"If you want to help students in urban Chicago, I suggest you become a gang or pregnancy prevention counselor instead of a teacher or researcher."
From: "tina cooper" (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Subject: that web site
Date: Mon, 05 Apr 1999 11:19:08 PDT
Thank you for several hours of fascination...i began simply looking for a fellow urban teacher disillusioned with the process and ended up with a deluge of philosophical insight..not all of which i agreed with, but all stated clearly and unapologetically...my congratulations to you. I'd like your opinion on something, and will give you a bit of background information first. I graduated from college last may with a bachelor's degree in history; i had been in the teacher training program for three years but after an incredibly depressing andn difficult 10 weeks as a student teacher in a public high school, was convinced that i could never go into teaching in that environment as a career. However, i was stil convinced i wanted to be somehow involved in improving urban schools, and spent the next year mulling over my options and completing a thesis on the NYC teachers' strike of 1968. I found the process far more fulfilling than my classroom teaching experience, and currently am planning on attending the university of chicago in the fall on a fellowship for research in the history of urban education. The program involves constant communication and cooperation with the schools and communities of south chicago, and seems to be an ideal fit between my desire to participate in the daily life of urban schools and the stresses of actually being a teacher in them. The problem i'd like your opinion on has developed in the past few months, during which i've returned to the district as a substitute teacher and have been given five classes as a permanent sub for a teacher who's been out for the entire year. It's an awful situation, and my lack of classroom management skills and inexperience with planning lessons has resulted in such stress that my health has been affected. The experience has been the worst of my life, and i've already decided to leave the permanent position at the end of this marking period and go back to regular subbing for the remainder of the school year. The question i'm struggling with now, and which you pointedly refer to on your page, is how my future career within those hated "schools of education" can be structured in a way that will have real impact on schools like the ones we've both taught at. you seem to be an admirer of history as a guide to the future; what do you see in education's past that can be used to begin to solve some of the problems of today's schools? I hope for both of our sakes that the answer isn't "nothing", and given your penchant for thoughtful and thorough answers to readers' questions, i doubt it will be. However, please feel free to take your time with the answer, as i won't really get the chance to apply it until september. in the meantime, enjoy your current teaching position and please remain a beacon in the web wilderness...and thanks for your time.
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I no longer work for the Los Angeles Unified School District. In the best move I ever able in my career, I took another job in a college prep school in Bel Air. It took some adjusting, but I now am able to teach. In fact, I had to completely re-learn how to teach students who actually wanted to learn -- it was like a completely different job! In contrast to where I was three years ago, I am very satisfied in my work today.
When you teach poor students in public schools in the inner-city, you by-and-large are dealing with young people for whom school learning and academic achievement is not even close to being a priority. They are growing up in environments devoid of literature or college educated persons. Many have already given up on school, or they read and write so badly that they understand little of what goes on in school (and consequently hate it, are bored, cause trouble, drop out, etc.). There are always the exceptions, but you have to teach to the average person in the class -- as you well know. Therefore, I cannot but conclude that -- even in the very rare chance that your administrators and parents give you the support and tools to actually teach -- an instructor in such a place is always going to have a hard time, the test scores are always going to suck, the students often will be violent, etc.
If you really want to teach, I suggest you do what I did: go someplace where you are able to do so. Such schools do exist in the urban United States, trust me. Go teach at a Catholic school or some other place which has its act together and puts up with no baloney. There are even a few magnet and academy public schools. On the other hand, many of the regular urban schools serve as schools of last resort for the least motivated and "troubled" kids whose parents don't care or have not the motivation and savoir faire to get them into better schools. Unless you can perform miracles and turn a sow's ear into silk, schools populated with such a student body are never going to be radically improved.
Americans kid themselves how much a teacher (or school district) can do with an adolescent whose entire life is in chaos. You see this person among 35 others for 55 minutes daily and you are supposed to teach all this subject material. The scenario is not ideal for life counseling. Schools are designed primarily to teach students how to read, write and do arithmetic. They do a poor job, in my experience, in being parents to children whose authentic parents often are not worthy of the title. They are poor places to center crisis intervention teams for young people out of control. If you want to help students in urban Chicago, I suggest you become a gang or pregnancy prevention counselor instead of a teacher or researcher.
Don't beat your head against a brick wall. Take a look at the conditions in a school district, understand what the job entails, make an adult choice as to what you where you are going to go -- and then spend your workdays doing something you enjoy and find fulfilling. If you want to work with "at risk" youth, then you must make your peace with the fact that major amounts of involvement and effort will still only garner a few true success stories (and it matters not if you work in a teacher or researcher capacity).
Make sure that is enough for you, and don't settle for anything less than a job that feels "right." It is a tragedy that so many people in the world "settle" for jobs they dislike and disrespect. You have education and youth. You have alternatives. Take risks and expose yourself to as many new experiences as possible; you may just stumble into something that changes your life. Surround yourself with people you respect and admire; you will have a chance to experience a different work culture, meet new people and learn about noteworthy causes. Rather than trying to force things by searching exhaustively the landscape for opportunities in public schools, try to let life unfold and show you its treasures naturally.
I wish I could give you better advice than that, but only you know what is "right" for you. I wish it were easier, but it never is.
Good luck and be well.
Very Truly Yours,