Friday, April 22, 2011

'How is the Teacher to Cope with This?' Miss C Responds

Last week, I posted a teacher's narrative about teaching in a corporate-operated charter school in the South Bronx. The response from readers was significant.  I invited Miss C to respond.
Guest Blog:  Miss C

I was utterly amazed to discover the overwhelming number of people who read my guest post, and to learn how my story resonated with so many, from both inside and outside the world of education. When offered a chance to write a follow-up to address some responses, once again, I jumped at the chance. 

In the interest of providing some degree of relief and prevent angry mobs of educators from storming the Bronx with pitchforks and torches, let it be known that the administrators at the school I wrote of are no longer there; they have since been replaced by administrators who are respected by staff members and more knowledgeable about education. The staff attrition rate has slowed considerably, and a highly dedicated and energetic group of teachers remain. While I assure you that nothing in my story was fabricated, or even embellished, I can tell you that things seem better, which is a start. I would like to add that no matter how startling my story may have been to some, I have come across many teachers from other schools with tales that made mine pale in comparison; stories of unimaginable disorganization, micromanagement, more rigidly enforced scripted curriculum, and truly abysmal learning conditions that made me feel as if I did, in fact, work in a country club after all. Stories like this can be found almost anywhere, and are not exclusive to any one particular kind of school. On the other hand, neither are the good stories of success and innovation, which brings me to my next point.

After reading your comments, I realized that I may have inadvertently made a generalization about charter schools that was not my objective. My intent was not to imply that all charter schools are by definition black holes of dysfunction and misery, but rather to use my experience to counter the idea that all charter schools are by definition wonderful "remedies" to the problems in education.  When I worked in the Bronx and would tell stories to friends and outside teachers, many of them would react in surprise and confusion. “But it’s a charter school,” I heard frequently. “Aren’t they supposed to be better than public schools?” 

The misconception that having the word "charter" in a school's title somehow automatically deemed it 'better' than the neighboring public schools was--and still is--deeply frustrating, especially when it is believed by people who are not even sure what a charter school is. Unless the school offers innovative methods of instruction geared toward specific students (and I know there are those that do) all you get is a continuation of “failing” practices under the fa├žade of “reform”. At the end of the day, every school--regardless of title-- is unique, and what happens inside is a direct result of who is making decisions, who is developing instruction, what instruction looks like, and what sort of community exists. 

Principles—not to mention principals--matter. Teachers matter. Curriculum matters. Many of the issues I encountered, such as scripted instruction, relentless test prep, and an emphasis on uniformity, are not exclusive to charter schools, but have also permeated the realm of public education as well. I know this from my own experiences, as well as from your responses. Personally, I am wary of any educational institution that promotes one-size-fits-all instruction that belittles teachers and students and compartmentalizes all areas of learning.  I am also wary of "reform" measures that allow for those without any background or experience in education to make executive decisions for large groups of teachers and students, or worse yet profit from them. I find the idea of creating a corporate-style environment for any school baffling, unnecessary, and just plain wrong.  With that said, at the heart of my own story is not so much a charter school vs. public school debate, but a fury and sadness over what education has been reduced to, particularly in areas of high poverty.   

Charter schools, public schools, private schools, magnet schools, charm schools and any other kind of school should be focused on providing a meaningful and culturally relevant education to all students. That's certainly not the kind of task that can be accomplished with sets of rubrics etched in stone or teaching manuals designed for generic groups of faceless children. It's not something that can be accomplished by needlessly punishing teachers for the most mundane things, or glorifying statistics above all else. It cannot be accomplished by turning schools into corporations, factories, boot camps, or anything else that eschews context, individual thought and culturally embedded meaning while simultaneously determining the means and the ends of every particle of learning. And until this is universally understood, I'm afraid that stories like mine will multiply, while teachers and students are subjected to more and more fads, programs, and questionable "reform" practices. Maxine Greene writes, 

"How is the teacher to cope with this? How is she or he to avoid feeling like a chess piece or a cog or even an accomplice of some kind? The challenge may be to learn how to move back and forth to comprehend the domains of policy and long-term planning, while also attending to particular children, situation specific undertakings, the unmeasurable, and the unique. Surely, at least part of the challenge is to refuse artificial separations of the school from the surrounding environment, to refuse the decontextualizations that falsify so much."

Your responses let it be known that there are multitudes of deeply committed teachers from all over making every to effort rise to that challenge.  I hope you continue to stand up, let your voices be heard, and help pave the way for a future where ridiculous trends such as scripts, incessant test prep, business-model schools,  and bulletin "boreds" are nothing more than distant memories.


  1. Miss C's blog poses sharp ethical issues for those of us who try to prepare teachers for urban schools. What's OUR job in light of these realities?

  2. Lois, an important question and one I grapple w/ especially as I was a teacher of Miss C. I faced similar concerns as so many of the the teachers I worked with taught in NYC schools in the area of literacy. Feedback from candidates was important and helped us to ensure that a sociocultural perspective was important.

  3. When I think about school, I think about how I learned to solve my own problems. I think about how much fun it was to actually make friends and to learn something useful for the real world. When I think about school it was fun! I was nutured and the teachers really got the very essence of me. "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself." John Dewey... So why do we always need to be benchmarked and why do we need to always succeed? The greatest lessons in history are they not from mistakes or failures. “I think tolerating a certain degree of failure-not because it's good for you but because it's a necessary part of growth-is a very important part of the message the leadership can give.” Howard Gardner... even the opportuniity to fail has been taken away! “Education is the process in which we discover that learning adds quality to our lives. Learning must be experienced.”
    William Glasser. Scripted curriculums do no let us live, we are going have a world of very unhappy adults!
    This is not the play that I wanted to act in - this is a tradegy!

  4. @UBLOST 2 agree. Love the question you pose about why we feel it necessary to benchmark students. Important one to ask. Thanks for commenting:)