Monday, April 23, 2012

Dear Mr. Mayor: Why I Will Not Teach in Your Schools

Dear Mr. Rahm Emanuel,

I am a teacher. For the past few years, I have been toying with the idea of returning to work in the Chicago Public Schools. I am a special education teacher with extensive experience teaching children and adolescents with behavioral/emotional disabilities, have a Masters degree with dual certification in special and elementary education, as well as six years experience teaching overseas. I became a teacher with the express purpose of teaching at-risk youth here in my home city of Chicago.

But I refuse to teach in your schools.

I refuse to teach in a school which your appointed Board purposefully starves in order to justify closure and privatization. I cannot watch the savage inequalities of school funding play out in children’s lives.

I refuse to administer standardized tests to children with special needs over and over and over again. I did that once in a school, and I consider it immoral forcing a child who is having panic attacks, crying, flipping desks in frustration to take a test far above the level we know that child is currently learning. And all for the purpose of judging, sorting, and punishing.

I refuse to teach the scripted curriculum forced on your teachers. My students need creative, responsive, individualized instruction. Not canned test-prep.

I refuse to let my skin color and lack of experience in the system allow you to force out my African-American veteran colleagues whose wisdom and experience my students cannot do without.

I refuse to be turned into a number. I will not let you turn some meaningless test score into an equally meaningless statistic about my value as a teacher. I want to be evaluated on my creativity and compassion in reaching every one of my students. I want to be measured in the smiles of my students as my reluctant readers shout out excitedly “when is reading time?” I want to be measured by the questions my students ask rather the multiple choice they answer.

I refuse to be paid according to that meaningless number. I want to be paid for my accumulated knowledge and loyalty to a school and community. I want to foster collaboration—not competition—with my colleagues as we work as a team to figure out each precious puzzle placed in our care.

I refuse to abandon my students with special needs. Your schools will likely fire the teachers who choose to work with the fragile, unpredictable children with disabilities, or any other traditionally low-scoring students such as children whose native tongue is not English. My students are a joy. They are so much more than a test score.

I refuse to be a part of the criminalization of my students, especially the African-American young men I work with. Many of these children tell me stories of their lives and I believe they have every right to be angry. Angry at how their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunties, and friends have been treated by this racist society. Angry at how their communities have been purposefully thrown away. Angry at the lack of opportunity, jobs, and even basic health care. They have a voice, and I will not silence it with suspensions, expulsions, and zero tolerance discipline practices.

I refuse to teach too many children at once. I suppose once we have reduced children down to a number, there is no end as to how many we can squeeze into one room. But I want to foster individual, caring relationships with each child and their families. And that takes time.

And speaking of time, I refuse to work in a place with so little respect for mine. Your longer school day will not be better without extra resources and staff. Most of what a great teacher does happens behind the scenes, in the planning and preparation and collaboration with colleagues. If you take that away from teachers, you will not get better learning. And in many cases, the experience of school will become even more boring and dreary for our students.

Your longer school day and new evaluation system were the last straw. I will not go back into your schools. I cannot go back because I know that I will become complicit in nothing short of child abuse.

Mr. Mayor, I suspect that there are many teachers out there thinking the same thing as me. Your destructive policies will drive great teachers away in droves.

That is of course, unless teachers actually stand up to the bully and say “no more”. Chicago teachers, I stand with you, and will become one of you again, as soon as we take back our schools. We have to...for our students.

And I refuse to go back to anything less than a revolution.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

It Just Ain’t Right

I had a mini-break down at my work this week. I walked in the door and immediately broke into tears. I’m just sick of…well, everything. For those of you who don’t know, I work as a teacher on an inpatient psychiatry unit for children and adolescents. I came to this job because I was disgusted by what I saw in my grossly underfunded and intentionally neglected inner-city school in Chicago. And for a while, working on an inpatient psych unit was better. I had the staff and support to reach my kids, the autonomy to teach high-interest subjects, and the flexibility to try to innovate and experiment in my teaching techniques and lesson ideas. The kids had really tough behaviors, but I got to be a part in helping these kids succeed.

The past few months however, something has shifted at my workplace. When I first started, we always had an ebb and flow to our patient census. The numbers would be high for a few weeks, maybe a month, then would cycle lower. The busy weeks were hard and stressful, but then a light week would hit and we could all take a moment to breath.

We have not had a light week in over six months.

Something has changed out there in the world. Too much has been cut. Too many intermediary services are gone. And Medicaid is being outsourced to crappy managed care companies so children are getting fewer days to recover in a hospital before they are kicked out. And at my for-profit hospital, they refuse to spend money on more staff. There isn’t enough space. There isn’t enough support. And the kids are getting sicker with fewer and fewer resources to help them before they are in crisis.

And my students’ schools aren’t helping. Schools as test prep factories provide few incentives for my students to get engaged in education. Add to that the fact that many of my kids are being treated like criminals in school. School has become a cold, unwelcoming place for too many young people. And so they seek out other, risky, self-destructive ways to fill their time.

And this past week, for some reason, it hit me so clearly. If my hospital served a majority of middle or upper class white children, we would have better funding. We would have better staffing ratios. We would provide better treatment. It is because my hospital works with mainly low-income Black and Hispanic young people that we can get away with not spending enough on patient care. If we served more white kids, things would not be this hard. We would have abundant resources, we would have ample staffing, we would have beautiful facilities. But we don’t.

