In October of my first year of teaching, my wife sent me a blog post written by Tom Rademacher, the 2014 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. In it, he wrote, “There’s no better sign that things are going poorly in a room than a teacher who always thinks everything is going just fine.”
By that measure, things were going exceedingly well in my classroom, because I didn’t think a single thing was going just fine. I had one class that collectively would not talk, and another that collectively would not stop talking. Over half of my ninth-graders were reading below grade level. I’d already broken up two fights, and on multiple occasions, a student had told me to fuck off.
My curriculum was disjointed, my lessons neither interesting nor properly scaffolded. My sole classroom management strategy consisted of shouting, “Quiet, please,” and making empty threats to call home. In the evenings, I banged away at my laptop, desperately trying to salvage the steaming pile of shit I called a lesson plan.
All the while, I neglected my wife, my dog, my personal hygiene. Keep in mind, this was October, meaning that it had taken less than two full months of teaching (by the most liberal definition of the word) for the profession to break me. Everything was not going just fine.
I Had Read Everything There Was to Read
Before becoming a teacher, I lived a successful life. I have a fancy Ivy League degree, I’d worked at Google. I was used to being good at what I did. I cared about kids of color, and decided to become a teacher because I thought I would be good at that, too.
It took me a few years to switch careers, and during my last few years working in tech, I read as much as I could about public education. I read Doug Lemov’s “Teach Like a Champion” and Amanda Ripley’s “The Smartest Kids in the World.” I pored over studies by Angela Duckworth and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Over and over again, the experts insisted that teacher quality—not race, or income, or zip code—was the single most important factor in determining whether students succeeded or failed. If only we could get better teachers in front of students, the logic went, the achievement gap would vanish. This argument made sense, and more importantly, it appealed to my ego. I would enter the teaching profession, I assumed, and student success would inevitably bloom from whichever petals I touched.
Teachers Matter But We Can’t Do It Alone
As I type this, I have taught for four months, and I can assure you, nothing of the sort has happened. I have yet to be able to define what success looks like, let alone enable my students to achieve it. Under the best circumstances, first-year teaching is like trying to put together 150 different puzzles from a single pile of pieces. Under the worst circumstances, it’s like trying to do this from within the eye of a hurricane.
Teacher quality matters, a lot, but for even the best teachers, success is often little more than assembling the frame for four or five of those puzzles and hoping that someone else down the line can fill in the gaps.
My students bring tremendous amounts of skill into the classroom. They are artists, poets and actors. They bring creativity and energy. But they are also navigating school systems that incentivize compliance to curriculum, behavioral norms and epistemological frameworks that are largely defined by people who neither look nor live like them. Thus, teachers inherit the impossible task of motivating and empowering students to succeed within systems that are deeply oppressive and flawed.
Make no mistake: when we place the sole burden of closing the achievement gap on teachers, what we are effectively asking them to do is reverse 250 years of systemic racism and structural inequality, 50 minutes at a time. Well-intentioned policy makers and education reformers are right to emphasize the importance of teacher quality; however, they are wrong to do so without acknowledging the heavy thumb of racism, classism and trauma on the other plate of the scale. To use an analogy: focusing on teachers while ignoring structural reform is like stepping outside in the wintertime buck naked, save for a warm hat.
Teachers matter. I would not be in this profession if I did not believe that wholeheartedly. But like a hat in the wintertime, although good teachers are necessary, they are rarely sufficient. It is humbling to enter this profession knowing that—despite excellent training, Herculean effort, and fanatical care—I will still fail over and over, every day, in ways big and small, and that what few successes come my way will be modest and precariously preserved.
If we are serious about seeing results at scale, then we need to create change at scale, too. And the first step to doing that is for us, as a society, to collectively look at the glaring inequalities—social, economic and political—that our students are being asked to overcome in their pursuit of education, and to admit, as painful as it may be to shift some of the weight of responsibility back onto our own shoulders, that everything is not just fine.
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