On the Front Line - at School

A year of inner-city teaching leaves many questions, few answers

Who's at fault for the failure of so many of our public schools in the United States? If you ask 50 people, you'll get 50 answers. It's much less clear to me now that I've taught.

For one year, I taught at an inner-city high school in the South. I use the term "inner-city" not because my school was located in the central city (it wasn't), but because it was under-resourced and held little or no expectations for students.

On the second day of school, I assigned each ninth-grade child a new book and a supplementary reader, in case we had time to get to Thurber, Poe, or perhaps London. For some of the children, that would be the last time I saw the books before they were turned back in at the end of the quarter. A few students let me know they were too heavy to carry.

Second semester, I did not even bother to assign books, even though I had more than enough for every child. Instead, I kept a class set that we pulled out every day.

Still, my classes were in chaos. My school district has been running a discipline/expectations program in the schools for a few years. The objective is to make the schools safe, clean, and well-attended. Too bad it was only in writing.

I had three fights in my room that year. Once, I watched a group of girls tear out one another's hair and rip one another's clothes. As students crowded around to view the fight, it became impossible for security staff to reach the center of the melee. Children stream out of surrounding classrooms when a fight starts, regardless of what time it is.

Part of my ceiling collapsed during the first semester; one child was struck on the head. Rats ran the exposed pipes in the hallways. Every surface imaginable was coated with the "street names" of students, far outpacing the custodians' efforts to clean up. There were not enough desks for the children. The school district refunded a total of $25 for all supply purchases a teacher decided to make out of his or her own pocket. Student restrooms lacked doors on the stalls and more often than not did not have any tissue paper. The school resembled a jail.

Attendance may have been the biggest barrier to success. I had students who missed 25, 35, and 40 days in a quarter. The "policy" was that more than four unexcused absences constituted a failing grade. I offered make-up work, but seldom saw any completed by an absent child. I spent half an hour on the phone every night trying to track down students. And when grades arrived, a chorus of "But I did my work!" arose. They forgot to add, "on the days I was actually here." I failed one-third of each class.

Other irritants during the school day that directly affected learning included "hall walkers." At least 50 children were typically out of the classrooms during class time - chronic hall walkers, ordered out by teachers for being disruptive. The teachers knew, from experience, that it did little good to march them to the principal's office. At their worst, these children would knock on classroom doors incessantly. Teachers tended to put the same students out of their classrooms repeatedly.

I have to admit that I quit. I didn't have the answers then, and I still don't now. But I can offer a few observations on what I think might improve the situation:

* A child should not be able to challenge a teacher's authority to maintain order in the classroom and go unpunished. Disruptive students should be dealt with in more appropriate fashions, such as alternative schools, not bounced from building to building.

* Money needs to be funneled into infrastructure and materials. As better discipline takes hold in the schools, the money will not be wasted. Students will see that those who destroy property will face serious consequences. More diverse learning materials and styles can then be presented.

* More staff needs to be hired so there is less administrative work for teachers and better services for the children. More staff means fewer overworked administrators, freeing people to track discipline matters instead of simply keeping the lid on when things become explosive. A teacher should not have to be a truant officer, or a mother, or the police.

* When you were in high school, did you shy away from doing "bad" things because they were wrong, or because you were afraid you might get caught? Too many students today aren't afraid of the consequences of their actions - because we've taught them that there are no consequences until they've stolen or killed. We've shown them that we don't care.

Children want to learn, but find, more often than not, weary adults who simply don't have the energy left to teach or the authority or inclination to discipline.

We need to contain the energy of children and harness it to something that can take them great places. But we first need to make clear what we will not tolerate - from the children themselves, and from the adults in the school system.

* Karen Buck taught for one year in an urban school district and now works for an adoption agency in Evanston, Ill.

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