The other day, I had a thought which absolutely sickened me. I saw a white parent of a patient who goes to a high-class private school step off the elevator--every now and then we get upper-class kids, although they tend to be transferred out pretty quickly--and I was embarrassed. And I thought “wait, why am I not embarrassed when every parent steps off the elevator?” Don’t ALL children deserve the best care we can possibly provide? And yet, in our society, we are somehow conditioned that it’s ok for some kids to get crumbling, disgusting facilities and minimal services while others are entitled to top-notch supports.

It’s the same as the schools. If your school serves mostly brown or black children, then the powers that be know they can get away with investing the least amount of resources. Any complaint from community or parents can easily be dismissed as “noise”, since we all know no one listens to people from those communities anyway (right, Mayor Emanuel?)

And the so-called “education reformers” just make things worse. They take the already limited funds and push them towards private pockets. They invest in charters and turnaround schools which don’t serve all students. For-profit health care gives us a glimpse at what education will soon become if the corporations and billionaire philanthropists have their way in destroying public education. The inequality will be worse than ever.

I believe it’s time to get angry about this status quo—the status quo that says local and unequal funding of schools is just fine. The status quo that says the communities, families, and children which need the most services can make do with crappy second-rate care. Right this moment, there is an occupation of a mental health clinic on Chicago’s south side. We the people must DEMAND more services in actions like this one.

I am horribly embarrassed by my reaction to that white parent. We must expose the inequalities that are so common place we don’t even notice them anymore. We must stand up, in solidarity, to corporations and bureaucracies that are getting away with savage inequalities based solely on zip code or race. And only a massive people’s movement will change this disgusting, unequal status quo.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

What If Charter Schools Did What They Were Intended to Do?

As I continue to meet dozens and dozens of charter school students from across Chicago, I am continually reminded how different the charter schools are from their nearby public neighborhood schools. Working in a psychiatric facility means all the students I meet have some sort of mental health problem. And yet, a vast majority of the children I meet from the charters have either mild, or inward-focused disabilities such as depression or anxiety. Their learning problems are minimal and they have overwhelmingly been strong students academically. Many have only just begun to attend charters so, for the most part, I do not credit the schools themselves with this difference. These kids are the ones who already are good students with minimal behavior issues.

And I wonder, instead of skimming away these high-performing students, what if charter schools had followed the original intention of their creation? What if these schools had targeted not the best test-takers, or kids who with just a little push could be great test-takers (since test-taking is the only metric anyone seems to care about these days), but instead focused on the ones who were about to dropout, the ones who had a history of behavior problems, the ones who disrupted the learning of all the other students and took up the time of the teachers, the ones who are over-represented in Special Education, the ones who were truly struggling in the public schools?

And I imagine the charters as using flexibility in curriculum, staffing, and the use of funds to create truly innovative places of learning. They would be schools with various extra-curriculars to keep kids engaged, extra staff support to reach this tougher group of kids, innovative use of technology, services to reach out to kids already involved with gangs or with substance abuse issues, special programs for kids in the juvenile justice system or even the foster care system, flexible start and end times to encourage students to actually attend school regularly, vocational training opportunities including partnerships with local businesses and industries, and more. Charters could become an alternative to oppressive alternative schools.

In the meantime, the neighborhood school would feel supported and be better able to do a job educating the students who could succeed under a more traditional version of school. There are plenty of children living in low-income neighborhoods who have supportive home lives and who are ready to be challenged academically. But thanks to the effects of poverty, there are MORE students who suffer from debilitating behavior and learning challenges. It matters that some children are not receiving proper nutrition. It matters that more children are being exposed to substances in utero. It matters that children are growing up watching extreme violence on their streets and experiencing post-traumatic stress as a result. It matters that families cannot find employment and children suffer from the daily stress of unstable living conditions. It matters that children are being thrust into bouts of homelessness and the chaotic lives that ensue. If charter schools stepped up to help THESE kids, they ones I meet every day at my work—the ones who are difficult even for a staff of highly-trained professionals-- they would be doing a huge service to communities and public schools. Charter schools would be SUPPORTING neighborhood schools by focusing attention and resources on the kids who truly needed it.

Somehow, the vast majority of charter schools (with some exceptions, no doubt) focus all their attention on kids who already can “cut it”. They claim they have solved the puzzle of low-income schools. I’m sorry, but just because your student population is made up of children from low-income backgrounds and students of color, does NOT mean they are the struggling students. Poverty does matter, but it impacts families and individuals differently.

I look at my students at the hospital. The neighborhood schools are truly working with a tougher bunch of kids. Some of them will eventually be transferred (after many meetings, a whole lot of paperwork, and a lot of pushing and advocating) to therapeutic day schools or alternative schools. But there are not nearly enough schools like this to accommodate all the children with significant problems in school. And unlike the successful charters, the neighborhood schools don’t get two teachers and an aide in a class of under 20 kids (See Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academies.) In fact, as their stronger performers are siphoned away to the charters along with their funding, they will have even less to offer the students left behind.

Charters could’ve really helped my toughest kids. These kids deserve a fighting chance at a good education. Instead, somewhere in the twisted logic of current education reform, they are being given less than ever before. And it makes me ill.

I still don’t believe charters would be a panacea even if they took up their original mission. And I worry about segregating out students with greater needs and not addressing the funding inequalities and racial isolation of these schools and communities, but at least they would not be making things WORSE for the neighborhood schools. I truly believe many charter school teachers and even some leaders think they are doing something good. But I tell you, from where I stand, charter schools are taking part in denying the most fragile children quality education. If only charters could reclaim the mission of helping the kids that need it the most. If only charters weren't "in competition" for the strongest students and best test scores. If only charters weren't dividing communities and parents who now need to fight for ever dwindling resources. Perhaps then, in solidarity, all educators and parents—charter and neighborhood alike--could continue the fight together for true equity for ALL children.