“Mr. Duarte, shouldn’t you be teaching at one of those white schools?”

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms. (Brown vs. Board of Education, 1954)

It’s been over sixty years since the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark civil right’s case, Brown vs. Board of Education, that separate but equal schools have no place because separate schools are inherently unequal.  When asked to write about the implications of this decision for school administrators today, I found myself lamenting about the responsibility we have to close the achievement gap.  Since, this gap, proves that many of our schools serving low-income and students of color are in fact, inherently unequal.  Here are the demographics and state accountability rating of the school I taught at:

  • 31% African American
  • 46% Hispanic
  • 88% Low Income
  • Among the lowest achieving and least improving schools in the state

In my second year at the school, I had a student ask me, “Why are you teaching here?  You expect us to do so much work, you should be working in one of those white schools somewhere near where you live or where you grew up.”  My heart was instantly shattered.  This was a student who had been completely critical of everything I had been trying to do, she would make an effort to derail my lesson on a daily basis.  She had been challenging me this whole time and up until this moment, I couldn’t figure out why.  You see, this student represents the typical feeling of a child growing up in a community with poorly performing schools.  As Brown v. Board stated, “A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.”  My heart broke in pieces when she said this because I instantly understood that up until her 8th grade English class, she had been lead to believe that she was inferior; that she didn’t deserve a good teacher, that she didn’t deserve a quality education or the chance to go to college.  She didn’t believe that the school I was teaching at was good enough to have me and that she was good enough to be in my class.  I finally understood why she was challenging me; she didn’t think she could perform in my class because she never had a teacher that made her feel that she could achieve.

Isn’t that an educator’s essential job?  Aren’t we supposed to be the cheerleaders for our students?  Aren’t we supposed to tell them that they can achieve their wildests dreams?  How can we look a child in the face and say, “No, you cannot be an astronaut beucase you attend one of the lowest achieveing schools in the state, which will put you behind everyone else that will be competing for that job.”?  Now, of course this sounds a little harsh, but isn’t it essentially what we are doing in our public schools?  If an eighth grader can look me in the face and tell me I’m too good a teacher to be working in her school because of where its located and who it serves, we are violating the very right cited in Brown v. Board;the opportunity of an education to be made available to all on equal terms.

 

The Power of Positive

“The Skillful Teacher” by Jon Saphier, Mary Ann Halye-Speca, and Robert Gower is one of the cornerstones of education preparation programs.  The discoveries I’m making while reading it after a few years of classroom experience are enlightening.

 “‘The indispensable characteristic of successful teachers in low-income-area schools is a positive attitude.  It is not enough for a teacher to use the right words.  The critical question is, what implicit and explicit messages are students getting from the teacher about their ability to learn?’ (Frick, 1987)” (Saphier, 305)

Any teacher who has worked or does work in a low-income-area school could tell you that having a positive attitude in such a setting is no easy feat.  We are constantly overwhelmed with the knowledge that our students are not performing to state standards and feeling the burden of not having enough time or resources to meet their needs.  The pressure of this environment is nothing sort of stressful, but here’s an uplifting message by Rita Pierson who became an instant hero of mine after I discovered it.

Here is the jingle she taught her students:

I am somebody.

I was somebody when I came,

I’ll be a better somebody when I leave,

I am powerful, and I am strong.

I deserve the education that I get here.

I have things to do, people to impress,

and places to go!

You see, as Saphier states, “In many poor communities, a major obstacle to motivation for students, especially high school students, is the absence of hope, the absence of faith that doing well in school would give them a chance at a better life.  These students believe there is no payoff in store for investing in effective effort.  The competencies they would gain from better school achievement are viewed as irrelevant to having a better life (305).”  Additionally, students in these communities lack role models and mentors who look like them, we have to build community connections and bring them into our classrooms.  Peer culture is also a challenge; its not always “cool” to do well in school.  “Whereas individual teachers can work on such cultures within the four walls of their classrooms, the job, especially in American inner cities and among the rural poor, is to build such cultures school-wide (306).”  Last year, I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Geoffrey Canada, founder of The Harlem Children’s Zone.  One of the points that stayed with me was that he changed the culture not only in his schools, but in the community of Harlem.  He reached out to families to ensure that they understand why it is important for students to do well in school.  If the culture of the community does not support the educational mission, he said, we simply have to change it.

I cannot help but believe that we are going about this all wrong.  We relentlessly emphasize the importance of raising the scores as our primary goal and focus and I feel like we are overlooking a fundamental issue: the culture.  Schools, districts, and communities need to identify what their culture is around academic success and if it does not match the educational mission, it needs to be changed.  The Harlem Children’s Zone has a team of people who work solely with families on supporting their children to succeed in school and getting them to understand the importance of this for improving their child’s life.  After all, who doesn’t want better for their children?