Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How to Hire Better Teachers

This was originally published on my Open Salon blog -- www.open.salon.com. I blog there as AmyFuji. Hopefully no one from CPS will read it and get me fired. It was first posted on Saturday, July 12.

I just read this really interesting article in Slate about the problem of hiring better teachers. The author suggests an apprenticeship program for teachers -- if you can make it in two years of on-the-job training, then you can get your union card and employment for life (as opposed to just getting it at the beginning of your career).

I think that's a pretty good idea. When I started teaching, I truly believed I was well-trained. I had a bachelor's degree in English and a master's degree in teaching. I had a high GPA. I knew all the pedigogical buzzwords. Did any of this prepare me to be a teacher?

Not even a little bit. I went to college at the University of Arkansas. Which I think is a fine school -- I loved going there. But nothing in Fayetteville, Arkansas, could prepare me for teaching in the inner city of Chicago. I had very nice and sincere professors in graduate school, but most of them had not been in a classroom in decades, and none had taught in an inner city.

My first job in Chicago was teaching in the Achievement Academy in a high school on the far South Side. I got hired on the spot, which should have been my first clue that this might not be an ideal position. But it was already late in July, and I had moved to Chicago at the end of May. I didn't have a job yet and was getting a little panicky.

The Achievement Academy was a new initiative to get below grade level students caught up to their peers. Our students were kids who had failed seventh or eighth grade at least twice. They didn't have the credits to be freshmen, but they were too old to keep in grammar school. So they came to the Achievement Academy. I had fifteen and sixteen year old non-freshmen, and they were not happy.

School had never been successful for them, and now they were in high school, but all the other kids made fun of them for not being actual freshmen, and they were accused of being stupid.

Most of my students came from one huge public housing project, and they had gone to grammar school inside that project. So most had never left the projects, and many had never had a white teacher.

I had never taught African American students. My student teaching was done in a small town in Northwest Arkansas (my hometown, no less) that was primarily white, Latino, and Asian. We had a lot to learn together.

My first year was tough. I had heard your first year teaching is the hardest, and they weren't kidding. I came home and cried pretty much every day that year. I never cried at school, though -- that would have been the kiss of death.

My kids were testing me, and I was failing miserably. I thought I would go in there, do my job, and live happily ever after. I had no idea that I would have to prove myself to these kids. White kids just accept that you are the teacher. Black kids don't care what your credentials are -- you still have to prove yourself to them.

I was called a motherfucker everyday. The first time someone called me that, I was completely stunned. I looked at the kid, and I stammered, "But I don't even know your mother." Which is a ridiculous thing to say, but that's what came out. Turned out that confused the kid, which diffused the situation.

I had a desk thrown at me. I had lots of books thrown at me. When I would report these things to my administrator, I was told, "Handle your class." To this day, I still don't know that that means.

When I called the father of the child who threw the desk at me, the father came to school to meet with me and his son. We were standing in the hallway, and the father punched his son in the eye. An assistant principal was walking by, and told the father that if he was going to do that here, he needed to do it in an empty classroom. I then knew to never call that father again.

The problem is -- my experience isn't that unusual. They give the toughest teaching assignments to the least qualifed teachers. They do that because the better prepared teachers won't take those jobs. I didn't have any idea that would be my job; I didn't know any better.

I did survive that year -- I left that school at the end of the year, when one of my students was raped on campus by a senior and the administration covered it up. That did it for me. I didn't quit teaching, though, so that must count for something.

But I do believe I would have been a more effective teacher with more support and training. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get through the lessons with such resistant students. And teaching discipline -- that's not easy, either. I felt like I was alone on an island of angry children most of the time, hoping they wouldn't eat me alive.

Most teachers quit the profession within three years. I am sometimes amazed I've made it five already. It is easier than it was that first year, but it's still not easy. I've seen a lot of bad stuff. My kids go through things that no one should have to go through, much less ill-equipped teenagers. And lots of perfectly nice people, including a large number of clueless white people, go into this profession and are charged with dealing with all these factors they have no idea about. Gangs, drugs, violence, teen pregnancy, absentee or abusive or neglectful parents, and a system that seems designed to fail.

So anything that will better prepare teachers for these obstacles could only help improve things. Can't hurt, anyway.

1 comment:

foxxychica said...

As I was reading this post, a variety of things came to my mind. First, I think we need to write our book about how to survive in inner city schools. I think many people (mainly politicians who don't have a clue about education) believe that hiring veteran teachers is the key. That might be partly true, but what about training parents on how to be better parents. I think a lot of people in the inner city do not know that parenting is a full time job.

I know it is probably difficult for a lot of the white teachers who come to teach in the inner city. Many of them come and stay 3-5 years to get their loans forgiven (another day, another issue). Nonetheless, imagine looking like these children and being accused of acting 'white' because you use the king's English. I am still trying to figure out when being articulate meant you were/are acting white. I guess that what ignorance will do for you.

I believe in order for education to be taken seriously in America, we need to stop paying these uneducated, illiterate athletes millions of dollars and put some of that money into the educational system.

My suggestion to all teachers is to read the book "Black Students. Middle Class Teachers" by Jawanza Kunjufu. You can get the book from www.AfricanAmericanImages.com This book is for middle class teachers not matter of your race. it is truly an eyeopener.