From: "ryosh656" <firstname.lastname@example.org>    Dear Leigh,
To: "Richard Geib" <email@example.com>
Subject: You are part of the problem (another perspective).
Date: Mon, 24 Jul 2000 21:34:52 -0700
Your essays about life at Berendo middle school are such clichés from
first year teachers without credentials. What do you expect if you don't
know how to teach? Very few people can enter an inner city school without
any specific training in teaching and have a good experience. I say this as
a Latina who spent some formative years in a housing project, as a former
fifth/sixth grade teacher in Oakland Unified School District on an
emergency credential (also the 'hood', but predominantly African-American),
and as the former consultant in charge of service learning projects at a
middle school in San Francisco with similar demographics as Berendo.
I could offer the same litany of horror stories about my experiences
with grown up crack babies and homeless children in my classroom, but the
truth is my training was inadequate and it showed. I say this having just
finished my CLAD elementary credential program at Chapman University. I
know that when I return to teaching ( l left to stay home with my baby) I
will be better prepared to teach these students. Idealism and a desire to
help the 'pobrecitos' is obviously not enough. They don't really care about
your desire to save them. The question is, can you teach? Can you
empathize with their experiences rather than wonder why they aren't more
like you? Try reading the Culture, Language, and Academic Development
Handbook. It might change your perspective. - Leigh Gonzalez
After teaching at Berendo in the inner-city, I went on to teach four years at a private school in Bel Air. There I had students who wanted to learn and were supported by their parents. It was not me who was the problem at Berendo, even with my lack of experience at the time -- if was more the students and the culture (both home and school culture) that shaped them. You will have those rare jewels in the ghetto, you will remember from Oakland, that want to escape the dump in which they grew up and will work with a teacher; but to get to them you have to wade through all the apathy and outright hostility. You have to wade through garbage to get to that rare diamond in the rough. It is, in my experience, not worth it. I saw the experienced teachers at Berendo and they still had the same problems with kids who had done nothing year after year since kindergarten and so did next to nothing in their classes. It is not like they waved a magic wand and made silk out of sow's ear. On the other hand, I have seen inspired new teachers go into good schools and do amazing work their first year. The teacher is only, at most, half the equation; the other more than 50% are the students, their parents, and the communities that produce them. We Americans expect too much from teachers as cops, teen counselors, role models, surrogate parents, subject material, cheerleaders, psychologist, etc. The truth is if a young person has been almost ruined because of poor-neglectful parenting, then a school or any other secondary actor is going to have a hard time making any meaningful difference. From my own experience, test scores don't begin to accurately gauge the difference in educational achievement between students in a place like downtown LA or Oakland and Palo Alto or Irvine. It is because of the difference cultures in both those places. And it is not like teachers with many more years of experience than I had in LA or Oakland were or are having so much more success with their students.
Sure I had no experience when I started at Berendo, but I doubt it would have made terribly much difference if I had that experience today. Most kids in those classes came to school with attitudes that, at the very least, limited their potential to want to learn; a teacher could inspire some in the guise of teacher-prophet, but the soil was not well prepared by home and community, by and large. It is like being a farmer in the barren mountains or desert, a soldier in the Italian army famous for losing wars, a ski pro living in Jamaica. I became a teacher because I love the humanities and want to share the joy of them with my students and prepare them to succeed in places like UCLA and NYU; the teen counselor aspect, so prominent in the inner city, attracts me much less. I want to teach college prep - and so I know I don't belong in the inner-city, unless you put me in an AP program. I cannot stomach illiteracy, and mediocrity is also very bad and too usual. I have worked in schools where they expect excellence, and so why would I want to go back to a place like Berendo? I would get fired because I would refuse to expect less than college prep work; past a point, I don't want to hear excuses or rationalizations -- nobody in the real world cares about those things, they care about what you have to offer in terms of knowledge and ability to think. And so I should not teach in a place like Berendo where I would be just about the only one with that attitude. Again, I would get fired. In the end, I don't belong there.
