Shakespeare’s Sister has hit the wall. An English teacher in a low-income community in Colorado, she’s in her sixth year in the classroom and blogs pseudonymously at the Daily Kos. When she emailed me her newest post, it stopped me cold. What she wrote could have been taken from my journal last year:
…all of my years teaching have been in high-poverty, low-income, under-funded schools. That means that not only are my students affectively needy, they are needy in the educational sense too. They have various – and significant – learning gaps. They need an incredible amount of support – in both senses – to move them from their current level of achievement to, well, not where they should be, but somewhere better. Why not where they should be? Because I am human. Because I cannot, no matter what the storybooks say, increase a student’s achievement level more than one grade level in one year.
At this point, someone might say, “Well, if you were a good teacher, you could.” No. I am a good teacher.
To read the whole post, click here, but I’d like to freeze-frame on this statement because it encapsulates, in a nutshell, the wretched mindfuck that teaching in an underserved community has become: a toxic combination of a “no excuses” demand for excellence on the one hand while on the other, a failure to provide the conditions in which excellence is likely to occur.
One of the most frustrating aspects of her job, she says, is that she is continually fighting her students’ lack of interest in her AP class, something for which our current educational culture would blame her though in fact most of her students were placed in the class without having signed up for an AP. In other words, to use my terminology, she has students who are below the trust line, what I would call “hesitant” students, and she has not been given the time with them to create that trust. Here’s how she describes them:
1) Generally, they don’t like to read.
2) 90% of them don’t even want to be in the class.
3) I’ve won them over and they work hard, but their ability levels are, in some cases, extremely debilitating.
4) Some of them pay more attention to and remember more about “Sharkeisha” (apparently a Facebook phenomenon for teenagers) than they do their homework (if they even do their homework).
To this I would add my memory of the dismayingly high number of my students who did not turn in work—even at times when they did much of the work in class—which was a key cause of burnout for me. I have rarely felt despair as profound as the wave of utter, helpless misery that swept over me in my fourth year, when, after having had three weeks in class with support and conferences to design and complete a final assignment, half of the students did not complete the assignment and many did nothing at all.
All I could think was: I’ve failed. And also: I should have worked harder. And also I can’t. I remember sitting in a meeting with the English department when we were trying to decide whose classes had to get bigger due to the next wave of budget cuts, and one of my teacher friends simply could not stop crying as more students were added to her classes. Already, she was at her limit. Other teachers reminded her that they were at their limit, too, and that being at our limit was a luxury we could not afford.
But the truth is that sometimes as a teacher and as a human being you do hit your limit. In our current education culture, that’s called an excuse. But some times there are things a reasonable person actually cannot do, especially if they are not given resources like time and support. If I tell you that I can’t run a 4-minute mile tomorrow morning even though it will inspire my students, that’s not an excuse. It’s reality. Here’s another reality: according to the L.A. Times, 45% of teachers at middle- and high school charters in L.A. will quit each year. This statistic is borne out anecdotally by my experiences this year visiting schools, where many teachers tell me that half the staff has left since last year.
High teacher turnover is not a charter phenomenon alone. But many so-called “no excuses” charters in low-income communities are based on the assumption that motivating students is simply a matter of teachers trying hard enough—even though there is no strategy that’s had broad success in motivating students who are hesitant or resistant learners, many of whom wash out of schools with very high academic standards because they are flunking so many classes. “Teach Like A Champion” techniques are useful for generating a functional classroom with a maximum of students participating. But as any teacher knows who’s taught in a school that uses these techniques, solid classroom participation is not the same thing as meaningful, independent motivation, the kind that will get a hesitant, struggling student to write a paper or do difficult reading independently. Or finish college. Nobody—repeat, nobody—knows how to do this. A ton of good people are trying incredibly hard, including many at excellent charters. But nobody has figured it out yet. If you have, tell me and I will shout it from the rooftops.
“Do I even want to fight this fight any more?” Shakespeare’s Sister writes in her post, agonizing over whether she should develop other skills or teach in a more affluent community where she’ll have students who don’t come in so many years behind and will also have more resources to help them.
This same morning, I also listened to the OECD webinar discussing the PISA test scores of countries around the world; this triannual international test measures student progress in math, science and reading. As usual, the US scored badly, coming in far behind high-scoring Shanghai, Korea, Japan and Singapore as well as non-Asian countries like Switzerland, the Netherlands and Liechtenstein, where teachers make a princely $100,000 a year. There are a whole bunch of things to say about these scores—the mind reels—but what struck me was at the end of the webinar, the Deputy Director of the OECD, Andreas Schleicher, quickly outlined a few major “take-away” points after analyzing all of the data. One, which I’ve heard before, is that the “volume of resources,” in other words, money, that a country devotes to education does not have a significant impact on scores as long as they’ve passed an adequate level of funding.
But what did matter was how those resources were spent. And looking at the high-achieving countries, the best way to spend them, he said, was on the working conditions of teachers. He emphasized that countries with successful educational systems pay teachers well and give them plenty of time on the job to collaborate and learn. We do neither of those things here. Shakespeare’s Sister does not have time during the school day to work with other teachers in order to better understand how to reach reluctant students. At her last job, she had success with “looping” students, so that they had her for two years, giving her time to create trust. I’ve heard this from other teachers in low-income communities as well. Does looping work? Who knows? No teacher here has had time to study it. Her school now doesn’t do it because they’re preoccupied with raising test scores. In most other countries, teachers spend about half of their school day meeting with other teachers, creating curriculum and planning; only half is spent in front of the class. In the U.S., we don’t give teachers time to do much of anything but be in front of students, which means at you are in a state of continual crisis management. And yet the data tell us that giving teachers time to think, learn and collaborate pays off. What are we waiting for?
We also do not pay teachers in low-income communities more or give them more resources, as successful countries do. In fact, we do the opposite. Schleicher also observed that successful countries try to avoid measures that “cut into the professionalism” of teachers (hmm, like checklist-based evaluation systems?)
Hold all of this data in your mind while thinking of Shakespeare’s Sister as she struggles to get through the day at her low-income, high-poverty, underfunded school.
And so, as a culture, what are we going to do? Are we going to devote our resources where the international data are telling us they should go, toward creating sustainable professional working conditions for teachers that encourage them to learn, grow and meet the needs of their students?
Or are we just going to pour billions of dollars into testing and evaluations so that teachers can hear, over and over, that our working conditions don’t matter—that the problem is that we’re not good enough?
And if Shakespeare’s Sister burns out and quits, how does that help our children?