Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Guerrilla Education

Teaching in my classroom is like guerrilla warfare. There are no straight lines or consistent methods that work. Our kids come to us each day with a pile of challenges, anger, and resistance that we spend the day breaking down, trying to pound knowledge and enthusiasm and excitement into their heads.

When I talk to other teachers, who teach in different districts, with different demographics, I am struck mainly by the routine of their days. They see their students for one or two periods, they teach a lesson, assign homework, grade, plan, assist, and repeat. My days bear no resemblance to theirs. My routines can hardly be called a routine, my goals are markedly different, and my results cannot be compared fairly to theirs. In many ways it’s hard to believe that we have the same job – but we do.

I think of it as ‘guerrilla education’ when I teach about guerrilla warfare – win at any cost, break the rules, take them by surprise, take the back route. My classroom is filled with kids from 8:20 in the morning until 5:30 in the evening. My students stay in my room from the time they get there in the morning, until the time that they leave at night. Many of them skip lunch and gym and drama to stay in the safety of our room.

My students also miss school a lot – most of them are out for at least one day a week, and it’s not uncommon for them to disappear for a week or a month at a time. They miss class for a variety of reasons – health – their own or their families, or a lack of supervision at home that means that attendance is up to them, Sometimes they will miss a month or two to travel out of the country to visit family. And, at least one time a year, one or two students will stop coming to school because they ‘fear for their safety’. They return, and in the style of guerrilla education, we pour what they have missed down their throats, into their ears, cramming information into any space that we can find.

My student's education is necessarily different from their peers in other demographics. In my classroom of 32 students, I have thirteen who have IEPs – which means that they are classified as special education. They are special education largely due to their classification as ‘socially and emotionally disturbed’. Eight of my students are ELLs – English Language Learners. The remaining students are general education. In my class, there are two students who read on a seventh grade level. 22 students read at below a fifth grade level. My students, even if none of their challenges have been classified, come to school from homes that are not usually stable or secure. Based on my knowledge of there home lives, exactly three of my students come from a typically 'stable' environment.

You don’t teach lessons in the same way that I was taught. You can’t have a book that everyone can read, you can’t teach something only once and expect kids to get it, you can’t assume that they are getting help at home, or that they comprehend the cultural differences in the stories that I ask them to understand. You have to plan for 15 subgroups in a single period – using graphic organizers for some, and having special aids who work with others. You have to carefully choose your content and your words so that you don’t lose them. You have to be prepared every day to diffuse and deescalate conflict when it enters your classroom.

My students need support and stability, and many need counseling and structured intervention plans to help them deal with the challenges of their daily life outside of school. For my students, education is an afterthought. I spend my time as much convincing them that it is important to learn as I do actually teaching them, and my messages are rarely reinforced outside of the building.

I write this not to emphasize the severity of poverty – though of course, I hope that that is understood. I write not to tell how hard my job is, though most days I can’t imagine how it could be harder. Rather, I write it because education is different when your students come from poverty – there’s no way around it. I hear people talk about the ‘working poor’, and about the reasons why schools in high poverty areas fail, and I am struck by how hesitant they are to tell the truth. I love my students, and I admire their families for the struggle that they undertake daily. However, it would be sugarcoating things to say that they didn’t come to parent conferences because they were busy working four jobs. It would be dishonest to say that most of them are responsible and invested in their children’s future success, but don’t have the means to help them.

The truth is that those parents do exist, but that is not the story that I see each day. I see parents who are not equipped for parenthood. I see the impact of poor education on generations of people. The story about parents who work too hard to show up is the story of first generation poverty, it’s the story of the struggle to get out of poverty. That’s a beautiful story, and it’s politically correct and very liberal to tell it, but it’s simply not the whole truth. Most of my student’s families are not struggling for something better, they are fighting to prevent something worse – and there’s a difference.

