Get Schooled

Your source to discuss and learn about education in Georgia and the nation and share opinions and news with Maureen Downey

Before you can get kids to care about school, you have to show you care about them

University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky shares a thoughtful essay today on how colleges of education make a mistake in preparing teacher candidates to work in schools "that are not too rich, not too poor; a distribution of students across the demographic span; reasonable resources for conducting schools."

That middle-ground approach overlooks the pressures teachers will face in high poverty schools where the priority has to be earning student trust, he says. And that trust is not easily won because students in such schools see teachers as more transitory adults who may or may not be there for them tomorrow.

By Peter Smagorinsky

I’m working on a new edition of a book I published nearly a decade ago about teaching English. One area that needs revision concerns teaching in what are variously known as impoverished, high-needs, or Title 1 schools and their surrounding communities.

In the original version of the book, I illustrated teaching by designing a unit of instruction for teaching in a middle-of-the-road school: not too rich, not too poor; a distribution of students across the demographic span; reasonable resources for conducting school; and so on.

When I crowd-sourced the field to get ideas for the new edition, I got some feedback that was mighty sobering. One student-teacher in North Carolina whose professor had assigned the book wrote:

“I rarely saw my own classrooms in these pages. I work in an impoverished urban school. . . Most [students] do not perform on grade level. Further, we do not have the resources to execute many of the activities suggested in this and other texts. We have few books, no computers, and teachers often can’t assign homework because students have such volatile home lives (as well as job and children of their own, in some cases). As the struggle in the American public school system seems to worsen, I imagine that more and more classrooms will begin to look like mine.”

In teacher education, we often shoot for the middle. In the semester or so of intensive coursework, followed by a semester of student-teaching, we can’t cover everything. So we try to prepare our students for most classrooms, with the assumption they will adapt to the specific conditions of their work. As this young woman noted, however, in doing so I’d shortchanged beginning teachers whose schools are terribly underfunded, and where kids’ lives outside school make school achievement a lower priority than more basic life needs.

My own experiences working with kids from impoverished circumstances are from earlier generations. In the 1970s, before becoming certified, I worked for two years as a substitute teacher and hall monitor in Trenton, N.J., a district that remains decrepit due to funding shortages. I also taught in Chicago, first in a pullout program for South Side kids when I was getting my master’s degree, then in student-teaching at Martin Luther King High School, and then as a substitute teacher while a doctoral student. All that was more than 30 years ago.

To help me with my shortcomings about today’s impoverished schools and how to teach effectively in them, I talked with two teachers in Georgia, one Latina in a semi-urban district and an African American in a rural district. Both districts carry Title 1 classifications, meaning they enroll high percentages of economically disadvantaged students.

Their recommendations did not emphasize more and better teaching techniques. Teaching technique, highlighted by guidelines for “best practices” irrespective of context, is the solution at the policy level to all things educational. The point they made, however, had nothing to do with technique. These practices tend to be studied with populations and schools with a good degree of stability, and can’t simply be imported whole to settings that are deeply stressed.

Rather, they urged me to consider the challenge of earning kids’ trust. The kids in their charge, they said, have had a rocky time with adults, who keep disappearing on them. It’s easy to blame families for their lack of stability, and many who pathologize impoverished communities say that parents’ bad choices are responsible for their problems, as if we all are positioned to make good choices in similar ways. This essay is not about how to create stable families. Rather, it’s to think about the consequences to trust when young people continually have adults vanish on them without explanation or goodbye.

It’s not just parents and caregivers, however. The absentee rate of teachers in impoverished schools further erodes students’ trust in adults. Kids who come to rely on teachers for emotional support, and have those teachers unavailable or missing in action, have a hard time establishing relational trust in adults in general. When adults as a whole provide a carousel of people who drop in and out of their lives without following through on a promise of sustained care and nurture, kids begin to doubt those who appear at any particular point.

Kids who live amidst insecurity end up feeling insecure. Insecurity is typical of youth and adolescence, but insecure surroundings amplify those feelings, extending them into all areas of life. To the teachers I talked with, forming relationships is central to enabling distrustful students to begin to trust their teachers.

Establishing trust as part of a caring relationship appears prerequisite to effective teaching, no matter how many “best practices” a teacher may employ. That this value is true of all kids in all schools, but is especially important with kids whose lives have been characterized by absenteeism. One way to develop trusting relationships for kids is simply to attend school and not take excessive absences.

That’s easier said than done, and it’s not a new problem. My substitute teaching in Trenton and Chicago was available to me because of chronic teacher absences. It’s a longstanding problem in poorly resourced schools, and it can’t be ignored if you are looking for reasons for the ineffectiveness of public education, if that’s what you’re looking for.

The people making policy, however, appear to believe the emotional, relational aspects of building school communities are irrelevant. Arne Duncan was a dreadful secretary of education in part because he thought that kids need testing more than love and sustained relationships.

I’ve often argued that test scores are used to evaluate students, teachers, and administrators because they are easy to administer, as if searching for keys nearest the lamppost because that’s where the light is best will ever get the car started. By emphasizing relationships and the emotional attachments that make schools communities, I’m arguing for something quite different from what you’ll find in any curriculum document or standards statement.

People have been producing such paper solutions for many decades now; and when they don’t work, other people generate new ones, policymakers put tens of millions behind them, teachers get jerked around with new standards and assessment machinery, and in a few years, we do it all again. I believe that’s because they are working on the wrong problem with the wrong tools. When the adults in the building stop caring, no amount of new techniques will save the day.

Getting kids to care about school, or anything else, starts with caring adults. Most teachers I know undertake their careers because they care about kids. But the conditions of teaching — from overcrowded classrooms, to deteriorating facilities, to low pay, to disrespect from the polity, to misguided mandates, to much more — burn them out. In severely under-resourced schools, these problems are exacerbated to make survival, rather than care, the goal of both students and adults.

I hope taxpayers and people making educational policy recognize that when teachers face — day after day, year after year — obstructive work conditions, they get worn down and discouraged. Kids absorb this sense of futility so that it permeates daily life in schools. Teachers take all of their sick days just to stay sane, and are too overwhelmed by over-enrolled classes and underfinanced resources to give needy kids the care they need when they do attend. And kids feel abandoned once again.

How people feel about a place matter. Critics might dismiss this notion as touchy-feely and out of touch with the workforce’s demands for performance, regardless of how workers feel about their jobs. Schools, however, are more than jobs. They are communities, often acting in loco parentis to provide everything from a hot meal to emotional shelter to help kids endure the challenges of daily life in poverty.

If you say it doesn’t matter how students and their teachers feel about being there, then go ahead and keep generating standards and administering tests. All you’ll get is more of the same. And that’s what the infamously bad student Albert Einstein is reputed to have labeled as insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Reader Comments ...

About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.