Why city teachers should keep trying - against the odds

Three months ago, I retired from teaching English at one of America's failing schools. My school, Edison Tech in Rochester, N.Y., produces the grim statistics that provoke condemnation from pundits and politicians: freshman classes of more than 500 typically dwindle to graduating classes of fewer than 150; 80 percent of those freshmen fail at least one course during each marking period.

On the 2000 PSAT verbal section, fewer than 10 percent of the juniors reached the 50th percentile. On New York's new English Language Arts exams, Rochester has the lowest scores of any large city; Edison has the lowest scores in Rochester.

Edison is afflicted by the usual woes that accompany urban American poverty. Fights are frequent, student pregnancies are commonplace, rules of behavior are routinely flouted.

And always, attendance is poor. It is not unusual to find 500 names on the absence list for a single day. Every Edison teacher can tell the nightmare tales of urban education - of students too quickly angered, too easily discouraged, too soon gone. Teachers know students who have been shot and students who have shot others.

Edison, a senior high school of nearly 2,000 students, became my workplace in 1980. In two decades, I have witnessed school changes that mirror the changes in the city of Rochester.

As the city has become poorer and more dangerous, the students have defended themselves with an armor of cynicism and combativeness. They see little evidence in their families or their neighborhoods that education is of much benefit. Suburbs of varying affluence surround the decaying city, and caught in the middle are Edison's students.

Teaching has never been easy, but today there are the additional obstacles of a popular culture that pulls young people away from intellectual activity, and an army of experts who insist that both students and schools can be accurately evaluated only through standardized tests.

What is it then, besides a paycheck, that keeps teachers going, given the failures and frustrations? Perhaps it is the realization that they are teaching persons, not classes. In the absence of institutional success, urban teachers have learned to measure success according to their own yardsticks. The standardized test results may remain too low, the dropout rate may stay too high, but the individual triumphs of our students lift the spirits.

To me, it is disappointing that only two students regularly attended after-school SAT preparation classes that I offered - but those two, Suzy and Edward, are now college seniors. That Ahmed is now completing law school is a victory, even though the majority of his classmates have not yet earned high school diplomas. Other students have persevered to become firefighters, police officers, hairdressers, computer operators, or mechanics. Four of my Edison teaching colleagues are also my former students.

Just as rewarding is the daily interaction with young people who hold onto hope in unpromising situations. Teachers are forever respectful of those students who complete their homework assignments and show up each day.

Teachers must be demanding, but they can also be patient with students who have not yet decided that getting an education is worth the effort. Sometimes a teacher can only plan to be ready when a student decides also to be ready. The hope is that the wait won't be too long, or that nothing will go too seriously wrong in the student's life.

Perhaps unique among occupations, teaching provides the chance to begin again. Each September, we start over. A teacher can learn from previous mistakes, rather than be limited by them. A lesson that failed can be discarded. New students can be taught in a new way.

Finally, a great reward for urban teachers is the company of their colleagues. Most teachers who survive in these schools are realistic and tough-minded, flexible and good-humored. They have long since given up the notion that they will receive honors for their efforts, but they reject most of the criticism that so often comes their way.

I know teachers who have gone to extraordinary lengths to help their students. One of my fellow English teachers gave a final exam in the Monroe County Jail so that her student would have a chance to gain course credit.

Unfortunately, many young teachers do not stay in urban education. Some quit the profession entirely. Others move to suburban districts.

Some things I do know about urban education. I know, for example, that most schools are far too large. I know that new teachers need much more help than they normally receive. I know, too, that government and society ask far too much of public schools. The expectation is that somehow schools can be both the primary agents of change and the primary exemplars of equality, no matter how lacking students may be in other supports, and how unequally they may share in the nation's economic bounty.

I remain skeptical of claims that our society truly needs all of Edison's students to fill high-tech jobs. It appears that far too many of them are already consigned to the losers' bracket of an unfair competition.

Nonetheless, I also know that an individual student can succeed against the odds, and I know that an individual teacher can make a difference in a young person's life.

Dane Detrick retired in June, after teaching English for more than 20 years at Edison High School in Rochester, N.Y.

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