Myth of hero teacher who swoops in and saves children from poverty, racism and violence

Ed Boland’s gritty new memoir about teaching in a tough New York City school will not put him on a pedestal alongside classroom legends Jaime Escalante (“Stand and Deliver”), Erin Gruwell (“Freedom Writers”), or LouAnne Johnson (“Dangerous Minds”).

Because Boland’s book, “The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School,” is not about a teacher who defies the odds and inspires scholarship amid hardship. The book, which came out yesterday, is a far more common story, the well-intended, bright novice teacher driven from the classroom because of unrelenting challenges. Within five years of starting, 68 percent of teachers in high poverty New York City schools flee their jobs.

“If I wasn’t tough or committed enough, I have a lot of company,” explained Boland, 51, who gave up his 20-year career as an education nonprofit executive and much higher salary to earn a master’s degree in education in 2006 and teach at a small Lower East Side of Manhattan school. Despite experience teaching English in China and predictions by his professors and student-teaching mentors that he would be a classroom star, he lasted a year before returning to the nonprofit.

It proved to be a year in which the best practices of education ran headlong into the raw realities of gangs, homelessness, violence, teen pregnancy and drugs.

“The hero teacher myth helps us sleep a night — we think if we just get good and dedicated teachers, they are really going to turn it all around. So much of the rhetoric in schools is that we can do this, but the responsibility has to be on a broader realm than just principals and teachers,” he said in a telephone interview from New York.

The fantasy that teachers can piece together even the most broken of children prevents us from attacking the real root of school failure, childhood poverty, said Boland, a former admissions officer at his alma mater, Fordham, and later at Yale. He makes the point in his book by sharing the fractured lives of his students.

Nee-cole is tutored by her homeless and eccentric mother on the subway. Yvette creates a barricade of desks around her to isolate from her classmates and their taunts about her prostitution past. The father of class bully Jesus Alvarez pledges to punish his son’s transgressions but Boland witnesses him egging on his son in a street fight. Freddy cajoles Boland into letting him out of class to take his brother’s once-a-week call from prison; later Boland learns Freddy is making calls for his brother’s drug ring. Byron, a Jamaican native, is so ahead of his peers that he bombards Boland with questions like, “Why is Sweden so well suited to socialism?” As brilliant as he is, Byron ends up selling meat pies in Florida because he is undocumented.

Boland's book is sparking debate and discussion in the media. After the New York Post featured it, a teacher still in the classroom wrote a rebuttal, saying,

It seemed as if Mr. Boland watched “Dangerous Minds” for the first time and decided to play hero to needy kids with no real classroom-management strategies at his disposal. Upon the completion of his tenure as a teacher, it seems as if he intended to release this memoir as an obvious money grab, then sit around with his buddies and tell them stories about how he (as Matt Damon so eloquently put it in “Good Will Hunting”) “went slummin’, too, once.”

If Mr. Boland truly wanted to change the lives of his students, why throw in the towel after one year and proceed to write a book about it?

Boland decided to quit when he saw the colleague he admired most, a wunderkind from Harvard, break down after her class averaged 54 on the state world history exam. This was the veteran teacher whose dedication, creativity and resourcefulness had motivated Boland to hang in there. And now she was defeated by the poverty, broken families and violence that marked her students' daily lives. All but two of the 32 teachers at his high school eventually left the school or the profession.

He hesitates when asked what equips some teachers to survive such harrowing circumstances. “I call it the special sauce of teaching,” he said. “There was the math teacher down the hall, a 5-foot blond who managed to control kids in a very clear way. It is not just one secret sauce — it can be a pedagogy of love where the teacher oozes such affection for the kids they will do anything for her. It can be the clear disciplinarian.”

Had he stayed longer, Boland agrees he may have come up with his own sauce recipe. “I kept hearing different advice from different people and kept going from desperate move to desperate move.”

While his experiences shook Boland’s assumptions about effective teaching, he gained an understanding of effective discipline; it must be consistent from the first day, he said. Disruptive kids ought to be removed from the classroom, but worked with rather than warehoused. He believes “second chance” schools — alternative programs that provide personalized instruction along with intense counseling — hold promise.

Boland stresses his book is not a how-to for new teachers since he never figured out how to himself. "Anyone who reads this book would be the sadder but wiser. I wish someone had told me it was going to be tough and celebrate every victory you have because so much of what is in front of you is outside your control. “

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