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.
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.