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Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 10 2013

Year two begins–reflections

There have been lots of changes this year, but some things remain the same.  Our school is still a construction site, but at least we’ve moved into the half that is finished.  The new classes are so nice.  You could take three of my old class and put it in my current room.  However, there are some things that the Bolshevik-style procurement process that have the usual snags.  There aren’t any whiteboards or chalkboards in the new room.  Luckily, our very kind librarian loaned me an overhead projector.  Compared to last year, this feels absolutely high-tech.

We’re still waiting on test results from the last school year.  So far, they can’t even place the kids in the appropriate classes until that comes in.  Here is where politicizing test scores becomes a bad idea.  The state board, the districts, the unions, and the politicians have that data somewhere I’m sure.  They’ll use it for their own political purposes.  meanwhile, I have kids that were placed in on-grade-level classes that read three to four years behind their peers and on-grade-level readers in the remedial classes.  We basically have to generate our own data to get anything useful so far.

I have room for two computers in class, but the contractors haven’t terminated the fiber-optic cable to my classroom yet.  The router, the network hub, and all the other components are all there waiting to connect to something upstream.

I’m grateful for the school’s maintenance supervisor for getting our air conditioning up and running.  We had a couple of pretty uncomfortable days this week.  Some classes were flooded by A/C drains that were clogged.  I took a spill in one of the puddles that formed from the drain problems and had to finish out the day with a wet bottom.

The movers who relocated all the furniture to our new classrooms took a bunch of excess furniture and piled it all in front of the storage area for all the textbooks and workbooks in the old library.  It’s not a big deal because I found out that half of one of my classes was already in the same remedial reading class last year and would be repeating the exact same stuff.  It’s a highly scripted course–one of those ones sold to school districts as a panacea for low test scores–and the kids hate it anyway.  Thus, I’m on my own, having to develop a curriculum from scratch again.  I guess its de rigueur for TFA teachers to have to do that wherever they go.  I think they could probably para-drop us into a completely wilderness area where no one has ever seen a book before and we’d find a way to write a unit plan on tree bark with blueberry juice for ink.

For the first week, only the main office copier was working.  It’s normally off-limits to us, but they cut us some slack. However, the secretary there guards it like a sentinel, wanting to know how many copies you want.  When you say 120, she browbeats you into submission.  You look at your watch and say, “Oops, I’ve gotta run!  I’ll come back later (when the secretary isn’t there!)

The kids came back, most of them smiling.  I have several repeat customers who were in my remedial reading class last year.  Their problems are mostly behavioral, not academic.  They could read if they wanted to apply themselves.  For them, school is about lashing out against parents and authority figures. In any class they are in, they will cause a 20 percent decline in scores because at least that much instructional time gets robbed having to deal with their issues.

I’ll wait until the end of my two-year stint before I unload both barrels on this subject, but the achievement gap is about way more than race, class, or poverty.  Although I’m white, I’ve been poor.  I have had to shop at thrift stores to outfit my own kids for school clothes in the past.  I have had the experience of having to sell a home that was close to foreclosure.  I have had the experience of telling my children we were moving and that the only things they could keep were those that would fit in a small cardboard box.  Believe me, I understand what it is like to try to buy school clothes for five children or buy Christmas presents for them with a total budget of less than fifty dollars.  In this inner-city school, I see lots of “Aeropostale” and “Obey” graphics on clothing.  I see lots of expensive phones and electronics like iPad minis.  Some of those same kids don’t come to school with paper and a pencil.

From what I have seen so far, the biggest cause of the achievement gap is the destruction of the family.  There are lots of reasons for that.  For African Americans, slavery plays a part.  Generations of family structures were intentionally disrupted in the dehumanizing practice of selling children from their parents and dividing husbands and wives.  I understand that Jim Crow and other practices hurt the black community.  However, I’ve also seen that leaders like Louis Farrakhan have inspired many African American families to pull together and overcome these historical obstacles.  He did that by strengthening families and the product of those efforts is children who dare to have a vision.  Keeping that vision intact is a priority.

