Have you watched Hard Lessons on Netflix? To sum it up, the movie is a portrayal of the life of Dr. George McKenna. McKenna is a man that 30 years ago walked into a failing Los Angeles high school and turned it around. What may perhaps be most striking about the film is that the issues raised in his distressed inner city gang infested community include things like low student attendance, students arriving at school below grade level, lack of teacher buy in, and lack of community support and all still ring true today. I am not even in California and have taught at a school similar to the one that 30 years ago was considered in need of a turnaround.
Watching the film the question has to be asked, is the problem the kids or the system that sets out to educate them?
I have been a teacher in some sketchy circumstances and you may have too. That is to say that I have walked into a building and been expected to teach with no curriculum, no standards, and no money. Sound familiar? Teachers tell me often how they are expected to teach students but given little direction as to how to do it and little support as well. I have been a teacher in a school that was so gang filled I had two students in my class get into a school fight that led to one tragically murdering the other outside of school. I have also been a teacher and had one student tell me that she was being sex trafficked while another told me he was homeless and living in an abandoned house. Still in all of those circumstances, I believed that my students could learn. I believed that if I could just get them the resources needed to handle their most pressing basic needs we could then focus on learning what they needed to know to rise above their circumstances. That determination to see them grow led to MANY long nights after school and weekends coming in to make copies but I persisted because I loved each of them and I believed that if they were only exposed to the broader world they could come to see their capabilities as I did.
What I fail to understand in this moment when teacher pay dominates political rhetoric and technology has transformed the way we see the world and each other is why we have been unable to move the needle for children of color and children in poverty. If those two happen to come together it is very often a double whammy that few students can surmount. Sure we understand that children of color need teachers of color. There are a variety of programs that pump new and excited teachers into classrooms where students are under resourced and running out of time. Still, despite these efforts the achievement and opportunity gap persist. Not only does that gap persist but fewer people than ever before are opting to become teachers. We have a problem.
The elephant in the room is our mindset.
We cannot educate children that we are afraid to engage. That means that school models that strip children of their culture and voice are not ultimately lasting vehicles of education change. We are essentially saying that we must strip students of their personhood in order to make them safe enough to educate. The fact that as school systems we believe that we must lead the charge in “getting students ready for the world” without truly engaging their families is very heavy handed and narcissistic. On the other hand, we can’t assume that teachers arrive at our doors without any need of further development. We can’t put teachers into the classroom and fail to support them. Teacher support is more than just observation and feedback. It is clarity of expectations and funding as well. Too often we lay at teachers’ feet the baggage that comes with students living in survival mode but we don’t often consider what baggage that teacher may carry.
Until we have an education system that allows for teachers to receive the same support that we expect them to give students, we are going to continue to see gaps between kids. When teachers are better resourced and supported, students do better. When teachers are stretched too thin with competing messaging, obligations, and no support students suffer. Fired Up Teaching Inc is about providing teachers that support. We understand the need for it and the sacredness of the space because we created it. This organization is not just about “helping” teachers. We would like to think that we are the spark that starts the flame that creates the fire that changes the way we educate students and ourselves. Let’s not wait another 30 years to address the issue.