Race, Class, and Self-Righteousness: Reflections On My Misinformed Foray Into Urban Education

I'm lucky.  I've known practically all of my life that I wanted to be a teacher.  There was never any indecision about it for me.  When I was in the second grade I would take extra worksheets home, give them to my brother to do, and then practice grading them.  In fourth grade I had my mom buy me white boards and dry erase markers so I could lecture neighborhood kids on the American Civil War, give them quizzes, and then make them try again when they got answers wrong.  When I was in elementary school I wanted to teach elementary school.  When I was in middle school, it was going to be middle school - and so on...all the way through college.

I think my desire to teach (up until my junior year in college) was mostly about sharing knowledge, working with people, and I liked the idea of being organized and running my own classroom.  It wasn't until 2003 or 2004 that the promise of becoming a teacher took on new importance.  I remember finding a flyer in my dorm requesting college students as tutors at a nearby high school.  It seemed like a good fit as I was a few years away from entering a masters program in education, and I thought it would provide me some real experience to help ensure that teaching was really for me.  The students, however, were not the same students I hung out with when I was in high school.  East Knoxville was (and is) not exactly what one might call affluent.  It caught me off guard when I found out a majority of students rarely bothered with homework or that many of them were reading on a third-grade level (and some were almost entirely illiterate).  It caught most of my college friends off guard too.

It wasn't long after my experience with tutoring at Fulton High School that my coursework began to introduce me to many of the disparaging realities involved with public education.  It was a public policy course and an education course that introduced me to Jonathan Kozol and San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriquez.  It only sank in that the vast majority of students in inner-city students across the country were black and hispanic when I was 21, and I remember being blown away.  I guess I had seen Dangerous Minds and Stand and Deliver, but the statistics really didn't make an impact on me until I began to study them in an academic context.

"99% of students in the District of Columbia are black?  That's not the way it was at my high school.  Even the high school I tutor at is more diverse.  Where did all the white kids go?"

I began to study education more and quickly learned about the catastrophically inequitable funding structures in place across the country.  I was largely convinced that this was the problem with education. If a kid in one part of Houston has $3,000 spent on her education and a kid in another part gets $11,000, that's got to be the problem.  I learned the most inexperienced teachers often ended up at the toughest schools and that they were paid the least.

I was outraged, and I told anybody who would listen about the problem.  Teaching took on new meaning for me.  No longer did I want the job of my high school world history teacher (teach world history and coach soccer - seemed like a good life). I wanted to do something about the problems in public education.  So I urged my faculty advisors to place me at Fulton or Austin East for my master's internship, the two most underprivileged schools in Knoxville.  It wasn't a hard sell; everyone else wanted to intern at Farragut or West (schools in West Knoxville that routinely send their valedictorians to Harvard or Yale - Fulton's valedictorian usually makes it into UT).  I was placed at Fulton, and my friends asked me why I would want to work at a school where none of the students cared and where guns and knives were sometimes brandished at football games (and even during the school day).  My advisor told me I was brave and that if could teach at Fulton, I could teach anywhere. I, on the other hand, thought of my commitment as honorable.  I was proud of my choice and wanted to prove to myself and others that I could not only do it, but that I could do it well.  I was a moron.

In the first few weeks of my teaching internship, our cohort was required to do a community mapping project.  We were given a list of locations in the school's community that we were to visit and get some information on.  The places included locally-owned restaurants, the YMCA and other community service centers, the feeder middle schools, churches, and neighborhood parks and recreation areas.  I'm pretty sure this was the first time I was forced to think about schools in the context of their community, although I wasn't really cognizant of the importance at the time.  I guess I'd always thought of school as existing in a hermetic environment (which is telling of my naivety).  Our assignment was to create a PowerPoint presentation on what we learned and present it to interns at other schools.  One of the images we included in our presentation that still stands out in my mind is a picture we took in the public housing projects (where a significant percentage of our students lived) a few blocks west of the school.  It just so happened that while we were driving by, the police were making a series of arrests.  There were police cars in the street and officers making arrests in the front yard.  We took a picture, talked about it in our PowerPoint, but I don't think I was anywhere near grasping the impact living environments like that have on the schools their children attend.  The rest of the year I drove through those housing projects twice a day to get to and from school.  There was a street named "Better Tomorrow."  The street sign usually had loads of trash on the ground below it, and more than once I saw children playing in that trash pile.

