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A Teacher's Message to President Obama: Teachers Not the Problem, Poverty Is

Mark Naison: "For anyone who says teachers are to blame for our students failing, I have one thing to say: How DARE you? Teachers are heroes to a lot of children who have none!"

Angela Davis once said, “The word radical simply means a grasping of the root.” By that definition, Michelle Rhee is not a radical, as her book title suggests. I am a radical because I grasp from the root. In our world of education, that translates to looking to fix the origin of the achievement gap rather than divert from it by blaming teachers for something that we did not cause. The root of this problem is poverty.

obama with school kids

I come from humble beginnings. I grew up in Edenwald Projects, located in the Northeast Bronx. My living arrangements were…interesting. It was the house that my mother and her siblings grew up in and apparently never left. Three generations lived under one roof in our 1C apartment. The Tanner family that we watched every Friday night had nothing on us. We were the true meaning of a full house.

There’s a lot that comes with growing up poor aside from lack of material things. What it often means is ignorance. When abnormal things are normalized in any community, it has the ability to warp one’s mentality. It is this warped mentality, coupled with the obvious lack of resources in poor communities that account for low performing students. My mother was the only one to complete college in her family, however, she was only instructed to go in the first place to keep her deceased father’s social security checks flowing, not because anyone valued education.

I stand here today only due to a series of serendipitous events like the one just mentioned, my mother’s incidental education. She liked children, but suffered from severe low self-esteem and didn’t feel she was intelligent enough to teach school-age children, which led to her picking early childhood education as her major because she thought it would be easier. Being an early childhood teacher led to her understanding the importance of educating her own child from birth, which led to me having an edge over my peers academically and in life. It doesn’t make us better, it makes us lucky. A series of serendipitous events…

Teachers are not the ones to blame for the achievement gap…poverty is. Even with all of my mother’s discipline, high expectations, support and teachings, I still narrowly made it out of my own way. By the time I got to junior high, I had developed an attitude. An attitude that I couldn’t understand at the time but now I can trace back to being angry about things that I couldn’t control. Sound familiar? On top of that, being a goodie goodie did not fare well with my peers. My priorities shifted. I deliberately learned how to speak improperly. I paid less attention to school and pleasing teachers and more on memorizing lyrics that denigrated women because it was cool.

My mother would yell at me and say “I didn’t raise you this way.” “You’re not the only one raising me,” I retorted. I’ll say it again, when you live in a community where certain realities are normalized, it begins to warp your mentality. It is this mentality and the obvious lack of resources in poor communities that account for low student achievement.

As early as elementary school, my best friend and I would get made fun of for being virgins at the age of eight. We learned hand games with extremely sexually explicit lyrics…of course most of these kids hadn’t had sex yet, but they still knew too much too soon, which led to them having sex too soon and babies too soon. These same girls used to see me in the street when I came back to Edenwald to visit my grandmother—my mother and I had moved out by then—wondering why I had not started a family yet. I was 18 and a freshman at Fordham. They were on their second, sometimes third child.

I chronicle my childhood to offer two points up to the Gods, that is, the policy makers to whose ears I hope are hearing my words. Number one: I am an anomaly, a glitch in the sytem. Being a college graduate from a prestigious university, having two master’s degrees, having a career, these are not typical realities for a project kid. Just because it is possible doesn’t make it probable. Realities are usually far more dismal. I have family members in jail right now, family members who dropped out of high school, who were alcoholics, drug addicts -- heroin being the drug of choice. We grew up during the 70s. Vietnam amputees lined our streets, nodding in their fatigues. We called it Bum Hill. One of my relatives was sent to rehab several times to get clean, only to come back to Edenwald and within weeks be at it again because it was all around him. He’s clean now, and has been for years…because he didn’t come back home. He couldn’t come back home.