The difference is in the fact that they come to school to make sure that their kids are staying out of trouble – because they do love their children. Parents don’t want their girls pregnant or their boys in gangs. They don’t want their kids cutting school or getting in fights. They don’t want things to get worse. But getting better? That’s out of their reach – or so it seems to people who have been in poverty for several generations, whose parents and grandparents grew up in the same conditions that they knew.

Teaching in a school like this is hard because it’s easy to feel hopeless. Each year I see my students grow. I see them feel pride in what they have learned. I pound my messages of determination or possibility, and their own potential into their heads, and by the end of the year, they believe it. But it’s just 8th grade. At the end of the year, they leave, and have four more years to survive without losing those feelings, without getting distracted.

Education is different in these schools because there is no end to the amount that my students need from me, and my co teacher – no time of day when it feels like you can stop, and they will get it, or will have enough. When a child enters your 8th grade class at a 3rd grade level, there is no moment when you can say ‘that’s enough’, because they are five years behind and how will they ever compete? How will they ever catch up?

People want to talk about improving education. They want to talk about the things that will make it better and more equal – and it’s not funding, and it’s not teachers, and it’s not standards or curriculum. It’s so much more complicated than anyone can see – than even I can see. It’s a cycle of poverty – it’s the legacy of injustice and institutionalized racism that has made our country the way that it is.

Yes, you need great teachers who don’t give up, who work harder than they have to, who are dedicated to their students. But most teachers are like that. Yes, you need more money, to attract those great teachers, to retain them, to supply the schools with the books and technology that gives them the potential to be competitive. But you also need a cultural shift – in and out of schools. You need to think beyond the parameters of success and schools that we have today.

It’s not the truth that everyone is trying their hardest all the time. It’s not the truth that all parents are good parents. It’s not the truth that everyone is struggling to get out of poverty.

But it’s our fault.

It’s the fault of the education system that didn’t teach about birth control or sex to the middle schoolers who were having sex, who were getting pregnant. It’s the fault of the healthcare system that provides no adequate preventative care for families, meaning that too many of my students spend their weekends in the hospital, or at funerals. It’s the drugs that are all over the streets, the gangs that they join to feel safe, the parents who are in over their heads. It’s the fault of the teachers who lower their standards and of the people who cut funding for head start programs, and the internet that teaches them to speak in emoticons rather than in sentences.

It’s so many people’s fault, and no one’s fault, and the solutions feel so impossible. How do you solve a problem that has so many causes? How do you fix a system that is so thoroughly broken.

Guerrilla education works for a year – we make do with what we have, do our best to make it work, to overcome the obstacles. But it isn’t a solution. It doesn’t eliminate any of their obstacles.

I am in an education reform group which designs policy recommendations, and they could recommend a way to improve all part of education, because everything – evaluations, pay scale, curriculum, unions, principals, high school processes, regents – it’s all imperfect. It’s a system that fails 50% of the kids who are a part of it, and it’s a system that people talk a lot about changing, but never really do. I get it – change feels impossible from where I sit. And yet, if we don’t change, the victims of our inaction are the ones who sit in my classroom each and every day, all day. And they become the next generation that will struggle to avoid the bad, rather than reaching for the good.



  2. Education reform, or social reform?

    Our students face real issues--is education the solution? It is, but it doesn't come from schools alone. Cycles of poverty and institutionalized racism transcend the "guerrilla education" of one grade level. It goes beyond generations. As teachers, we look for day-to-day success, but change takes place on a much more gradual scale. Do yo blame the school? Do you blame yourself? Don't.

    Whose fault is it? What's the solution? Let's talk, maybe co-write a blog post. As a Bronx high school teacher, I instruct your former students. So interesting to read the comments of another educator just one subway stop away. I agree that we have to change the system--but is it the educational system that we should focus on, or the effect of race, privilege, and socio-economic status? Please continue this conversation, and thank you for bringing up these ideas.

    Dirk Peters

  3. I teach elementary kids in Seoul, Korea.
    I feel your words about having to spend as much time explaining why kids should learn english, as I do actually teaching.
    Stay up in the profession!