When I was growing up, I remember having conversations with my friends at school about things we had in common. These conversations were innocuous enough, often revolving around what video game our parents had just bought us, what movie we had watched that weekend, or any number of other things that children from a non-poverty stricken background or area would take for granted.
After two weeks of teaching here in Colorado Springs, I feel like one of my kids. We play football together every morning before school, I’m their Economics and Globalization teacher during, and I coach them in co-ed softball after the academic day concludes. We play, learn, have fun, and engage with each other so much in any given day, that I’ve realized that I’m becoming blind to some of the stark realities that I see.
Children from low-income backgrounds and poverty stricken areas should not be treated any differently than any other child, but unfortunately, they are. But not in my classroom. At our school Open House, I told parents and guardians that I expected their children to work harder, dream bigger, and strive for more than anyone else, because the barriers they face in the next generation are so vast that only those who challenge themselves are likely to make it.
But to completely ignore the differences in the realities of children in different zip codes does a disservice to the children we seek to help. A few days ago, I heard three of my students talking to each other after class, exuberantly discussing something that excited them. I walked over and asked “What’s got you all so riled up?” I imagined that they must have been talking about a new video game, or even a movie that they couldn’t wait to see this weekend, but I was wrong. J said, “I got some new Nike socks last weekend!” My students were excited because one of their peers had gotten a new pair of six dollar socks. Comments like the one that I heard that day remind me of the immense burdens that almost all of my students and their families face on a daily basis.
So, while my students are undoubtedly as smart, hardworking, and ambitious as their more well to do counterparts, does it matter? I sure hope so. I’m doing everything I can on the education front to help put these students on a new trajectory, but we have to recognize that in order to help our upcoming generation, we must begin to further address societal ills like poverty. Those ills continue to drag our children down and stifle the possibilities for what they can achieve.
Today was my first day as a teacher. Granted, I spent the entire summer teaching kids and doing my best to “learn” how to be a teacher, but there was always someone holding my hand along the way. That ended today.
I started my teaching career today at a school where 85% of students found themselves eligible for free and reduced lunch in 2010. I started my teaching career in an area where most people would simply write off as too far gone. I started my teaching career in front of children that conventional wisdom says will not, and cannot, ever make it to college.
But I saw none of that this morning. I started class by talking about dreams; specifically, my own dream of attending college. Growing up where I did, achieving my dream of going to the University of North Carolina never seemed like the most likely outcome for my education. I told my kids about how people had told me that I couldn’t make it, that I wasn’t good enough, and how they said that people from “around here” didn’t go “there”. After I finished telling my story, I asked the students to look up on the board and tell me what they saw – as they looked forward, I pulled up a picture of me on graduation day.
I gave my kids today the best advice that I ever had given to me. When someone tells you that you can’t, and that you aren’t good enough, say to them the following: Get out of my way, I’m going to prove you wrong. One student stood up in class and said she wanted to be a doctor, and though people had told her she couldn’t, she now wanted to tell them to “get out of her way”. Numerous other students stood up and shared their ambitions and aspirations for a better life beyond what they had been born into.
To end class, I showed my students a video of John F. Kennedy giving his iconic and infamous speech at Rice University regarding space exploration. I told my students that we were going to the moon this year in my class, and we would settle for nothing less than 100% advanced scores on the end-of-year assessments. Together, we said “This year, we choose to go to the moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” JFK Moon Speech
My students know how hard our journey will be this year, but after watching them internalize the message that they can achieve anything that they set their mind to, I fully believe they are ready to get to work. I know I am.
Bombing Range Road, Kyle, South Dakota. Bombing Range Road does not sound like the name of a residential street, much less the location of a summer math camp aimed at providing remedial and preparatory math skills to local elementary and middle school students. Yet, for a family and group of students living in communities on the Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux Reservation, it is both.
Since arriving in South Dakota to settle in and begin teaching secondary science on the Pine Ridge Reservation, I have sought input from Oglala community members and Teach for America staff members alike regarding the needs and goals of students on the Pine Ridge Reservation. On several occasions, community members and staff members mentioned that a math camp out in the country of the reservation could use some extra help from teachers. While watching the Olympics on cable from inside our air-conditioned living room in the teacher housing neighborhood in Kyle, a fellow corps member and I decided to spend the following day helping out. When we called the math camp’s organizer to tell her we were coming and to ask for directions, she responded by letting us know that our drive would take us nearly 20 miles down a dirt road, but that she’d have lunch and dinner for us and that our help would be greatly appreciated. The next morning, excited and eager to spend time with some students in our community, we turned onto Bombing Range Road and drove down the dirt path into the country, but we could never have anticipated what would await us.
