Learning from the Met: Great Expectations?

One of the greatest shames that I carry with me is the one year that I spent working outside of suburbia.  Needing a professional change, I transferred from a school where less than 10% of my students were living in poverty to a school where just over 30% were living in poverty.

Now, I know what you're thinking:  "This guy's lost his mind if he thinks that a school where 30% of the students living in poverty is a difficult place to work."

But even working in a school that many of my peers in more challenging buildings would describe as "easy," I knew that I'd made a mistake from the day that I walked in the front door.  You see, we had a faculty meeting where the results of our state's testing program were announced and my new staff celebrated wildly over the fact that they'd met—rather than exceeded—the state's testing expectations for their students.  That meant every teacher would earn a $750 bonus.

For me, though, that meant a $750 pay cut because the students in the affluent suburbs where I'd spent the previous 10 years of my career always exceeded the state's testing expectations, earning teachers a $1,500 yearly bonus.

It didn't take long for naive little me to figure out why meeting expectations was such a cause for celebration in my new school. 

The work was HARD.  My classes were full of small handfuls of students struggling through the social wreckage that poverty inevitably causes.  I had kids who were homeless or whose parents were imprisoned.  I had kids who'd never been to museums or to libraries.  I had kids who came to school hungry on a regular basis. 

Life was a fight for each of them—and that fight constantly spilled over into my classroom. 

Having fallen behind their peers academically, an all-too-common pattern for students living in poverty, many of the kids in my classes struggled to draw from background knowledge to understand new topics, to apply basic skills to new situations, or to produce sophisticated final products. 

While many had the potential to do well, it took high levels of commitment and determination to complete tasks that students living in middle or upper middle class neighborhoods worked through easily.

The result:  Complete frustration. 

I'd have students who could quickly calculate just how much effort it was going to take to get through assignments and then quit, not seeing the value in killing themselves to learn about geology or space.  I'd have students who would flip their desks or curse me out instead of looking foolish and slow in front of their more advantaged peers. 

I'd have students who simply couldn't believe that there was ever a chance for them to be taken seriously as knowledge creators, so they'd start punching the time clock, just waiting for the bell to ring at the end of every day.

Not being a guy to give up easily, I worked hard for my students.  I turned in to this weird hybrid professional:  Part cheerleader, part social worker, part cop, part guidance counselor, and part teacher. 

I'd create a thousand variations of every assignment, trying to find some way to motivate my students and to give them a different avenue to approach new content.  I'd design remediation lessons designed to build the background knowledge that was missing because of missed opportunities. 

I'd counsel kids after blow-ups in the hallways.  I'd try to pair kids with other school professionals who might be able to provide support.  I'd reach out to parents, trying to explain the routes that they could take to help their students reengage with school. 

But these efforts carried real costs:  I'd go home every single day completely discouraged and exhausted.  For every small step that I took forward, I'd have to expend more mental, emotional and professional energy than I had to give.  I felt like a modern day Sisyphus

My relationship with my wife suffered, my health suffered, and my ability to be fully present with my family suffered.  I'd crossed the line between a "career" and a "calling," and that wasn't a sacrifice I was willing to make.  And that's why I'd decided by January to make my way back to the 'burbs.

Maybe I SHOULD be ashamed of myself.  After all, I gave up.  Walked away.  Took the easy route.  Threw in the towel.  Raised the white flag.  Quit on my kids.

Heartless, huh? 

Being an accomplished teacher, though, I knew just how impossible the circumstances were in the building where I was teaching. 

No one gave me any extra time to plan with colleagues or to contact parents even though both of those tasks were far more time-consuming for me than they had been when I was working in the suburbs. My classes were as large as ever, making it difficult to provide the kind of focused and targeted attention that students with a huge range of strengths and weaknesses needed to be successful. 

Compounding the problem, I had no extra training opportunities in working with students who had learning disabilities or who came from communities struggling with poverty.  There were no extra resources in my building—textbooks, trade books, remedial collections, digital tools—that I could use to reach my low-income students, and there were no extra people—-nurses, guidance counselors, social workers, police officers—-that could help me to pair families with the kinds of supports that the kids back in Neverland never really needed.

