Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Lessons from Teachers

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Lessons from Teachers

Article excerpt

When I teach worn-out new teachers every Thursday at 5:30 in the evening, it breaks my heart to see the stress outlined around their eyes and the corners of their mouths. They seem so tired. On some days, some of them have been crying. I have come to know about their own children who make demands on their nonexistent time. I have come to know about their ailing parents for whom they are the sole caretakers, about their husbands who have had heart attacks, about their upcoming marriages or divorces, about the problematic pregnancies they are experiencing, or about the new babies who catch cold after cold.

And then, I hear about the parents of their students who "don't care" or about the children who are disrespectful, uninterested, cannot read, constantly talk, or always get into fights. And although my heart aches for the difficulties these hardworking teachers are facing, I find I must challenge their interpretations of the children and their parents and challenge them to look beyond what they think they see in parents and students to what they may see in themselves. I find I must add what must initially seem like more stress to their already stressful lives as I ask them to change their patterns of behavior and dig deep to become the teachers I know they can be--the teachers who can change the lives of the poor children of color that they teach and subsequently, the failing schools of this country's cities.

There is much talk about the "problem" of urban education, much research to study the problem, and many policies enacted to address the problem but little belief that anything will ever really change. After all, that little voice constantly asserts itself between the lines of the research reports, the policy documents, and the energetic beginning-of-school pep talks, saying we cannot change the community, we cannot change the parents, we cannot change the crime, the drugs, the violence. But despite mutterings to the contrary, I know that there are things that we can do, because I have seen them make a difference. I have seen children who, based on their socioeconomic status or their ethnicity, were expected to score at the bottom of their respective districts on standardized tests score, instead, in the top 10% of their state. Educators have proven this over and over again. For example, the Marcus Garvey School in Los Angeles, California; the Chick School in Kansas City, Missouri; Harmony-Leland in Cobb County, Georgia; and the Prescott School in Oakland, California, among many others, have all educated low-income African American children who have performed at higher levels on mandated standardized tests than schools serving the most affluent students in their respective districts (Hilliard, 2003).

Sankofa Shule, a public, African-centered, charter school in Michigan, has produced low-income African American students who are reading from two to four levels above grade level, who are doing algebra and calculus in grade school, and who outscored Lansing School District and the state of Michigan on the state accountability test (MEAP) in 2000 in mathematics and writing. The school was called "an educational powerhouse" by U.S. News and World Report in its April 27, 1998, issue (Rivers, 2003).

When I share this information with my young teachers, I try to help them understand what needs to happen in schools to approach such results. They, like most others in the educational enterprise, tend to believe that there is some magic program out there that will solve their problems. My friend and colleague Martha Demientieff, a gifted Alaska Native teacher, says that we all seem to be waiting for some new program to ride in on a white horse and save us!

The reality is that we can actually save the children we teach and ourselves, regardless of which instructional program we adopt. With changes in attitudes and actions in classrooms, without the need for outside experts, we can change what happens in schools and we can change the lives of our students. …

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