It is not for nothing that so many promising teachers start out in the ghetto, learn the ropes, become enraged at the system, and then move to better schools with higher achieving schools -- only to be replaced by other new teachers in the inner city. Can you blame those teachers for leaving? Teachers enter teaching to teach, and if they cannot do so they will most likely change their circumstances. I find it enormously frustrating to work my ass off to get a 14-year old to write a single cogent paragraph. That is teaching, especially if the student could hardly write his or her name beforehand. But it is so pathetic in the larger scheme of things (ie. getting into a good college) that I can personally find little joy in it. You might say I just have an upper-middle class prejudice that does not take into account the reality of the "experiences" of poor kids in the inner-city, and you would only be partially right after long experience in a variety of roles, I know it well enough. What I want are students who know how to read and write from elementary school and have dreams and momentum going in terms of their academic lives -- and I met a few very bright overachieving students in schools like Berendo, but not many. On the other hand, there are other schools full of such students. I taught for years in a high achieving school, and I am a better teacher in that kind of a place where they expect and demand you to teach - or will FIRE you otherwise, and will FLUNK students who don't make the grade. You might argue that I should not expect the "pobrecitos" to be like upper-middle class kids from the suburbs in their academic lives, but I feel people should expect nothing less. Wild horses could not stop me from teaching any young person who wanted to learn and improve their lives, but I cannot stand the scenario where students buy into the program that they should go to school for a few years to learn English and behave before going to work to help the family (or the girl who lives for her nail's paint job and aggressive social life, and cares nothing for her studies - or the boy who lives only for the football or basketball team, and cares nothing for his studies). Unabashedly, I am an elitist -- I think all students should excel in high school and kick ass in good colleges where they have the best times of their lives. And I think if a young person has factors in his-her life that put them at a competitive disadvantage such as ESL or poverty, they should work not less but twice as hard as other more "advantaged" kids to make up for it. I had nightmares about ex-students of mine from Berendo going on to college and then flunking out and then coming back to blame me for not preparing them. On the other hand, if I had assigned them more difficult work and more of it, they would not have done it. I was just one person in a large dynamic of systemic academic failure that had been around long before I was there and would be there long after I was gone. One does not want to be a failure in a country which prizes success as much as we do in the United States. It is hard.
To put it bluntly but practically I will be more happy teaching in a place that routinely sends kids to Stanford and UPenn than in a place where such an occurrence is a rarity. I taught a unit, for example, on Anne Frank at Berendo to almost exclusively immigrant Mexican kids in the 8th grade. Few of them knew any Jews, none of them could locate Germany on a map, and they had only the slightest idea about Hitler or WWII coming into this unit. I taught my ass off, but we started slow in laying the groundwork and in the end they still had only an imperfect understanding of the story and the dynamic. There was a lot of progress made, but their work still looked like elementary school stuff. On the other hand, I taught the same book to affluent students many of whom had been to Germany, knew all about Hitler and WWII from their families and the larger mainstream culture, and were highly literate and skilled in dissecting nuances in literature - and the work they did was incredible! I worked harder with the Berendo kids, and perhaps I should feel prouder of that; but for me I look at the bottom line and am jazzed by high level school work, driven to distraction by mediocrity and worse. A school in Palo Alto can have as much mediocrity of failure as anywhere else, but you have to go to a place like the LAUSD (or the Oakland USD, I imagine) to see failure in all its manifold puissance. I occasionally read how business leaders are bitter and angry at the low level of academic preparation in many of their entry level workers, and I know exactly what they mean. Illiteracy, or next to it. It is no joke.