After miles and miles of open prairie without seeing another person or homestead, we finally pulled up to a small, weather worn square house on a hill. Surrounded by a few rusty trailers and broken down cars, it was hard for us to tell whether or not anyone was home; but as soon as we stepped out of our car, we were greeted by another volunteer—the only other volunteer—who gave us a tour of the property. Leading us away from the dusty driveway, the three of us walked past two girls sitting against the front of the house playing percussion instruments, they counted out their complex rhythms with every beat. “Fractions,” noted the volunteer offhandedly. We turned a corner and saw a sea of pitched tents in front of another small structure a few hundred yards from the main house. “This is where the campers sleep and over there’s the outhouse. If you need water to wash your hands or for drinking, there’s a spigot right here,” the volunteer informed us that this house had no indoor plumbing as casually as she had swatted at a large wasp.
Mentioning that it was over a hundred outside, the volunteer showed us up a few wooden steps and through the front door. From the entrance, we could see the entirety of the house—the living room, kitchen, hallway and two bedrooms. Jennifer, the camp’s organizer, was also the owner of this house and a mother of eight. She emerged from a group of twenty students who seemed to take up all the space in the house and introduced herself as she directed a few of the campers to put down their fraction-to-decimal conversion manipulatives and start preparing lunch for the whole group. For many of these students, math camp was much more twenty five hours a week of extra math help, it provided them warm bedded tents and three meals a day that were missing at their houses across the reservation.
During the fifteen minute period allotted for hand washing and water bottle filling outside before afternoon math centers began, I sat down with Jennifer to find out what inspires her to welcome so many students into her already overflowing house. She told me that this was her fourth year hosting, leading, planning and executing the two week long math camp on her property that was used as a missile testing ground for the United States Military during World War II. Despite what most people would consider insurmountable challenges—a house without running water, air conditioning or quick access to state or federal roads—Jennifer does whatever it takes to make sure her children and the children in her community are given the opportunity to succeed in school with the excellence and rigor easily afforded to their more affluent peers; and she does it all without pay.
As a beginning teacher, I have spent weeks researching national models of excellence—teachers across the United States who have achieved an incredible amount of growth in the classroom and done it in a culturally responsive and sustainable manner, but I have been missing the models of excellence that are staring me, staring all new teachers, right in the face. Jennifer’s story and the smiling faces of more than twenty elementary and middle school students that study math in her house on Bombing Range Road should act as a reminder to all of us that being leaders in education reform means getting our hands dirty, realizing how much we still have left to learn and finding ways to emulate and support the passionate and dedicated leaders already present within the communities we serve.
Teachers, administrators, policymakers, students, and casual observers of our education system all recognize the immense complexities that go along with adequately educating all children in our nation. But recently, debate surrounding education reform has found a convenient scapegoat for the bulk of problems in our system – bad teachers.
It’s probably safe to say that most of us have had at least a couple of bad teachers during our time spent in school. I can think of a few off the top of my head. But when I consider the overall educational experience that I had growing up, I fondly remember many more good teachers than bad ones. That comes from someone who went to public school from Kindergarten through the 12th grade, in an especially rural and poor area of western North Carolina.
I’ve spent the last two months training to become a teacher, working through numerous educational seminars and spending countless hours meticulously planning lessons, but the way that I’ve learned the most is from other teachers. The passion and determination that so many of the teachers I have met this summer show after 10, 20, and even close to 30 years of teaching, still amazes me.
Each teacher I have met in Phoenix and Colorado Springs exhibits a unique style of their own, but they all operate under a few core assumptions. Students learn best when material is engaging; earning the respect of your students is paramount; and showing a student that you care about them goes a long way in building a sustainable classroom culture. The teachers I have met do not think of themselves as special, but rather, just as normal educators, doing their job to the best of their ability.
When we discuss ways to reform an education system that doesn’t work for too many of our children, I think it is important that we progress beyond mere platitudes. Are there bad teachers that inhibit the learning of students? Yes. But do they constitute a majority in our system? No. Most teachers are in this profession for the right reasons, and work hard each day to help their students achieve to the best of their abilities. We should thank them more often.
