I have been teaching for 17 years and recent newspaper articles have prompted these words I’m typing from a wellspring of frustration. I am ignoring projects I should be grading as I compose this letter because, truthfully, I’m not only frustrated but angry too.
I read quotes from people printed in this newspaper (“Coalition calls for ‘putting race on the table,’” CHN, nando.com/2nd) regarding a need for creating “a culture of excellence for all students,” or that our schools are “poverty factories where we manufacture our future poor,” and feel completely disrespected as a professional.
I know for a fact there is already a culture of excellence on the sixth grade Team A hallway at Phillips Middle School. All students are valued and more time and effort is spent with kids who have been labeled as the achievement gap than any other children we teach. I am sure there are many other hallways at my school as well as in CHCCS where the same can be said. Yet, calling my school, or any school, a poverty factory insults all the hard-working, empathetic teachers and demeans the late nights and weekends they have dedicated to their profession.
When I see a child for 47 minutes in a social studies class of 24 students, and that child is reading at a third-grade level and cannot subtract a single-digit number from a two-digit number in sixth grade, then there are unfortunate limits to what I can accomplish. This is complicated even more by the fact I’ve been ordered by the state to teach 10,000 years of human history to 12-year-olds.
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I do not at all use these examples as a plea for pity, but more as a plea to halt the denouncement of teachers as sole bearers of all responsibility for the achievement gap. I am the first to agree there are serious problems in the system. We face a consistent struggle against waves of top down policies that dump down upon us. That said, we need an all-hands-on-deck approach similar to what Robert Putnam calls for in his recent book, “Our Kids.” Putnam speaks of a need for communal obligation and he concludes with a quote from a former city manager in Massachusetts, Jay Ash, who states, “If our kids are in trouble my kids, our kids, anyone’s kids, we all have a responsibility to look after them.”
Please know many of us teachers are doing everything we possibly can for our kids.
Please understand that when terms such as crisis are used and blanket accusations are made about the failings of education it devalues all the work of teachers who are pouring their hearts into the daily challenge of trying to close the gap. Know that many teachers squeeze every ounce of passion into culturally sensitive lessons directly aimed at raising the achievement of all students. If we continue to have a circle of pointing fingers with teachers left alone in the center, then we will continue to have an achievement gap. So please, do not indict teachers, unless you are also going to indict governments, communities, and families.
If you don’t believe there are incredible positive steps being made in some classrooms then maybe you should consider visiting a school, or even more, offering to help. The more people we have actively involved in solving a problem, the less people we will likely have speaking about a problem. Imagine if those speaking out against schools and teachers used that energy to offer to help? You have an open invitation to visit or help in my classroom anytime.
Mike Harris teaches sixth-grade social studies at Phillips Middle School.