My head is swimming with data. I’m trying to block from my mind the email I just received from a friend telling me that California ranks dead last in student/teacher ratios, with more students per classroom than anywhere else in the country. Instead, I talk to Barbara, a lively woman with a warm smile who’s taught English for the last ten years at a neighborhood public high school in South Central Los Angeles. Before that, she spent a decade at a variety of public schools in low-income neighborhoods. (Fearing repercussions from administration, she asked that I not use her full name or the name of her school.) “We need to be honest about what’s really going on here,” she says over a glass of water—though I offer to buy her a coffee, she’s so focused on our conversation that she doesn’t even order anything. “Because from the moment I started teaching twenty years ago, it became incredibly evident what the problem really was. The children can’t read.” She is distraught, running a hand through her long hair. “I kept saying at every meeting I went to from the very first day, what are we doing about the fact that our children can’t read?”
In her opinion, testing only makes a disastrous situation worse. “What you have now is think tanks staffed by people who’ve never set foot in a classroom or who were there for two or three years and then quit. And they’re setting benchmarks, and threatening people if they don’t meet whatever the new standards are this week. One of the most frustrating things is to be in the classroom for twenty years and see the enormous amount of money being spent on new standards, new tests, when it’s incredibly clear what the kids need to know. They need to know how to read. They need to know how to do basic math. And I’m sure there are plenty of kids at other schools who come in knowing how to do that and ready for a bigger challenge. But where I teach, a lot of the kids first of all went to crappy elementary schools, and then on top of that, for a lot of my students, there was a lot of trauma going on in the home, a lot of dislocation. I have a lot of students who really didn’t have a childhood. They’ve had parents who are ill, they’ve had violence in their community. So they missed that foundational learning experience.”
In her opinion, “scaffolded” work, or readings made easier by shortening them and writing made easier with fill-in-the-blanks forms, don’t address the real problem, which is that the students aren’t ready for the curriculum in the first place. “If kids read at below a fourth grade level, it’s impossible for them to access the text. I don’t care how much you’re scaffolding. We need to put everything aside and give them reading they can enjoy. We need to ask them what they’re ready to learn. Instead, every day, we ask them to come into a school where they’re going to feel like they’re failing every single day. Every day. For a week, for a month, for a year. How long would you last at a job where you felt like you were failing every single day? And we wonder why the dropout rate is so high.”
In her opinion, a start might be to stop age-level grading and start tracking kids by what they actually know and what they need to learn next. If they can’t read, they need to drop everything and do an intensive year of reading only, even if it means being out of a traditional school for a year. But in this immersive reading year, they’d get books they could access and enjoy. They’d learn to build their confidence as readers. When they returned to the system, they’d be much better able to read close to grade level—and they’d have a year of positive reading experience under their belts.
She’s impatient with schools and systems that describe themselves as data-driven. “I sat in a room with an administrator who’s presenting a roomful of teachers with all this data. All these charts, all these statistics telling us that our children couldn’t read very well. And he said, ‘You know whose fault it is? Yours.’ And I raised my hand. I said, ‘How dare you talk to us like that? Do you think we don’t know this? We face this every day. We are the ones who go home and cry every night. And you spent millions of dollars to tell us something that we could have told you over a cup of coffee?’”
The administrator didn’t last long. Barbara, on the other hand, is still in the classroom. For all her frustration, she’s committed to her school. “It’s been my privilege to be part of the South Central community, to be embraced by my students and by the staff.”
For Barbara, education starts with her students. “I thank my students every day for coming to school. I know how hard it is for some of them to get here. I ask them every semester for a report card so they can tell me how to do a better job. And my job, in my opinion, is to create a safe space for them to admit they don’t know something. My job is to give my students an experience where they can re-define themselves as intelligent.”
More than anything, she wants the culture of blame to stop. “I think we forget that school began as a process of asking questions without answers. The problems here are not unsolvable. But we need to be honest about what they really are. And to do that we need to listen. We need to listen to the children who are in front of us. And then, maybe then, we’ll be able to start to find answers.”
I don’t know how you could measure the number of lives she’s changed by giving kids a safe space to learn and a chance to re-define themselves as intelligent. For all the frustrations, the budget cuts, the craziness, she’s never given up on her kids. After twenty years, she’s still in the classroom. She is present. She is listening. She hasn’t walked away. In spite of everything, she considers it a privilege to teach.
I’ve read mountains of books about teaching techniques, but I swear, I learn as much from Barbara as from anyone.