A retired teacher writes about her experiences teaching in an inner-city school in Hartford, Connecticut:
I retired last June, after nearly 38 years of teaching at M. L. King Elementary School, in Hartford, CT. ,one of the poorest mid-sized cities in the nation. As I listen to the President, educational leaders, media commentators, and many in the concerned public, I am always distressed by the degree of blame and scorn heaped upon “failing” city schoolteachers and their “obstructionist “ unions. While I believe that the expressed concerns regarding the state of education in our poorest communities are valid, the solutions seem to be leaving many of our most vulnerable students even further behind.
I began my teaching career with a Masters in Urban Education, from Columbia University. Over the years, I earned 90 college credits beyond my masters, all in efforts to improve instruction. My last year of teaching, as in most other years, I was at school daily until 5, 6, 7, or even 8:00 PM. In addition, I took work home at night, and over the weekend as well. There are countless other teachers just like me. With all of our training, experience, and effort, we faced “failure” on a daily basis.
With the advent of “magnet”, and “charter” schools, I watched the population of King School decrease by more than half. It had been, for years, a stable community school, with parents, children, and sometimes grandchildren being taught by the same teachers who spent their entire professional lives serving this community. Out of district families often requested special permission to attend the school. Over time, the student population of King School has decreased by more than half, with numbers of students leaving to attend “choice” schools. Unfortunately, many, if not most of the students and families who left, were those who had greater economic, educational, emotional, and social advantages. It takes time, knowledge, and energy for parents to apply to these choice schools. The application process is now on line. Those families without time, computer skills, or even basic literacy are excluded. Those students left behind require more resources, yet in the current decentralized, competitive school model, they receive far less.
Despite all of these disadvantages, Martin Luther King School teachers have demonstrated marked improvement on test scores for two consecutive years. They are no longer considered a “failing school”. Yet in spite of these efforts, teachers were recently told that their school will be shut down. Not immediately, but phased out over three or four years. King School will be replaced by a charter school. Teachers will gradually be laid off. The nine teachers who are being cut this year have been informed that they might not have the option to transfer to another Hartford Public School. It seems to me that we have stepped through the looking glass, with all reason and fairness having evaporated.
I can’t help but compare my teaching experiences to those of my sister, who works in a nearby suburban school. She earns more money than the teachers in Hartford. She works in a brand new building, with state of the art equipment. While she is a hard working teacher, she works far fewer hours. She does not have to deal with an enormous amount of paperwork documenting her efforts to improve instruction for large numbers of academically deficient students. Her students are overwhelmingly well cared-for, and it is highly unlikely that any of them have encountered drug dealers or traumatic violence in their neighborhoods. These children have, for the most part, grown up with respect, and in turn, have been taught to respect others, particularly their teacher. She has a wealth of supplemental materials she may need, at hand. She’s never had to spend her own money on crayons, markers, copy paper, or other critical supplies. When school begins in the fall, she is treated to a teacher’s luncheon, provided by the school PTA. She has well-educated parent volunteers in her classroom every day, to assist her students while she delivers small group reading instruction. At holiday time, she comes home with bags full of gifts given to her by the children, and their parents. At the end of the school year, she gets expensive gift certificates, cooperatively given by the parents in her class, as a thank you gift for all she has done. Most importantly, she is not blamed for her students’ failure to meet proficiency. They are usually all at, or above proficiency. She is a member of a teacher union that bargains for improvements in teachers’ pay and working conditions (amount of preparation time, additional duties, etc.). It is a source of counsel and support, should she be harassed or mistreated.
Many teachers in Hartford are presently trapped, due to an economic situation which has resulted in few teacher openings, but this will soon change. The “baby boom” generation of teachers is about to retire, and cities and towns will be in competition to hire the best and the brightest. It doesn’t take an Ivy League education to see the stark disparity in the respect afforded teachers throughout the state and the nation. When my generation entered the ranks of teachers determined to fight the “War on Poverty” in our cities, we understood that resources were unevenly allocated, and we’d no doubt have to work harder than our suburban counterparts. At the same time, we worked collaboratively with administrators and, for the most part, received respect (if not appreciation) from the society at large.
In this brave new world of high stakes testing, and teacher accountability (note that there is little to measure parent, community, or student accountability), I fear for our most vulnerable children. Who will choose to subject themselves to the very vulnerable position of teaching in our poor urban districts? The disparity in pay, resources, and most importantly respect, will lead teachers to more stable careers in suburban school districts. Our city children will be left further and further behind. The tragedy of lost potential will only be magnified.