WE went to Louisiana to make a difference as members of the Teach For America national teachers corps. We knew that the New Orleans schools were underfunded and troubled with a chronic lack of qualified teachers, and we promised to teach for two years in the Orleans Parish school system.
Deciding not to teach a third year was the most difficult decision we have ever made. We found that our experiences transcended that vision of a short-term commitment. We didn't just quit jobs, we left two families.
Still, despite the positive changes we made, the respect of parents and students we earned, and the intangible rewards that came from helping talented children to learn, we decided to stop teaching and enter graduate school this fall. We believe that our leaving highlights some of the growing problems in public education and American society.
Based on test scores, dropout rates, and socioeconomic status of the students, the schools we taught in were two of the worst high schools in the country - Booker T. Washington and Alcee Fortier high schools.
Given these circumstances, both schools do a fine job, but students leave deserving so much more. In two years we have painfully learned that neither New Orleans in particular nor American society in general shares the level of concern we had for our students. This lack of concern condemns these children to an unequal and inadequate education and America to a problematic future.
Every day we had to settle for less. Others have described the lack of supplies, poor resources, and dilapidated buildings that characterize the non-magnet, inner-city schools of Orleans Parish. Similar conditions exist in urban areas around the country.
We quickly discovered that the capabilities of our students greatly exceeded society's investment in them. Leaders decry the lack of school achievement and worry about America's ability to compete internationally, yet they consistently refuse to provide students and teachers with the means to fulfill the expectations and needs of modern society.
Every week we each spent a portion of our own salary on laboratory materials, fought the morning traffic to photocopy materials at Kinko's, taught our hearts out, tutored children in the afternoons, and spent the evenings planning lessons - ones with cooperative, hands-on science experiences that our students found relevant, interesting, and exciting. Nobody cared - except for us and our classes. Parental involvement was minimal.
School administrators are hired as educational leaders, but issues of discipline and bureaucracy steal their time. Community leaders offer rhetoric and handshakes while our schools wallow in mediocrity. The children deserve much better.
Certainly the thrill that understanding produces on a kid's face is more rewarding than, say, an insurance sale or a successful corporate takeover, but that thrill alone cannot sustain a long career of teaching at a substandard salary in appalling, unprofessional conditions.
The frustrations that plague an inner-city teacher drive motivated and talented individuals to either mediocrity or other professions. We cannot imagine a more important job, and yet to maintain such high demands upon ourselves would result in burnout.
Regrettably, it seems to us that the best way to change the educational system is to get out of the classroom - at least for awhile. We both plan to leave graduate school with degrees in physics and education. At that time we expect to have the ability to make a larger difference and the experience to know where that difference is needed.
Teacher-education programs need to be updated so they accurately and efficiently prepare teachers for the classroom. Concrete examples and situations need to be stressed over abstract pedagogy. The teaching profession needs to be redefined to address the modern demands it faces: If a teacher is to be a parent, organizer, researcher, counselor, and community activist, then time and training need to be allocated for these tasks.
Curricula need to be revised and updated, so that they mirror the technological and multicultural America of the 1990s. Schools cannot use 19th-century technology and methods to teach citizens of the 21st century. Those students who were fortunate enough to work at McDonald's received a valuable exposure to computers that our schools couldn't match.
We intend to use our experience and our education to change teacher education, to bring the curriculum forward, and to get technology into the hands of public school teachers and students.
With our background, we can work to change the educational system so that one day it will give all students, including inner-city students like ours, the education they deserve.
We're getting out of the system for now. Hats off to those teachers and administrators - Mr. May, Ms. Parker, Ms. Ringstaff, Ms. Smith, and Mr. Brown from Alcee Fortier, and Ms. Echols, Ms. Franklin, Mr. Foy, Ms. Mercier, and Mr. Taylor at Booker T. Washington, to name a few - who have been teaching for many years and continue with the same enthusiasm, innovation, and dedication to their students that we had for two.
They have served their students well in difficult conditions with too little recognition and support. America deludes itself by continuing to rely on altruists and saints to do the most important job around.