We do a disservice to our children and to our nation by oversimplifying the problems of our education system. We as a nation would be well served to dedicate as much energy towards combatting other issues, like poverty, that we know hinder student learning and overall confidence. Improving the quality of instruction that teachers deliver in the classroom is an important part of the solution, but teachers are not the biggest part of the problems we face.
I believe that together we can find solutions for many of the problems that currently exist within education, but only if we have an honest debate about what those problems actually are.
As someone who is passionate about seeing each of my students have academic success, it is devastating to face reality. This reality is the one where a student living in a low-income area of Chicago gets closer and closer to becoming a statistic. It’s the one where, as an educator, you realize that you are a human instead of a super-hero, and that you may not be able to give enough. This is a reality that is not unique to Chicago. It’s not unique to urban areas, and it’s not unique to any one state. And this is the reality that I faced this week.
At the beginning of summer school, I took an interest in one particular student. He was the most polite 3rd grader I’ve ever seen and he was very clear when he told me, “I want to be a doctor, and I know that I can do it. All I have to do is work hard.” This same student was struggling to keep up. Many kindergarteners read better than him, and when faced with a math quiz, he struggled to understand what was being asked of him. In his nine years of living, he had experienced more struggles than I will ever have to face. But he wanted one thing more than anything else: to go to 4th grade.
For a kid who had been through so much, he never lost his upbeat spirit and drive, but I knew that he wasn’t ready for 4th grade. It was my job to tell him. So a few days ago, I did just that, and I realized how much responsibility I had to bring reality to his attention without breaking his spirit. I went to his house with two of my co-teachers in Gage Park, one of the roughest neighborhoods in Chicago. We sat down with him and his grandmother, a woman juggling numerous health problems and raising two children who had recently been dropped off by their mother, perhaps permanently. She was anxious to hear whether or not he had passed 3rd grade because he “was really excited about 4th grade.” We showed them all of the progress that he had made over the summer. We talked about what his goals would be and how much work it would take to catch up with his peers. We didn’t have to say any more for the two of them to understand where he stood. If he went to 4th grade, he would struggle even more than he had in 3rd grade. He simply wasn’t ready. I watched as his eyes turned to the floor and his grandmother sighed, explaining that she would do whatever it took to help him succeed. It was in that moment that he knew that nobody was mad at him. Everyone was on his side; his grandmother and his teachers wanted him to become a doctor just as much as he wanted it for himself. Something happened in that tiny living room that afternoon. We all watched as a 3rd grader absorbed the information he had been given and with our help, made a decision. We asked him what he thought he should do next year to catch up. He looked up from the ground and said, “I think I’ll have to work even harder.” Reality was going to empower him instead of defining him.
That day, I had been so nervous about breaking his confidence and his drive that I didn’t see the true importance of the conversation. I didn’t know until later that I had given him a unique gift that can only be given by someone who truly cares. I gave him the gift of reality. Instead of reality lying in the statistics and permanently giving him the feeling of failure, it gave him hope and a sense of ownership over his future. I left knowing that my student’s acceptance of the reality that he faces, a reality that so many kids in our country face every day, is what is going to make the essential change in his life.
The economic costs of the achievement gap are well documented. According to a study by McKinsey, underperforming public schools in America translates to 2.3 trillion dollars of lost potential for the economy and continued failure to address this problem will result in what this same study called “a permanent national recession”.
But the cost to my generation’s future children is a minor tragedy in comparison to the one of Elizabethan proportions the children in our schools are living now. So much of the discourse around education policy uses the long run to measure our progress or lack thereof towards “closing the gap” and “helping the kids”. Right now, however, is of much more concern to me. I saw it everyday this summer at the Teach For America Institute and will see it every school day for the foreseeable future. We are in the midst of a Great Depression of achievement and growth in education. A depression that is ruining the lives of a generation of students all well our schools hemorrhage human capital.
Wages for the profession are continuously pushed down while drop out rates remain atrociously high. Performance on standardized, international tests put us near the bottom of a long list of countries.
And yet, to hear policy elites talk about, the only things preventing us from a permanent revolution in our schools are a few pairs of partisan talking points. Charter schools and teacher unions. Standardized testing and performance pay. Last in, first out and teacher tenure.
