2nd grade teacher--punished a child by making her sit beneath her desk for a couple of days. When parents got involved, the principal explained they really couldn't do anything. When I questioned the principal, she explained that it takes about 3 years to fire a teacher. (and that's *if* there's really good documentation)
  • pre-K teacher--as I sat in the hall waiting to tutor my next kindergartener, the pre-K class walked by in their straight line. They stopped in front of me to wait for their door to be opened by the teacher. Though I'm not sure what the little boy did, the teacher began slapping him back and forth on his shoulder in a flurry. When I took the information to the principal, his response: "Well, I've never had a complaint about her before and I've worked with her for 10 years." As far as I know, she was never even reprimanded.
  • 1st grade teacher--said her job was only from 7:00-3:00 and the principal was making her do more than she could get done. If they were going to do that, she was going to take it out of the time of her classroom. So, she sat at her desk grading papers while giving the kids busy-work to do during their "instructional" time. Sometimes, she would have me, a volunteer, work with small groups of kids so she could record grades or grade papers. She always left right at 3:00.
The first four scenarios were in one school during one school year. The last two scenarios were at another school during a different school year. I could give other examples...like the principal at a high school who tried to "let go" two teachers, one who was ineffective and one who was sleeping in the classroom, only to be told that the administrative office lost the paperwork so he had no documentation...and then the teachers sued for their jobs and are still working. I have others as well...but they are all second hand stories told to me by other teachers. Since they are not my personal experience, I won't bother sharing those.


I know the teachers have challenges. Even some of the scenarios I provided show that. However, it is our children who suffer.

Let's stop complaining about, "Teachers are being attacked," and, instead, talk about the real problems...getting resources...accessing technology...being forced to teach to the test instead of exposing kids to learning and thinking...school systems that are too big...principals who can't or don't fire bad teachers...

Everyone is talking about privatization of schools and how that will destroy our schools. Though I do have some concerns about that, my question is, "Really?! Can it get any worse than 60% dropout rate?? Can we do any worse by our kids when many of them are graduating from high school with 2nd grade reading levels??" I don't know that Bill Gates, Cory Booker, Geoffrey Canada, and Mark Zuckerberg have all of the answers, but I'm willing to listen if they want to create the dialogue...and they have more pull than teachers to get things done (I know we don't want to hear it and it's not fair, but it's true).

The thing is, I've been in the inner city for 15 years. I have watched a generation of children get lost in a system that doesn't work. We don't have time for "with all deliberate speed..." I think we've ALL been waiting for superman...and at least some of us are waking up and figuring out that he isn't coming. We can't keep hoping and waiting for our school system to change. The kids and families in my community deserve better schools NOW. So what are we going to do?

I'm ready for the conversation. I'm ready for the battle. I'll fight for good teachers. I'm happy to look at quality public schools and quality charter schools (which *are* public, by the way) and let's figure out what is working. Let's figure out how the successful schools that are serving poor and minority children are doing it...because there are some that are. Let's do whatever it takes to create those same qualities--money, teachers, legislation, etc. in all schools.

Are you in??
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