The year of my internship ('06-'07) was my year of magazine subscriptions.  I had subscriptions to The Nation, The Weekly Standard, Time, Newsweek, The Economist, and a few others I can't remember.  And while I generally read for information on international politics, I picked up a few things about education, especially from Time and Newsweek.  I learned that teaching experience really didn't make that much of a difference and that Teach for America was the new wave of educational reform.  (Indeed, I remember asking during my interview for admittance into my graduate program if they recommended Teach for America were I not to be accepted by UT.)  What I read in Time and Newsweek empowered me to walk into my classroom on a daily basis and believe that I could not only do as well as my mentor teacher who'd been teaching for 33 years, but better.

I taught ninth-grade world history (students who had less behavioral issues than those who'd been tracked into world geography).  My initial understanding of good teaching focused on keeping the kids engaged.  The last thing I wanted to do was be boring.  So I brought in Rome: Total War to let them experience what a battle in Ancient Rome must have been like.  I made simulations for them to participate in about the Age of Exploration.  I made sure all of my lectures included humorous anecdotes and that I was lively, engaging, and friendly.  I had students write me notes about how the day went, and I would respond on a daily basis to add a personal touch.  The kids listened to me (usually) and they seemed to enjoy the class.  I was really doing great; Newsweek was right, or so I thought.

When I gave my first unit test, every single student failed.  I didn't realize that I should have been gathering formative assessment from them from day one.  When I went over the test with the kids, they were utterly confused.  I realized almost none of my exciting lessons had built on each other.  My 'lessons' were really just stand-alone interactive presentations, not effective lessons.  I had no concept of how to plan or how to write a valid test.  I realized some of the kids couldn't answer the questions because they couldn't read the questions.  I didn't take into to account the quiet girl in the back who didn't really speak English.  We hadn't read any primary documents; I had mostly just been a story-teller.  I hadn't taught them any of the essential skills they needed to be getting (like reading, writing, annotating, or the historical habits of mind).  And I certainly didn't take into account that my instruction was really only targeting about half of the class.  Finally, I had no idea that more than a few of my students were rarely paying attention because they had nowhere to sleep and avoided eating lunch because they always got beat up in the cafeteria.  Most of that, though, I did not fully grasp at the time.  I still wanted to believe I was a pretty good teacher; and other people seemed to think that I was.  I didn't acknowledge my failures because I didn't want to admit that I might not be cut out for the job, and it seemed to me that I was the only person whose entire class of students were failing.

I spent the rest of the year planning day-by-day with little understanding of my flaws.  My faculty and school mentors were helpful at times, but primarily as tip-givers on classroom management (which ended up taking me about three years to figure out for myself).  I ended the year by preparing my students for the Knox County EOC (end of course exam), which is essentially the same fifty multiple-choice questions year after year.  I observed most teachers (including myself) spending the last week of class asking their students the fifty questions over and over again until the kids starting answering them correctly.  Even so, most of my students only got somewhere between thirty and thirty-five of the questions correct.  Nobody I worked with really believed the students at Fulton were capable of more rigorous coursework, so nobody tried to give it to them.  I was constantly stunned by the decorum in some of the classrooms.  I kept telling my mentor that if the public knew what was happening in Fulton classrooms, they would be outraged.  He would kind of look at me confused and say, "What?  Oh right - yea, I guess..."  It was a sad state of affairs that I didn't fully understand until I worked in other districts.

Despite what should have struck me as pretty massive failures in my own teaching practice, the college and community praised me as one of the most promising interns coming out of UT's College of Education.  On more than one occasion, school leaders and college faculty pleaded with me to stay and work in Tennessee.  And while I certainly welcomed the praise, there was that voice in the back of my head that knew I could be a better teacher, and I knew Knoxville was not the place to become that better teacher.

I had it in my head that I was going to teach in a high-needs school.  That's where I thought my talents could best be developed, where I could be part of the struggle for social justice, and where I could do the most good.  Although I applied all over the country, I was really anxious about the possibility of teaching in New York or DC.  Those were the districts I'd read the most about in terms of school reform, and they seemed like some of the toughest places to teach.  I guess it was a combination of wanting to prove myself, wanting to develop my teaching in the districts most noteworthy for reform, and this feeling of responsibility toward those with less fortunate backgrounds who I felt were being systematically denied opportunities their richer peers are routinely offered.  What's ironic, or perhaps entirely appropriate, is that I have so much distaste for the people entering teaching today who are just like I was.  Perhaps I shouldn't feel this way, but I do - especially for those who intend to spend no more than two or three years teaching and then move on to something else.