All the while, the kids in the classroom at this very moment are ignored in a way that makes my stomach turn. And what strikes me as I prepare to start my life as a full-time teacher is how reminiscent the words of the education reformers from either side of the aisle are to the distractions passed as conventional wisdom during the real Great Depression. During this national disaster, a time when policy leaders focused on a variety of distractions and framed the issue of the national economy in terms of the long run, John Maynard Keynes offered an alternative narrative. He criticized those who “set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the sea is flat again”.
For the kids in the classroom right now, we must not focus on the long run if only we had more charter schools or teacher unions, more standardized testing and performance-based pay, last in, first out policy or finally ridding ourselves of the boogey man of teacher tenure. All these policy points prove misleading in our current conversation. In the long run, we will have already failed the children in our classrooms.
Instead, we need to a spirit of entrepreneurship and experimentation as we search for what works to close the achievement gap right now. Surely, we will hear that the items mentioned previously act as barriers to improvements now, but if we believe this then we must also accept that there is nothing we can do for the kids in the classroom at this moment. And for its many faults, America can be credited as a country that, after it exhausts all of its excuses, answers the most formidable challenges it faces with commensurate courage, optimism, and dedication.
Surely this is a time for us to ignore the excuses offered by the professional education reformers and find in us the courage, optimism, and dedication it will take to serve our kids not just one day, but today.
-Martin A. Cech
I’m almost done teaching the first class ever. Teaching is hard. It’s easy to want to give up when one 3rd grade student is struggling to add 1+7 or when another student has a hard time sounding out words in a book that is written at a 1st grade level. The first student wants to be a math teacher. She believes that someday she will be, as she says, an even better math teacher than me. The second student wants to be a doctor. Every day when he comes into class he tugs on my shirt and says, “Do you think today I will be ready for 4th grade?” It is hard living in a harsh world where most people believe that someone who has difficulty with basic addition can’t run a cash register, let alone become a math teacher. It may seem impossible that a 3rd grader who can’t read the word doctor could possibly be one.
This is my daily reality and I’m left wondering what kind of change I am working for. Some days I catch myself standing in front of the class wondering, “can I change these students’ lives in the next hour? What about by the end of summer school?” Over the past weeks I have been answering all of these questions with a “no.” Then I realized that without a genuine belief that these two students can reach their goals, how could they? I am not working for a change that will last for one class period or one month of summer school. I am working for a change that will affect whole futures and generations.
I made the decision to look at each face every day and picture what they will look like at my age. I picture every child after all of their dreams have come true. I see each student differently, as an individual that is working hard and still has time to reach his or her goals. Every move I make can cause a change, even if I don’t see it that day, that week, or even that year. While I have a lot to learn about being a teacher, I’ve learned a lot about my power to work for change in someone’s life. Without optimism and sincere belief, working for change would be impossible.
Conventional wisdom says to do what is best for you. It says not to take risks, play it safe, and just get by without causing too much of a stir. I just finished one of the toughest experiences that I’ve had in my entire life – spending five weeks teaching fifth grade math in Phoenix, Arizona. This summer, I didn’t follow conventional wisdom, and as I sit in the airport waiting to board a plane back to my region, Colorado, I can say with certitude that I’m glad I didn’t.
Conventional wisdom most likely would have kept me from meeting the exceptional group of students that I had the opportunity to teach this summer. Conventional wisdom would have kept me from getting to know M, a little girl whose father left her family the first week of school. Despite the immense challenges she faced, she withstood her personal trials and tribulations, and exhibited a resiliency that would make anyone swell up with pride. Watching M, a 9 year old who was two grade levels behind in reading, take her situation in stride and become one of our best, most active and invested students in class helps reaffirm why I’m teaching.
Conventional wisdom certainly would have steered me away from E, a young man who, at age ten, already enrolled in anger management classes and struggles to sit still for more than five minutes at a time because he cannot control his frustrations. However, over the course of the summer, E went from the lowest, remedial math-tutoring group, to mastery (over 80%) on the end of summer assessment. Conventional wisdom says that a kid like E can’t make it, but I witnessed firsthand this summer just how patently untrue such conventional means of thought are.
So, conventional wisdom be damned. Take risks. Don’t play it safe. If you need to, cause a stir. Robert Frost ended one of his most famous poems, “The Road Not Taken,” with the following: Two roads, diverged in a yellow wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
I, and my students, took the road less traveled this summer. I know that it will make all the difference.
