Laurel Sturt was a fashion designer who decided to give up her career and become a Teaching Fellow. She was motivated by a desire to help children and make a difference, as most teachers are.
In an interview in the Atlantic, she explains what happened to her. Her experience is not unique, but it is important that it appears in a mainstream publication.
Laurel Sturt was a 46-year-old fashion designer in New York City whose career trajectory took an unlikely shift one day on the subway. A self-proclaimed social activist, Sturt noticed an ad for a Teaching Fellows program. Then and there, she decided to quit her job in fashion design and shift her focus to her real passion: helping others. She enrolled in the two-year program and was assigned to teach at an elementary school in a high-poverty neighborhood near the South Bronx.
She wanted to be a social activist but she arrived as No Child Left Behind and Mayor Bloomberg’s similar program took effect. This is how she described what she saw:
I saw a lot of problems with all the testing, with all the slogans everywhere, as if you were in North Korea or something. It was very strange. … It was all about achievement through test scores. I resented the fact that we were test-prepping them all the time and we couldn’t give them a rich, authentic education.
And she learned the reason for the “achievement gap” or “opportunity gap”:
It was a very poor neighborhood with a lot of English-language learners who knew little or no English. With poverty comes this condition called Toxic Stress. It explains why the children were so difficult to handle, needy, and so behind in learning. When your dad is in prison or your mom is on drugs, or your mom drank alcohol when you were a fetus, if you didn’t sleep the night before because you were allowed to play video games all night, or maybe there was a shooting, your cognitive ability is harmed. It rewires their brain so they’re unable to employ working memory, which is what you use when you’re learning. We’re charged with being the parents of these kids, being the friends, the mentors. Teachers are given all these social responsibility towards children that aren’t ours. It’s a failure of the system to address the poverty that creates the achievement gap.
Having been enticed by the subway ads to make a difference, she signed up, she did her best, but she eventually left teaching. Why?
I saw that no matter what I wanted for the kids, it wasn’t going to happen. The system purported to be supporting students just wasn’t there. They need remediation, tiny class sizes, one-on-one attention—they need parenting, basically. Their parents are affected by the same Toxic Stress that they are, and it repeats itself in a cycle from parent to child. In America, the wealthiest school is going to get ten times more funding than the lowest one. For every dollar my school was getting, one in the suburbs was getting ten dollars. That’s huge. The kids come in disadvantaged, and they’re subjected to this disadvantaged school. My school was completely third-world. And through it all, it completely negated your life outside school. It was so exhausting. To teach anyway means to be giving, to deliver something. You’re giving out, giving out, giving out. And when you come up against these natural obstructions because of poverty, and then the lack of support from the administration, it’s just too much.