River Deep, Mountain High

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 22 2012

A Double-Edged Sword

It’s nice to be reminded that I’m a competent individual; especially in light of the many challenges a teacher faces in a rural, low-income area. At the same time, I wish there wasn’t an inverse relationship between praise for the teacher and kudos for the kids. According to conventional wisdom (in some crowds) charter schools and TFA “proved” that low-income, minority students could learn. Yeah, I could tell you that based on my own experience and those of the amazingly talented peers I went to college with. Personally, I think this is absurd, but it’s an unfortunate reality of the current framing of the education reform debate. Consultants and observers overrun my school, a Title 1 school, from the state department trying to figure out why our test scores are so low to curriculum companies who have plenty of advice for math and language but not a whole lot of help for science. It’s okay, I’m used to it.

In my previous post, I lamented the lack of attention directed towards high-achieving students. Why don’t more people ask what distinguishes a successful student instead of solely trying to motivate and improve teachers? Would that not be a more direct proxy? At the same time, my desire is partially fueled by irritation that my colleagues, the vast majority of whom are very knowledgeable, passionate, and dedicated, are constantly scrutinized on every detail from the marker color of the daily objective to the usage of group learning. I am often frustrated because I know that I could use certain strategies in my little sister’s public school in Maine, for example, and appear to be an expert educator, whereas techniques sometimes find little success in the context of the Delta. Honestly, sometimes I just want to be left alone and given a break.

Recently, however, I’ve realized the problem with this mentality. It’s possible that observers are simply trying to keep me motivated, but I cringe when I get praise for a lesson I know could have been better for my students. Moreover, when observers comment to colleagues and me that we’re essentially doing well given the circumstances, I think about the principles backing “no excuses,” “whatever it takes,” and “high expectations.” I don’t want to get blamed for everything as if I’m the reason some of my students can’t read, but I also don’t want outsiders to write them off as disrespectful, low-achieving minority students. To be sure, it’s a double-edged sword.

Last week, one of my boys told me that a woman had told his group that she can see why “black children are failing.” Now, you can take this in two ways: Obama-like or outrage. On the one hand, the kids were likely playing around and not listening to the lesson, leading to a lack of comprehension. On the other hand, WTF!? 14-year-olds do not under any circumstances need to hear that kind of negative reinforcement. I don’t want my kids further internalizing the stereotype that they are stupid, lazy, and likely to amount to nothing in life! Don’t get me wrong, I occasionally have to take a harsh tone with my students to let them know I expect their best, but the message is framed differently. My own academic achievement suffered temporarily when I realized that society didn’t expect much from black males; I don’t want that for my students. That’s why I’m here.

A major part of TFA’s theory of change champions the positive impact of mentors who hold low-income students to high expectations and instill a sense of self-worth and pride to help them attain said expectations. The major tension I find in this mindset is that we cannot ignore those circumstances which make high levels of achievement so gosh darn difficult! I want the best for ALL of my 125 students; there is no doubt there. At the same time, I’ve seen what my kids are up against in a society with the deck stacked against them. Nothing angers me more than knowing that my strongest students are receiving less than the optimal education because of their lower-achieving, often poor-behaving classmates. You can call this view elitist, but I won’t take your view seriously until you can do my job for one month and come to a different conclusion! All children have skills and talents to contribute, but there is a time and place for everything, and I worry that my high-achievers will remain trapped because they are dragged down by negative influences. It’s not fair to them that they can earn A’s through memorization, answering an occasionally question, and follow directions. ALL CHILDREN can and should be able to meet this baseline standard. I want to push my students to a higher level of rigor- I just wish I had more time and fewer students…they deserve better. Much better.

To be continued.

2 Responses

  1. Andrea Jones

    Thank you for writing this. Yes. Exactly.

  2. YES.

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Remove Barriers, Raise the Bar

Mississippi Delta
Middle School

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