What I've learned since my internship experience in Tennessee is just how intensely powerful the socio-economic factors that converge at the intersection of inner-city public education are and just how frighteningly unprepared new teachers are to deal with them (which is why it's so nonsensical to teach for two or three years).  On the one hand, there are the agonizingly devastating effects of socio-cultural and economic poverty.  I am continually astounded by the challenges so many of my students have faced in their lives (challenges the scope of which I will never deal with).  Exactly how do you teach a child world history when she comes to you bawling that her mother just tried to commit suicide?  How do you teach the child who finds out on the internet mid-class that her father murdered her mother and sister with an axe?  How do you help the kid who comes to you at the end of the school day and tells you he has no place to sleep because he's been kicked out of his friend's house?  Or the kid who tells you in a behavior reflection log that she can't concentrate because she spent the weekend drinking, smoking, participating in orgies with adults she met on craigslist, and being yelled at by her girlfriend for cheating, but that she'll try to do all of her work now?

Then there's race, stigma, and all kinds of other social bias that affect children disproportionately in inner-city schools.  It's hard to continue a lesson on economics when one of your black students who has a lot of social credit with the other students yells at you to shut the fuck up because you're a racist son of a bitch and storms out the door.  It's hard to focus on your work when your administrator implies that the reason there's an achievement gap in the United States is because white teachers shouldn't be working with black and hispanic children.  It's hard to believe that anything you're doing is worthwhile when you see children from poor communities enter the world of affluence and stick out like sore thumbs - everyone feels awkward and is further inclined to stay within their comfort zones.

Combine these factors with the air of self-righteousness that too many of our young teachers and school leaders are entering education with these days, and I'm afraid you may just have a recipe for going exactly nowhere.  What the public apparently believes inner-city schools are, what teachers do, and where students come from doesn't exactly foster an incoming teacher force that knows what it should be doing or how to get there.  When I see young teachers on the 6 train grading papers while wearing watches and earrings their students could never dream of owning, I wonder how well they could possibly understand their students.  When I see that Cathie Black has been congratulated by her wealthy friends for doing something honorable, I'm horrified by the lens with which they must understand society.

I guess I should ask who I am to judge.  I certainly didn't understand the world that lay before me when I became a teacher.  For too long, I held hope that enough hard-working people like me could really solve a lot of educational problems.  But when I stepped down and contrasted the talking points coming from our educational leaders with the realities I see in schools every day (over the course of a few years), my hopes were shattered.  Take out all of the bureaucracy, the politics, the systems, the professional development, and imagine someone like Arne Duncan telling the kid whose parents abandoned him that if Arne could just fire all the teachers at his school, he'd be on track to go to college.  I think absurd is the best word.

After a mere five(ish) years teaching, it seems to me that most of us in the educational debate are not only talking past each other, but that our country's objectives don't align with the needs of the kids.  NYC's DOE website says, "Children First. Always."  I shudder every time I see it.  I cannot imagine that Deborah Kenny's mission is really, at its heart, to serve children when a visit to Harlem Village Academies does little more than hype its success and provide pictures like this.  Nowhere can a parent go to find information about after school activities, teacher emails, or curriculum.  Instead, there are opportunities to donate, news stories about HVA's successes, and teacher profiles that, rather than provide information about teachers, tell us why HVA is a great place.  From the top to the bottom, urban education is, sadly, often less about making differences in kids' lives than it is about advancing people's careers and egos.

What would I have done if I'd known this when I began my ignorant foray into urban education?  I can't be sure, but I probably would have been less ambitious to take on opportunities in some of our most disadvantaged communities.  I've learned that it's these high profile districts that too often make a game out of parading test scores around as if they were truly synonymous with "student achievement."

It's still clear that we are (quite obviously) intentionally denying a great many of our students opportunities that they should have.  But I'm less optimistic about the ability of a few talented educators or even educational policy to make a difference in the system.  It seems to me the problem is much more deeply embedded in the American ethos, and our republican/federalist form of government is in no position to uproot its ills.  President Obama, or any politician for that matter, is in no position to be completely honest with the American voter.

"Listen, it's clear we have problems with our public schools, but that's really not as much the federal government's fault (or at least it wasn't until 2003) as it is your own.  If you spent more time exercising your political rights in the name of equal opportunity in your own communities through volunteering, voting, and discussion, we probably wouldn't be in as much of a mess as we are.  It's too bad that most of us are too busy running the rat race to have time for any of that."

