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May 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 8

Teaching the 22 Percent

After my school entered Program Improvement under No Child Left Behind, our union negotiated a provision that allowed teachers to transfer to a school of their choice that wasn't in Program Improvement. Even without that opportunity, teacher turnover at my high-poverty, urban school has long been problematic. I have worked with 20 different grade-level partners over 12 years, and we've had seven teachers in our three 5th grade classes in the last three years. I have been the only constant.
Those of us who choose to teach at high-poverty, urban schools have a variety of personal narratives that pull us back year after year. In my case, it was my dream as a teenager to become a teacher, which was thwarted early on and not pursued again until my 40s. It was also the ability, after 16 years of practicing law, to retire and take a more than 50 percent cut in pay. It was my father's suicide when he was 85, when I was his primary caregiver. It was the realization that I would never have children. These and a long list of other, smaller factors are what led me here.

My Beliefs

Regardless of our specific narratives, those of us who teach in high-poverty schools often have a deep-rooted belief that we are working to create a better future for our children, our community, and our country. This belief often makes us flexible and open to new theories and strategies. It drives many of us to master today's technology and to yearn for a supportive team of like-minded people. We believe in children, knowing that our future is in their hands.
We believe in the immigrant child who writes a narrative titled "The Killing in Iraq" about events she witnessed firsthand. We believe in the undocumented immigrant student who struggles to learn English and says, "Teacher, I like this grammar stuff. It really makes sense!" We are kindred spirits with the father who proclaims at a conference, "My son is a good boy. He will make the United States of America proud."
Many of us who teach in these schools are white, middle-class women. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 84 percent of public elementary school teachers are female, and 83 percent of full-time teachers are white.<FOOTNOTE><NO>1</NO>National Center for Education Statistics. (2012). The condition of education. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_tsp.asp</FOOTNOTE> I fit that stereotype, and I choose to be here each day. This is only one of the many choices within my reach.

My Choices

I can choose to continually improve my teaching. I can choose to reach for stronger teaching strategies, more effective lesson ideas, and greater personalization of instruction. If a child is not making progress, I can choose to change what I'm doing, rather than find deficits with the student or the student's family. Many people have told me that if I want better results, I should change schools. But I like my school. I love my students. I do not want to leave. I want to be successful right where I am.
I choose to push my students. I want to bring them the kind of rigor I experienced in 16 years of Catholic school. I want to challenge their thinking, not fill them up with facts. I want to teach them to ask questions and analyze issues from every angle. My students are thinkers and problem solvers, as these stories attest:
  • Early in the school year, the students file in talking loudly, bickering, complaining, ignoring all requests to quiet down and get busy. I chastise them and request silence—with no apparent result. A student looks at me and quietly says, "They don't trust you." I look back and say, "Yet." She smiles and says, "Yeah. Yet."
  • A student drags out his, "What?" when being corrected for the third time, and I say, "How about if you try 'OK, no problem?'" Later that afternoon, as he looks to make sure no one else can hear, he asks me, "How am I doing on that OK stuff?"
  • After a student is absent, he whispers quietly, "Can you please give me a minilesson on the math I missed? I really need to get caught up." I nod but make sure not to give him away in front of his friends.
My students are hungry for knowledge. They want to be confident with the right answer, and they want a taste of success. So I choose to focus on their skills and their desire to learn, and I choose to invest in a personal toolbox that will help me find ways to give them the success they crave.

My Toolbox

All teachers assemble a personal toolbox of skills and strategies. Yet after working with 20 different teaching partners, I have come to believe that these personal toolboxes are insufficient. I am ineffective alone. I need a well-trained team of like-minded teachers who function cohesively and make continual learning a priority.
  • A well-trained team. Each of us brings different strengths and skills to the table. Only when we combine these will we find lasting success in high-poverty, urban schools. Our culture, our communities, and our policies must make the education of all students a priority.
  • Like-minded teachers. When teachers share similar philosophies and effectively collaborate with one another, students see that teamwork and harmony are realistic goals. It is crucial that we build a team of teachers who put aside individual needs and differences for the sake of the children. Teachers like me who also live in the community have an even greater investment in the success of the school and its students.
  • Cohesiveness. Teachers need the time, the training, the desire, and a deep-rooted sense of unity and trust to function cohesively. We need to work collaboratively and willingly in an open and professional exchange of ideas, plans, efforts, and even failures.
  • Ability to continually learn. We can equip ourselves with the knowledge, understanding, and worldview to ensure that we are as effective as possible, knowing that our personal narratives are very different from those of our students. We can pursue education in multicultural awareness and other areas that will expand our points of view and challenge us to reflect on our privilege and assumptions about social class, race, culture, and power.
We all have choices. With 22 percent of children in the United States living in poverty,<FOOTNOTE><NO>2</NO>DeNavas-Walt, C., Proctor, B. D., &amp; Smith, J. C. (2011). Income, poverty, and health insurance coverage in the United States: 2010. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved from www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/p60-239.pdf</FOOTNOTE> I am proud to be a 22 percent teacher. It is work that requires time and sacrifice. It is a choice within our reach.

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