I might consider going back to the LAUSD if they let me have classes all week and also on Saturday and if they would support me to the hilt in demanding effort and achievement from students or else flunk them -- but that wouldn't happen. They would fire me. In my bones I know the following to be true in 20 years hence the LAUSD (and Oakland) schools will be by and large as dumpy as they are today, and the schools where more affluent kids live will be as good. If the problems were any easier to solve in low-achieving schools, someone would have solved them long ago. Education professors and politicians would never say what I just said, but very few of them have very much experience at the ground level of education. Today rhetoric and feel good sound bites rule over hard realities and hard choices; the reality for nearly illiterate young people, however, is harder and harder than ever. Gone are the days when you could get a job making widgets on an assembly line and make relatively good money. Now you have to be able to use your brain. You have to be educated. I can empathize with a kid growing up in poverty in a home devoid of print speaking a language different at home than in school, but I refuse to allow it to lower my expectations. A student in such circumstances needs to work TWICE as hard! But few will, for reasons largely beyond my control. I could sweat day after day to get three students out of a hundred to catch fire, but for me it is not worth watching the other 97 flounder and some to sink entirely. And I am congenitally allergic to illiteracy, in the first place! The first time I had a teenager turn in a paragraph of undecipherable lines and squiggles, I was shocked almost beyond words - and I still have not recovered from the shock. What is this strange language he is writing with bizarre squiggles and zags? I am supposed to teach this kid English literature? Who are you kidding?
Not one single friend of mine failed to go and graduate from college; for me and those I grew up with, graduating from high school was nothing - a prerequisite at best (since it is all about college in this country). I can very well see how for a kid whose parents only went to school up until the third grade in Michocan and who grew up surrounded by so much BS graduating from high school (or junior high) and who came from a household with no books might be no small achievement. But ideally I don't want to be his or her teacher, since I want to be the teachers for future lawyers and doctors (future leaders of the country and digital culture!) rather than mechanics and other jobs not requiring an extensive formal education. To be a teacher in a place like Palo Alto, then, is almost a completely different job than being a teacher in downtown LA - and there are pros and cons to both jobs. (Trust me, I have taught in both cultures!) And a teacher who will do well in the one place won't necessarily do well in the other. A student on the way to being a mechanic or a nurse's assistant needs and remembers different things from their teachers than does a college professor or writer; I know which one I do best with, and where I belong. I am sure I had a few students from all my classes at Berendo who might go on to become professors or writers, but I had a lot lot lot lot more from the school I taught at in Bel Air. And so I was happier at the latter one, even though in some ways I worked harder at Berendo. Such might be an "elitist" (oh dastardly word) attitude, but this is how I honestly see it after having thought about it long and hard from street level. I sincerely doubt reading a few books by an education professor who has not taught in an inner-city high school for 20 years will change my opinion.
I start this fall at a new magnet school for technology, and my resume (http//users.deltanet.com/~cybrgbl/) can pretty much get me a job anywhere I want to go -- but I get tired just thinking about teaching in a place like downtown LA again (and never need to do so again)! I could teach in a place where few students were prepared or cared to learn, or I could go elsewhere where I could teach without having so many toxic, intractable problems dumped in my classroom. I chose the latter, and I am much happier that way. I recommend the same to other new teachers. A teacher, such as yourself perhaps, might find joy more in helping students with difficult lives just to graduate from high school and consequently would feel other than I do. You are free to do so.
I trust this message finds you well.
Very Truly Yours,
From: "ryosh656" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: "Richard Geib" <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: You are part of the problem (another perspective).
Date: Tue, 25 Jul 2000 10:03:36 -0700
Thank you for your impassioned response to my letter. I'm glad that you have found your milieu and are happy there. It seems as if you have made the right decision for you. Perhaps my e-mail was not completely fair, in that I have also chosen not to teach in the 'hood right now. I do feel better prepared for it because I have completed my credential, but because I have a young child and teaching in the 'hood is so time consuming I'm teaching instead in a private school in Santa Ana. We have to work where we can feel happy and whole and a sense of accomplishment. Because this school is located in this community over half of my students are Hispanic, Asian and African-American. Their SAT 9 scores are outstanding. I believe it will be an easier job and more compatible with being the mother of a young child. I still hope, however, that once my daughter has grown a bit and I have mastered the curriculum I can return to a public school that serves poor kids of color. I plan to draw upon my increased experience as a teacher as well as my personal experience with my own Hispanic family, some of whom are also college graduates and professionals, some of whom did not graduate from high school and struggle with drug and alcohol addictions, and some of whom are hard working, home owning, salt of the earth type blue and pink collar workers. Best wishes to you. - Leigh Gonzalez