Which is why I'd almost certainly be one of the 50+ percent of teachers on this year's Met Life Survey of the American Teacher who questioned whether every student really can succeed academically.  

Now don't get me wrong:  It's not that I think students of poverty have limited potential.  There are far too many examples of students and families who have overcome their life's circumstances to succeed regardless of the challenges that they face. 

I am convinced, however, that those examples are the exception rather than the rule simply because the schools children of poverty attend are often places where teaching and learning is nearly impossible. 

Yet in spite of mountains of evidence that high poverty schools are struggling to provide a sound, basic education for every child, policymakers and influential parents continue to march through life believing that with a bit more determination and a commitment to holding teachers accountable and setting high expectations, every child—regardless of how challenged their circumstances are—can succeed. 

Sounds beautiful, don't it?  Almost too good to be true?

That's because it is too good to be true. 

The truth is that success is often dependent on opportunities—-and students living in poverty just don't have the same educational opportunities as students from middle and upper middle class homes.  Their teachers are overworked and under appreciated, causing all but the most committed to flee to easier schools. 

Their classrooms are so full of students with huge ranges of abilities that delivering targeted instruction is impossible.  Their schools are understaffed, unable to provide the kinds of professionals necessary to support families and students in crisis.  

Nope.  I don't think every student can succeed academically. 

But instead of being the result of unmotivated or incapable children, that's a direct result of the callous and under-informed approach that policymakers take towards addressing the challenges of students living in high-poverty communities. 

Their unwillingness to invest tangible resources—dollars, people and time—equitably instead of equally is evidence of our unwillingness to care for other people's children as much as we care for our own. 

Maybe I'm not the only one who should be ashamed. 

12 thoughts on “Learning from the Met: Great Expectations?

  1. Principalwells

    I have been a principal in both types of schools that you mentioned. One challenge I set out for my teachers is to look for the forgotten 10% in our high achieving school and think about how we can make a difference for those students. There are challenges wherever you look!

  2. Ann

    Fabulous blog! And since I know you personally, I do indeed appreciate the sincerity in every word.
    While I do not accept the position that not every child can succeed academically, I think the reason I take issue is more about the meaning of academic success — which I believe should be open to a much larger debate that a state test score on what can be a faulty test driven by shaky standards measured by arbitrary bars. Thanks for making me pause to think. As usual, your insights are powerful and provocative.

  3. Katie

    Mr. Ferriter,
    I think it’s amazing how much compassion you have for children. I have a heart for children, I want every child to succeed in every aspect of their life, after all they are our future. It takes an act of courage and dedication to switch schools to a higher poverty rate. Thank you for sharing.
    EDM310 student at University of South Alabama

  4. Rachael Locklin

    Mr. Ferriter,
    What you did by switching schools to a HIGHER poverty level was extremely commendable. I think it is wonderful that you care so much about helping our youth that you were willing to dedicate your time and energy into your profession. Even though you only stayed for one year, you did the opposite of what most people in your situation would have done, and I think that it is wonderful!
    My mother taught in a school in which almost all of the students qualified for free or reduced lunches, and she came home exhausted every day. I wish that more teachers had the courage to do what you did in order to understand what other teachers and students go through on a daily basis. Great post!
    -Rachael Locklin

