Anacosita ES - The End

Yes, an abrupt end it is. Four weeks I spent at Anacostia Elementary School. The experiences of that time are enough to give me a taste of what it’s like to teach in a downtrodden urban neighborhood. And enough to realize I would not be able to teach there the whole year and make it out on the other end with my health and sanity in tact.

I wrote about the violence and the disrespect amongst students and both were very prominent. Fights continued to erupt in the classroom and the hallway, usually as a result of taunting between the students. One was so bad that desks, chairs and furniture went flying around my classroom. I herded students into the hallway while one member of our class whacked furniture in the classroom with a metal frame of free-standing white board. That student got taken away for the day, only to be babysat by a special education coordinator, who had no idea what the child had done. No one called his house. There was no follow up beyond me calling mother and trying to prepare the students for reintegrating him into the classroom the next day, requesting that they not call him “psychopath.”

We did have a nine day streak fight-free. According to observers familiar with the school, this was a record. Unfortunately, skirmishes continued in the following weeks, and I continued to feel unprepared for handling them and their fallout. Our school had no particular protocols in place for such situations. When I asked the principal, I was informed that I should not call upon the security guard to break up a fight, nor was I given any other alternate solutions. Trying to deescalate a fight between two impulsive, hyperactive ten year olds is nearly impossible. No time outs, talk with principal, detention or in-house suspension as a form of consequence was available. All these issues were to be handled by classroom teacher. The classroom teacher who is expected to teach rigorous academic material, for which the students are not, as one might imagine, prepared.

I am happy to say that in the four weeks I did notice a difference in each of my students. Even those most destructive, most unreasonable, the ones held back, the ones ostracized by the whole, responded to me by initiating unexpected conversations, showing concern about their behavior contracts, obeying my requests to “please sit down” even if it was after the seventh time, by raising hands and trying to participate and simply by making eye contact or saying hello. There were glimmers of hope with each one, and I felt proud to see their investment in their education. It was uplifting.

Unfortunately, these glimmers were not enough to uplift the colossally malfunctioning system into something manageable and forward moving. In the end it was not the children, as crazy as the stories about them are, that made me want to leave the job. The part that seemed far less likely to change was the administration, the top-down issuances of mandates, scripted curricula, required bulletin board displays, micromanaged time segments, and the constant threat that someone would come in to check teacher’s degree of compliance with all of the above and “write them up” was really too much to bear.

Ironically, teachers were treated in exactly the same way bad teachers teach their students: without listening, caring, explaining, providing rationale or getting their “buy in.” The administration was the sage on the stage, the very paradigm which effective teachers try to steer away from.

It is too bad really. After ”experts” spent years analyzing what makes a good teacher, and evaluating an effective teacher’s impact on the classroom, such teachers are making their ways into many underperforming classrooms that may have been neglected. This effort may still not yield the results its proponents are hoping for because it takes more than just a good teacher to reform a classroom, let alone a school. Good teachers may be the bricks of a successful school, but the administration and support services, the soundness of norms and expectations, the consistency of procedures, the caring and investment of and a collegial atmosphere among its adults are the mortar. Both are needed for the building to stand.

Teachers can not be, exceptional human beings who make extraordinary sacrifices at great personal cost for the good of society. Or at least this one can’t.

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