River Deep, Mountain High

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 02 2011

If I Were the Coach, “Ed Reform” Would Not Make the Cut

As the hazy month of October rolls up, I’m starting to feel a bit of the wear and tear of teaching. Granted, my second year is going really well compared to last year, but this profession is still terribly tiring! I took my first day off on Monday because I was nursing a more-severe-than-usual ankle injury on top of an impending cold and I wanted to be on top of my game for basketball tryouts at the end of the week. I’m the assistant coach for our boys’ basketball team, which is a joy but also takes away a lot of the “spare” time I didn’t have in the first place, so it keeps me on my toes.

Yesterday, we held a one-day tryout where we had nearly 80 boys trying out for fewer than 20 spots.  It was intense! It was structured in a clever way where we utilized community members to help run individual skill sessions that allowed the coaches to evaluate each player in a fair, thorough manner. The whole affair went really smoothly. It hasn’t gotten any easier to cut kids from the team, but I think they all felt like they had a rigorous tryout and a chance to show us what they are made of.  It was really cool to see the head coach bring in some guys who can serve as older mentors yet still hoop. As he messaged to the kids, you don’t have to choose between being a good athlete or being a good student. Heck, I wanted to be an NBA player when I was 13 too, but that doesn’t rule out getting to college the old-fashioned way!

Having coached last year, I was excited to see how much the returning 7th graders (now in 8th) grew and developed during the off-season. Some of the boys even ran a few plays from last season of their own volition!  There is definitely something to be said about the value of building relationships with students especially in the awkward, transitional middle school years. No, they won’t act perfectly and, yes, they’ll still occasionally curse at each other, but seeing them respect you enough to correct themselves and to make an effort to act right means a lot. You see, these kids may make the team but if nothing changes, most won’t make the cut- and I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout no ball game…

That’s not to say I do not have faith in their abilities; quite the opposite. However, I almost teared up after dropping off four students at their homes and I probably would have if I weren’t so p*ssed off. Hearing the boys talk about “the projects” and seeing even more of the “other side” of town than I have previously really drives it home for me. To see the odds these boys face daily is appalling. The fact that they can be bright, athletic, talented, and respectful and yet have such slim chances at realizing their potential ticks me off. I’m censoring my language because I know my mom and aunt read my blog, but they’re likely more angered then even I am- that’s why my mom adopted me! It makes no sense that in the year 2011, there are children in America who are treated as if they are worthless. This makes no sense at all.

Now, I am an even-tempered person, but I get angry every time I read an article that touts a “miracle” school for making “poor black kids” proficient on a standardized test. What reformers can’t seem to comprehend is that you can care about children while believing poverty is a problem without using poverty as an excuse for the low achievement of minority students. Many people in power act as if holding this view is some sort of doublethink straight out of Orwell’s 1984. Let me say it again: POVERTY IS NOT AN EXCUSE, but POVERTY IS A PROBLEM! Currently, I’m led to believe that if education reformers could test prep kids enough to reach 80% proficiency or 100% proficiency (or whatever the go is this week), they would celebrate the feat as if poverty was no longer a relevant issue. NEWSFLASH: it still is! We forget that the point of making schools “better” is to improve lives of children and families, not to inflate the value of colleges and/or test prep companies.

Yeah I said it.

Am I so wrong on this point? Am I missing something? Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t make the cut? This year, I tell my students that if they try to fight another one of my students in my presence, it is as if they are trying to fight me, and I don’t lose fights. I’m thinking I should apply a similar policy to self-appointed reformers of education: “if you are not fighting for my students, then you are fighting against my students, which means you are fighting against me; I don’t lose fights.”

To be continued… ;-)

8 Responses

  1. CY

    Great post. Just getting our kids to proficiency really isn’t going to change their circumstances.

  2. Sandy

    Fight the good fight to the end. All the elite rhetoric just distracts me from being in the moments with my students. Those ego-drivien, self righteous deformers can not more relate to what we do than a man in the moon. That must royally piss them off to no end. When control freaks can’t control, they become very cranky and just keep pushing harder. Do NOT give up the good fight.

  3. excellent point! Stay strong!! Here is my idea of the day (for an English class): have an “angry box,” like a “suggestion box.” If a student acts angry, have them write about it and deposit it in the box. It’d probably take the whole period, though.

    • Thanks all for the comments and encouragement! @Elly, I really like the “angry box” idea. I was planning to do something similar for general input but the added disciplinary reflection is useful.


  5. Ross Jensen

    Powerful post. Looking forward to the “to be continued …”!

  6. Taylor

    I agree 100%. Maybe poverty is correlated with low achievement STATISTICALLY, but that doesn’t mean it is a cause of low achievement. The people working to give these students a fair chance can be happy knowing that they are contributing to a change that will hopefully inspire kids to pursue their dreams. By providing support, caring, and motivation, these students will have a much better chance than they would without these things.

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Remove Barriers, Raise the Bar

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