I am a first-year science teacher in a failing middle school.Like many beginning teachers in low-income urban districts,I came in on a wing and a prayer. During an intensive summertraining before the school year began, every instructor in myprogram insisted on the same ideal: Have high expectations forthese students, and they will achieve. I rallied behind that mantra,repeated that prayer, and I still do. I believe in these kids, and I seetheir potential, even if many are reading at a third-grade level ineighth grade, and even if many come from backgrounds of fosterhomes, hard drugs, and gang violence.
But now, the prayer is faltering. The ideal is fading. I’m utterlyexhausted, disheartened, and drowning. It’s not only because ofthe difficulty of working with this population of students, orbecause this is my first year and success will come with experience.It’s also because there’s only so much I can do in the classroomwithout support from outside it.
There’s only so much I can do when students get into dangerousfights during class, and, when I call down to the main officefor help, no one answers -- and, when I call again, no one answers.There’s only so much I can do when to be out sick meansknowing I will be subjected to the exhausted scowls of colleagueswho have to baby-sit my class during my absence, because the schoolhas such a bad reputation that substitutes rarely take the job.There’s only so much I can do when morale is so low andschool culture so antagonistic that it seems teachers and administratorsoccupy opposing teams rather than hold unified aims.
There’s only so much I can do when administrative roles andpolicies are so poorly defined that to have a stack of white paperon hand is rare, and to effectively manage truants or misbehavioris even rarer.
There’s only so much I can do when school funds are beingdrained through mismanagement and neglect. Each time I attendstaff meetings, full of requests for change, my half-hearted principal -- who has never once set foot in my classroom and is frequentlyabsent from campus -- says he still doesn’t know what theschool’s budget is.
There’s only so much I can do when the veteran teacherassigned as my mentor is not only as frazzled and frustrated aseveryone else but also is called upon to serve as the de facto principal.When administrators ask an already overworked teacher toshoulder tasks a principal should take on, he has no energy left forsupport, collaboration, or encouragement.
If we really want to close the achievement gap, raise test scores,and instill a love of learning in kids whose positive role models arefew and far between, we need more than high expectations. Weneed organization. We need communication. Teachers can’t bedoing the jobs of principals, truancy officers, or administrative-leveldisciplinarians, nor can schools function without people in theseroles. Teachers need both the space and the support to teach;administrators need to know what school policies are, and whichstaff position is designed to meet which need; principals need tohelp make these distinctions, be present on campus and in the classrooms,and stay up to speed on school budgets so we can have someidea of where the money is and where it isn’t.
Yes, attrition rates for teachers, principals, and other staff atstruggling schools in low-income districts are staggering. Yes, I seemyself becoming another statistic. But when the working conditionsare so terrible, when the moral support is so miserably thin,when the system is crumbling and disorganized, how can anyone beexpected to stay? If the school is hemorrhaging funds and employeesas quickly as it gains them, how can we ever hope to change thetrajectory of these young people, no matter how hard their teacherswork, no matter how high the expectations?
I don’t want to leave teaching; I love teaching. I can see thesmall impact I’m making every day in the classroom, even if it’sdraining and difficult. I know that if I weren’t here, there wouldbe a series of substitutes in my place, and still fewer adults whothese kids could look up to. But I simplycan’t teach without support -- and thatstarts with a functioning, unified schoolstructure. If we try to heal those brokenties, maybe we can make a difference.Credit: Brian Cairns