In my former home in rural Virginia, I had good friends among a number of Mexican families, all of whom came here as illegal immigrants or migrant workers.  All of them managed to keep their family ties intact, even at great distances.  One of them had a wife in Mexico and a 15 year-old son.  He worked hard and sent money home to his family every payday.  His wife had a serious medical condition that took extra money to get treatment outside the state-run health care.  The son was a fine young man who helped his mother and took care of her while dad was away working in America.  Another family I knew had five children.  The mother and father were devoted to them and the family was close.  The sons went to school and helped their father in his auto repair business.  Three of them went to school and they were all decent students.  One of them was a straight-A student.  They all took part in caring for younger children and they did more than just mere chores at home.  In the summer months, the teenage boys worked in the fields harvesting cucumbers and other produce.

In my school, as I talk with students who struggle the most, I always find that there are serious family issues.  One of the girls last year said she hated her dad because he was a “man-whore.”  He had abandoned their family pursuing other women.  Another girl said she hated her dad because he was nothing but a “pothead.”  I hear similar things about the mothers, but usually the dad is the “bad guy.”  Throughout my own personal years of poverty, my wife and I did all that we could to provide emotional security for our children.  That’s not a “white” thing or a “privilege” thing.  There are lots of honest poor people who struggle to take care of a family and never give up, God bless ‘em!

I did some teaching in a private school years ago where the kids were lily-white and upper class.  The whole reason for the existence of that school (and the reason why I quit working there) was that it provided a place for affluent whites to send their kids to an all-white school.  During my brief time there, I discovered that those rich white kids could act just as badly as any poor, inner-city kid.  In the cases of bad actors in that school, there was always a family issue.  For example, Junior’s new stepfather was an a–hole, and the kid was in rebellion against any male authority figures.  In another case, a kid’s mom was an affluent real estate broker and was spending so much time working on getting elected to the county board of supervisors that she just didn’t have time for the kid anymore.  Then she came and chewed me out, went over my head to the school’s headmaster because Junior wasn’t going to be able to play baseball.  He had an 18-average in my class.

Parents have more responsibility for the achievement gap than anything else I’ve seen.  The kids who do well have parents, grandparents, or even foster parents who are there for them, who provide stability and the most basic needs.  Some families are in transition.  That’s upsetting to a teen.  They want stable friendships and relationships.  However in many cases, the instability is because of the parent’s unwillingness to take responsibility for their own lives.

Several days ago, my MTLD asked me what I had in mind for my future.  Would I stay in education?  That was my original plan.  Would I consider a TFA staff position?  Possibly.  But mostly, I think I need to get involved in something that strengthen’s families, particularly fathers.  We need fathers who will be fathers, not just sperm donors.  We need men who will shoulder the responsibility for their offspring before they show up on Maury Povich.  We need women who understand that it isn’t helpful to have four different children by four different men who only show up when the monthly check comes in.

There is something insidious in our culture in general that has made people believe that good things can be achieved without sacrifice.  Even in nature, animals will sacrifice themselves to save their young.  They’ll put themselves in harm’s way to protect the next generation.  We need that spirit of sacrifice.

That’s what TFA teachers are really trying to do.  They’re not martyrs for a cause, but they have in many cases set aside potentially prosperous career options to make a difference for two years.  The hardest part is knowing that they will probably end up with a case of frustration at the end because they were only able to help a few of the fish that swam into the net.  The most successful will somehow empower a student to look beyond the influence of his failed family and realize that he or she doesn’t have to repeat those mistakes.  Instilling that vision is the hardest thing of all.  The re-writing of expectations is the top priority, more than teaching a child how to do a quadratic equation or how to write a cogent essay.  Eighty percent of the achievement gap has nothing to do with school.  It starts at home.  Fix home and we’ll fix the achievement gap.

As long as we’re in this world, there will be those who prey on the light of others’ visions.  Their goal is to put out that light, because light reveals corruption, hopelessness, ineptitude, self=centeredness, addiction, abandonment, and a host of other ills.  Our task is to keep a light burning so that those who will be drawn to it can get a little farther down the road under their own power.  I already have a sense of whom I can reach among my new students and I pray that I will be able to kindle that light in some others, just one week into year two.

OK.  This has degenerated into rambling, now.  Time to quit.



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YOTFAO BACTAG = You only teach for America once, but always challenge the achievement gap.

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