Here in Phoenix, we spend a great deal of time self-reflecting on ways that we can personally become more effective teachers for our students. We think about innovative strategies that we can implement, behavior management techniques, and a number of other means that will allow us to individually succeed once we return to our regions to teach in the fall. However, today I saw the impact that a team of motivated teachers can make.
In my classroom, I work with a group of three other teachers. We’re a group of extremely different individuals, each of us possessing a unique perspective on why we are here as teachers and how we hope to influence our students on a daily basis. We have distinct personalities and teaching styles, but somehow, at the end of each day, our four styles mesh into one resounding voice that holds our students to the highest of expectations and pushes them to achieve beyond what they think possible.
Three weeks ago, our students were given a math diagnostic test to give us an idea of their ability coming into the summer. Our class averages were low across the board, but a few students exhibited especially underdeveloped mathematical ability for their grade level. It was up to the four of us to ensure that those children were ready for 5th grade by the end of summer school. And that was only 4 weeks away.
One of our students informed us this afternoon that he wouldn’t be able to make it to school next week; his grandmother had just passed away, and he and his family would be returning to Mexico as soon as he left school this afternoon. This student had one of the lowest scores on our initial diagnostic – a 38% – but has worked incredibly hard to gain a better understanding of the concepts each day in our math classes.
Because he could not come next week, it was our responsibility to give this student his end of summer math assessment today. He scored a 94%. After seeing his results, I was absolutely floored – how could four different teachers with such different styles and personalities collectively lead to 56 points worth of growth in such a short time?
The power of partnerships has the potential to effect great change. Our student didn’t grow 56 points in 4 weeks because of anything I did as an individual – he grew because he had a team of teachers who held him to a higher standard than he had ever been exposed to. He grew because he had four people who dedicated numerous hours to figuring out the best way for him to learn as an individual. He grew because we worked together. Because we believed in him, he believed in himself.
That student give me a high-five and walked out of my classroom for the last time this afternoon. I don’t know what he’ll go on to achieve in his life, or if his passion for learning will persist throughout his education, but I do know one thing. He’s ready for 5th grade math.
If I learned anything in my first week of teaching, it is this: Teaching is about the little things. On my first day, I watched helplessly as my lesson plan fell apart 10 minutes of class, my students failed to raise their hands before speaking, and they struggled with material much lower than grade level. But, as the week progressed, so did my students, and I can now say that they are well on their way.
At the end of the week in my classroom, we give out an award in each subject for the Most Valuable Student. This award goes to the person who has raised their hand before speaking, followed directions, exceeded expectations on our assessments, and has overall been an exemplar student. The student who gets this award is given a certificate with their name on it that they can take home and show their parents.
On Friday, one of my students refused to come in the classroom at the beginning of the day. She is one of my brightest and most well behaved, so her refusal to come into the class at the beginning of the day was perplexing. She broke down into tears and told us that she was embarrassed to be at school today, because she had to get her clothes at a yard sale and they didn’t fit, and she knew all the other kids would make fun of her. I looked at a little girl with baggy shorts and an oversized t-shirt who wanted to learn, but was so afraid of how other children would view her that she couldn’t bring herself to even walk in front of them to go to her desk.
We let her stay in the hall until our students broke into small groups so that she wouldn’t have to walk in front of them. She quietly joined her group, dried up her tears, and started contributing to her small math and reading group.
After our small group work, it was time to award our Most Valuable Students for the week. The night before, I had decided that the little girl who had just been crying in the hallway would be receiving my math award for the week. I had been so impressed with her that she stood out in my mind above all other students. I stood up and said, “Today, this award goes to a little girl who has performed incredibly well this week in math. She has raised her hand each time before speaking, helped her classmates when they had questions about our assignments, and she has even made 100 on each one of her end of the day assessments”. The students looked around, anxious to see who would get the award, and I continued, “This little girl is also wearing a very pretty purple shirt today, and I want us all to congratulate her on this award”. She looked down at her shirt and realized that impressive little girl I was talking about was her. The class joined me in clapping for her, and her eyes watered as she giggled with happiness that only a 5th grader could possess.
I may not always accomplish everything I want in a lesson, or convey each concept with perfect clarity, but if I can have at least a few moments like the one I had on Friday, I know this job is worth it. Before she left for the day, she tugged on my shirt and told me, “Mr. Ingram, you don’t know how proud my mommy will be,” and hugged my neck. Teaching is about the little things.