What it’s really like in a Failing Public School

I get most of my news these days from the facebook. Sad to admit. But one good thing is that my socially conscious peers occasionally point me to some important issues. So, accordingly, I just read this very good critique of why those hollywood inspirational teaching movies are a load of bunk. Check the article out.  2014 Resolution: Stop Watching Feel-Good Teacher Movies From the article:

Almost every teacher movie follows the same dramatic arc: previously overlooked children have their potential unleashed only through the benevolent intervention of a charismatic adult. This is largely hokum.  Kids need food, shelter, loving and stable families, health care, and a decent education in order to best fulfill their potential. To pretend otherwise is to watch these movies as a sort of absolution of guilt, a vicarious purging of our responsibility to our fellow citizens and community members.

That seems so true to me. We think if we can create an inspiring story and pass it off to the “others” whose job it is to make the story come true, then we have done our job. And that is just a really unhelpful attitude. But it occurs to me that if you don’t work in a failing school then maybe you don’t actually know what it IS like or what can be done to help. So I thought I’d use this opportunity to present my experiences working in less-than-ideal schools.

First off, every school is actually different. Every bad school/school district has its own set of problems. For the past year and a half, I have been working in the Santa Fe public schools. We recently hired the superintendent of schools who managed to help bankrupt the Philadelphia public schools. From what I hear, this is one of many very poor hiring choices. And he has just fired the third principal (who was doing a fine job, actually) in eight years from the high school where I do most of my teaching.

The racial/socio-economic reality of this district is that nearly all of the white kids go to one of several very decent private schools, which leaves all the poor hispanic kids and very little of the money at the public schools. I would guess that Santa Fe High is about 80% Mexican. Capitol might be more. Teen pregnancy and drop-out rates are high here. Drugs are also a problem. Many of my students work to help support their families after school. Many of my students have at least one parent who is not living here quite legally.

There are some amazing, dedicated teachers here. But there are also a lot of barely literate teachers. There are teachers who don’t know the subject material they are supposed to teach. And there are far too many classes “taught” by long-term subs who do nothing. As Mary Padilla told me last year when I was trying to help her and some other GRADUATING SENIORS with 8th grade-level algebra, “Miss, we haven’t had a teacher stay in all four years to teach us algebra.” I have a lot of students who can’t add fractions by the time they graduate from high school. And since a lot of them don’t speak english at home, and their parents don’t speak english, their grammar is really really really bad. And nearly all of my students are actually college-bound, though they’ll be the first in their families in most cases to go.

But the reality is that even when they literally work their putooshies off, they are nearly all bound for UNM where they will be taking remedial high-school classes and will drop out within two years. Which is heart-breaking because these students do work really really hard. And also, what can you do?

There are a lot of organizations throwing money at the problem out here. There are a lot of initiatives and tutoring programs. But the problems are so endemic that it’s hard to know what else could be done. I work with one program the teaches kids tennis and gives them free tutoring. The idea, I guess, is that they have something positive to, what? Keep them from doing drugs and making babies? I work with two college-readiness programs that provide tutoring and college-readiness skills and go on college visits in order to change the mentality of the kids and the community.

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but good teachers in poor schools with mostly incompetent teachers don’t have time to change the world for a handful of outstandingly motivateable students (who by the way, don’t exist, either, because they are all too tired from trying to do their homework, raising their kid siblings while their parents work three jobs a piece, and work their own job). The good teachers are too busy trying to make sure that most of their students at least pass their SBAs so that they can graduate. Sorry.


About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
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8 Responses to What it’s really like in a Failing Public School

  1. Susan says:

    All terribly true. I was at an exceptional inner-city high school, run by an exceptional principal Napoleon B. Lewis. And all together we did make a difference, because he did get some real quality people.
    I have brought it up with others before, that I don’t know WHY anyone expects there to be great teachers out there anymore when teaching is high stress and low pay. For the last 40 years women have had many other options, and the smart ones mostly are going for careers with better pay. I have met some great teachers of course. But I have not been impressed by the majority. i have taught inner-city, suburban and rural schools.
    To expect one person to make a difference (and work 90 hours a week) is stupid.

  2. pamwatts says:

    Also, the idea that just caring and working hard and being inspiring is enough to turn all the problems around . . . I mean, exhausted kids with shitty home lives are exhausted kids with shitty home lives. Teachers have no control over that. And even if a teacher is truly exceptional, she can’t do anything about the other 6 courses her students are in that are a load of huey.

  3. I taught in a very large failing school in Brooklyn, NY, and I have to agree with much of what you said as well as the excerpt from the article. However, I’d like to add that the myth of the charismatic teacher who can singlehandedly overcome all the obstacles faced by children living in poverty sends the message that every other teacher is a failure no matter how dedicated he or she is. Basically, teachers are set up to fail and then blamed and demonized for failing (as are students for that matter) because our grossly unequal society has failed to provide economic opportunity to poor families. Small wonder people don’t want to go into teaching. Few people willingly work in a situation in which they’re not given the resources to succeed and then treated like garbage if they don’t succeed.

  4. pamwatts says:

    That is a fabulous point, Lyn.

  5. harry watts says:

    As a husband to a teacher for over 40 years living in many states, I can agree with a lot of the article. Hollywood simply has not a clue about education. The problems are a all the above–some teachers are bad, some administrators are bad, some parents are bad, some kids are bad, some school boards are bad, some schools do not have enough money, some misuse the money they have. The why is harder to know for sure –but single parenthood for whatever reason makes it hard for the one parent ,male or female, raising the child and areas with high single parenthood are normally not doing well in education. It is a factor in the country or the city. Since Sols it has gotten worst in some schools since states have lower standards to keep getting the money from Washington–so while it appears better in some cases kids are learning less–and the news story is everything is looking up— the reality is much different .I would like to know what % of seniors who stay in school their senior year in whole year and fail. I expect it is near none so by that stat we are doing great–it is really not all that different than 40 years ago–I was warm seat my senior year–my friend was a no seat a lot of the time–we got our pass–I did not know of a single senior who did not pass. That was wrong then and is now.

    • Susan says:

      I had forgotten I have Watts on both side of the family! Pam is Grandpa’s side and Harry is Grandma’s! Have Wilsons on both sides too. 🙂

      IMHO, there has been NO great dumbing down in America schools. Prior to the 1960/70s, there was no major testing of the masses, just white men, and probably just in well-to-do schools. It just becme another media/political controversy to make money from. Kids from parents who believe education is important will do well whether the school is rich, poor or home. Of course, good students will do better in good schools, which is the sad part. My best students at Lincoln had no idea how under challenged they were, although I did my best.

  6. Pingback: Write a House: Building a More Literary Detroit | Strong in the Broken Places

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