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What those who teach can't do.

kconrad's picture

Although we’ve touched on the topic, our conversations so far haven’t focused on the role of teachers within urban schools. Today’s readings made me consider two aspects of this topic: the responsibilities that teachers should be held accountable for, and how (or not) they are limited in their abilities to take on those responsibilities.

In Chapter 20 of City Kids, City Schools, Sue Brooks makes a compelling argument that teachers must learn about, recognize, and attempt to understand the “social causes of poverty and its day-to-day impact on poor families” (p. 184). Such a mindset requires not only knowledge about childhood poverty, but also a particular pedagogical philosophy that guides every interaction with all students, not just those in poverty. Teachers with such a mindset understand that a student can be neither reduced to, nor fully separated from, the greater context of his or her situation. They do not regard their students as empty vessels waiting to be filled by the passive transferral then regurgitation of information, but rather, they know that every child (everyone, really) experiences each activity, interaction, lesson, or piece of knowledge in a unique way, that “reality is not a given but depends on the position from which you are standing” (Carol Frank, “Ethnographic Eyes,” 1999, p. 4). When a teacher uses values such as these to guide every classroom interaction, then it follows that she will assume the responsibility of educating themselves on the causes and consequences of poverty, and adjust teaching accordingly. As Brooks describes, she will put forth “a concerted effort to learn, undertaken with openness to the possibility of being challenged and changed” (p. 192).

A question that remains, however: can teachers successfully arrive at and express this mindset in the context of the schools that children living in poverty typically attend? One important step occurs during teachers’ education, as mentioned by Brooks. To be honest, I don’t know how widespread this sort of teachers’ ed. is, although it represents a progressive, rather than traditional style of teaching, which suggests to me that it is limited. However, I do know that reform programs such as Teach for America simply would not be able to cover these subjects in the depth they deserve before placing teachers into the “failing” schools that need those fundamental beliefs most urgently, and displacing teachers that perhaps do hold them.

TFA is just one example of how aspects our school system as it exists now undervalue (perhaps even devalue?) the knowledge and beliefs that Brooks triumphs. As an art teacher said in our The Nation article, “nobody wants to pay for experienced teachers anymore” (p. 6) This statement, as well as the article we read last week, reflects a common undervaluing of good teachers. The Nation goes on to say that “while reformers want to make it easy to fire bad teachers, being able to attract and retain the best teachers is a much bigger problem” - reformers dig out a hole that they aren’t willing to fill. When turnover rate is high, benefits are low, respect is absent, and room for agency and creativity has been drained by the standardizing effects of NCLB, teachers can see that not only is that necessary mindset considered unnecessary by those in power, but in many cases, is often punished by them. It should be no surprise then that teachers are limited in their will to engage in that teaching style, and in their ability to attain it in the first place.


jccohen's picture


You raise difficult and important questions about the challenges teachers face in doing the kind of work Brooks talks about.  And we will of course be focusing on the role of teachers as the course progresses, including a hard look at what's going on for TFA teachers.  For now, though, I want to respond to your question: "can teachers successfully arrive at and express this mindset in the context of the schools that children living in poverty typically attend?"  I agree with your analysis of the many ways in which teachers are not supported in taking up this "mindset," and yet I maintain that it's also the case that many urban teachers do so.  I think this is partly because teachers in the vast majority of cases enter the profession wanting to have positive relationships with students, and in this sense predisposed to seek understandings that make students' behaviors "make sense."  But of course there are also many teachers who don't take up this mindset - for a variety of reasons.  And then the question becomes one that Noguera would describe as "pragmatic optimism":  Given the challenges, what can we (educators, community members, etc.) do to support teachers' capacity to take up this kind of mindset in relation to their students?