Instead, Obama must promise us a plan from the federal government to fix our schools for us if he wants to secure votes.  And that's just the opportunity hyper-ambitious people with large egos and wallets need to step into the policy arena, their goals far more often aimed at making money and gaining prominence than helping schools to improve from within.

After nearly five years, that's what I gather.  Education is not a monolith, and I won't talk as if it were, but in many urban schools the incredibly powerful and destructive factors of social stigma, poverty, and self-righteousness are not the necessary combination for reform I envisioned when I was just beginning.


  1. You just summed up what I've been feeling for about three years now. As usual, thanks.

  2. I very much agree with this sentence: "After a mere five years teaching, it seems to me that most of us in the educational debate are not only talking past each other, but that our country's objectives don't align with the needs of the kids."

    I agree that many in the education policy arena (and the public in general) simply have no idea what types of issues teachers and students are dealing with on a daily basis, especially in low-income, high-minority schools. As you noted, it's ridiculous that someone like Arne Duncan (or Michelle Rhee, pick your name) would spout nonsense to the effect that if only schools could fire more teachers, the kids' lives and educational situation would miraculously improve.

  3. You know what your problem is? You actually prepared to be a teacher. What you really needed to get perspective was to not even think about teaching until Teach for America came calling, get trained in 6 weeks, and then leave after 2 years to run your own school or make ed policy.

  4. By the way, your journey is the reason the powers that be don't want real educators running school systems or even schools. Too much reality distorts the vision of ed deform.

  5. Ed notes: "Too much reality distorts the vision of ed deform." Well said!

  6. This is a terrific essay, but as the grammar police I need to point out you've got several errors:

    "I made sure all of my lectures included humorous antidotes" -- should be "anecdotes". An anecdote is a story; an antidote is what you take after you've been bitten by a venomous snake.

    "heir of self-righteousness" -- should be "air". An "heir" is someone who inherits; an "air" is an intangible quality, among other meanings.

    "I shutter every time" -- should be "shudder". A "shutter" is a contraption that closes over a window. A "shudder" is a trembling reflex.

  7. Ha - FedUpMom - thanks so much. I don't have an editor. That anecdote one really makes me look like a moron. For my own ego, I must state that I absolutely know the difference between antidote and anecdote.

  8. This feels so familiar. I'm in my third year teaching in Detroit, and it didn't take long for me to figure out that no amount of (relatively excellent) teacher training and a challenging but cushy student teaching experience could really prepare me to be a teacher... much less a teacher in an urban school... much less a good teacher in an urban school. I had the same idealism/self-righteousness: oh you poor kids; this job is really tough and offers no stability or financial security, but I am going to gift your smiling young faces with the honor of my devoted, determined presence, because you "need" me.

    They don't need me; they need food, shelter, warm clothes, intact families, safe neighborhoods where they can play outside, and schools that aren't just a pendulum swing between cluelessness and outright manipulation.

    (With that said, I don't think I want to teach in suburbia ever again.)

    Love your blog. Keep writing.

  9. @ReflectiveEducator -- would you be interested in writing a guest post for my blog, the Coalition for Kid-Friendly Schools?

    Let me know. Thanks!

  10. Great post. And I love that FedUpMom corrected your grammar, you accepted her corrections graciously, and then she asked you to write for her blog. Excellent example of something--maybe an understanding that a couple mistakes don't define the person. Kudos to both of you.

  11. Found one more error!

    "Exactly how do you teach a child world history when she comes to you balling" -- should be "bawling". "Bawling" means "crying out" -- "balling" is an activity Little Richard sings about.

  12. Well said. I find the denouement quite profoundly true. As you say: "It's still clear that we are (quite obviously) intentionally denying a great many of our students opportunities that they should have. But I'm less optimistic about the ability of a few talented educators or even educational policy to make a difference in the system. It seems to me the problem is much more deeply embedded in the American ethos, and our republican/federalist form of government is in no position to uproot its ills. President Obama, or any politician for that matter, is in no position to be completely honest with the American voter."

    That's a truth our country needs to hear.

    The problems of the classroom cannot be solved in the classroom. Their roots extend far outside school walls; they run deep and wide. The solution will thus require a deep and wide cultural shift. How will that happen, if in fact it ever does? I have no idea. Perhaps it won't happen. The only hope, I believe, is that a new generation of leaders will rise up who will speak the truth to us, who will tell us how we can and cannot treat our children. From where will these leaders come? I find it unlikely that they will be politicians. A politician who stands before her constituency and tells them they've screwed it up will be booted out of office.

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