  5. ginnyp

    Bill, I applaud your courage to say “not every child can succeed academically.” A colleague of mine was taken to task for saying the same thing at a support meeting for a student this year who fit all the characteristics of your classroom. Three months later, the chastisers are saying the same thing. How can an 11-year-old who rides a bus for an hour to get to a school bus, arrives at school to get “breakfast” in 10 minutes, has no school supplies of her own, no one at home to help with homework, let alone practice math and reading that she’s behind on, etc. etc. etc.
    My first year teaching, my naive self taught in a school like the one you describe. I lost 20 pounds, cried every single day, and my 70-year-old mother had to come help keep house for several weeks. My husband was at wit’s end. I, too, wanted to reach every child, to bring them up to grade level and beyond, to instill motivation and a reason for learning. But I did not know how to overcome obstacles like “I don’t have my homework because I was at the hospital with my cousin – he got shot.” And I still do not know.
    Our current county school board will cause conditions like these will be more prevalent. Even if teachers can make those rewarding inroads with a handful of their students, what about the many handfuls who aren’t reached? What does the almighty DATA say about a child being distracted by the cousin in the hospital, or from living in a tent in their aunt’s backyard (different kid, same class).
    At the end of the year, I quit. After one year, I was sure my teaching abilities were not what they should be, and I was exhausted. The stress contributed to back surgery that summer. Later the next year I was given a chance by a principal (yes, you know him, Bill) to try a different teaching scenario. I have been there ever since. There may be only 12-14% FRL students but I am still working 60-70 hour weeks, am constantly seeking help for kids who aren’t getting it at home (and not just the F&R kids, as you know, have a lock on that).
    Why are we not setting up secondary schools for vocational training? The principals of physics and British literature are not crucial to every job, as much as we teachers extoll the need for a “well-rounded education.” Getting food in your belly, and maybe your child’s belly, is the priority, and if a diploma emphasizing auto mechanics instead of mechanical engineering is the ticket, what about investigating that? Any school systems out there with any experience with this?

  6. TeachMoore

    Yes, They Can

    Coming out of a long bout of illness, I recently felt well enough (I thought) to scan the educational news horizon, and came across the second part of the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher. What I saw was not…

  7. TeachMoore

    I too applaud your courage for bringing this very common scenario out where it can be seen by those who have never tried to do what we are asked to do on a daily basis. Although I respectfully disagree with some of your points, (as I mentioned in my own blog on that same MetLife data http://teacherleaders.typepad.com/teachmoore/2010/03/yes-they-can.html )
    I do understand the very real problem confronting those of us who work in high needs schools. As you so eloquently point out, those problems are often made worse by the lack of resources, poor planning, and ill-conceived reform implementations that we teachers and students have forced upon us (particularly, those of us in non-unionized settings).
    One reason I’m concerned about the administration’s plans for ESEA reauthorization is that it appears they are going to have already desperate schools fighting for resources through a series of competitive grants that may or may not reach those who need them most; or reach them at a cost worst than the benefits. (More on that later). Posts like yours are part of the discussion we should REALLY be having about how to turnaround failing schools and help disadvantaged students.

  8. Mcohen00

    I teach in a school where nearly every student qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch. Yes, it can be frustrating, but in answer to the “why” posted by koolkat222 — in my school, when you get a student who had no confidence in themselves to have confidence, when you see the light of a child who suddenly realizes that they are smart and that they can do it, when you see students getting acceptance letters to college — that’s why. All of that doubt melts away, and there isn’t a better feeling in the world.

  9. koolkat222

    I teach in a school like this. It is very frustrating! Even the administration in the district forget what it’s like to actually TEACH the students. I left an affluent suburban district to make more of a difference. Sometimes I ask myself why.

  10. Anthony Cody

    Thanks for having the courage to write this. I taught in a school in Oakland for 18 years where more than half the students qualified for free and reduced lunches, and I experienced many of the same issues with students who live in poverty.
    It is extremely frustrating that policy is made by people who have never experienced this themselves, and think that the reason students fail is that teachers and schools are not “accountable.” That is why we get crazy ideas like firing a staff when the students don’t score well on tests.
    Excellent post.

  11. Jenny Luca

    Bill, I understand your decision. Your story echoes mine. I taught for most of my career in a tough school, but found it sapped my energy and affected my relationships at home. I was constantly stressed and questioning my ability. I moved to my current location and it was like a door opening. I was finally able to teach for an entire lesson and
    I was encouraged to extend myself with professional development. Moving to this job means I have the energy and motivation to do what I do to help teach and inspire others. That doesn’t mean that I don’t question every day whether or not I would be doing more good back in that tough school. I know I was making a difference, but there’s no doubt the personal costs were too wearing on my family. When you’ve got kids of your own, you have to sometimes make decisions that go in favour of your immediate family.It seems that school systems world wide face the same issues. I do think we should be rethinking the support given to teachers in lower socio economic areas- they’re doing it tough.

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