Edenwald Projects, Bronx, New York

Edenwald Projects, Bronx, New York

Immediately after graduating from Fordham University, I began teaching in the South Bronx, which made my neighborhood look like Beverly Hills. Many cannot fathom the kinds of problems that our children are dealing with. Many of them are lucky to be alive, yet we are concerned with whether they get a three or a four on an exam. And as teachers continue to be used as scapegoats for societal ills, poverty prevails.

For anyone who says teachers are to blame for our students failing, I have one thing to say: How DARE you? Teachers are heroes to a lot of children who have none! The problems of the ghetto will always be problems of the ghetto until we begin to make changes toward fixing the ghetto. They are the same problems I saw in the classroom 20 years ago as a student.

  • Children who are angry and lash out because of their home lives, distracting the entire class from learning.
  • Children with so much on their minds, who stare out of windows all day and never know what’s going on in the classroom. (Those are usually the children principals tend to select to gauge whether a teacher's lesson is effective.)
  • Children born in America to American-born parents, yet have english language problems that make it difficult for them to understand simple questions - because no one talks to them at home.
  • Parents that suffer from depression and other forms of mental illness.
  • Children who live in shelters and move every few months.
  • Children who are neglected, who haven’t had a decent shower in days, whose hair hasn’t been combed, teeth haven’t been brushed.

Please explain to me what you would do under these circumstances? Do you know what it’s like to have to have a class meeting to address the bullying of the little girl who smells?

Have you ever had a child ask you to wash his clothes for him because his little nine-year-old hands can never get the stains out when he washes them out by hand?

Have you ever tried to teach a child whose mother decided she was going to punish his teacher by not giving him his meds that day?

Have you ever seen a ten-year-old girl get stomped out by a parent?

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How would you feel if you had to confiscate the gang beads a child made using art materials provided for an art project?

What do you say to a little girl whose father was killed in front of her by the police over the break? You heard the story on the news the night it happened. You just didn’t know it was one of your students it had happened to.

Try teaching a child who’s father just left him and his mother for another woman the night before. Who heard his mother crying to you on the phone that she doesn’t know how she’s going to survive?

Do you know what it’s like to have to raffle off televisions and play stations to get more parents to come to parent teacher conference?

What would you say to the little boy whose social worker has just called to inform you that New York City's Administration for Child Services (ACS) is on their way to pick him up because both of his parents have just been arrested?

How do you help the woman who has taken the children of all three of her crack-addicted siblings but cannot manage them all in one home?

How do you stop kids from talking about the police cars that are blocking the street in front of your school -- blocking the street to cordon off the curb where a son placed a duffel bag with body parts of his slain mother sticking out?

What makes you think environment cannot impact a child’s cognitive ability, language development, attention, and motivation?

Because of the issues that plague urban communities, our students have additional needs. We don’t need teacher cuts. We need more teachers. In my community, many children are struggling readers. They need small group instruction but there aren't enough teachers to provide that kind of reading intervention so the student cannot pass the exams. As a result, these children are classified "special education students", too quickly removed from general education and warehoused in special ed. If we had more teachers to provide small group instruction prior to special education referral, we could prevent many of those children from being misidentified as special ed.

Many of the students in these communities come to school with needs that go beyond academic instruction. As a special education teacher, it is disturbing to see how much emphasis is placed on an exam -- an exam many of the students can't pass. So many of our students need life skills and trade skills to ensure that they can become contributing members of society. They need to learn how to get along with one another. Can we teach kids how to act like civilized human beings who do not beat or rape or rob or shoot up schools and communities? The death toll in Chicago equates to that of Afghanistan! We need something in place that will ensure our students learn right from wrong because many are not learning it at home and if they are, mass media and the streets are teaching them otherwise.

They need healthier, better educated communities. They need to grow up in a place that doesn’t normalize dysfunction. We need more programs to help educate the people of my community, parent workshops, prison to work programs, mental health programs, jobs and small business programs, more affordable art and music programs. This is what kids need to see instead of liquor stores and fast food places. You cannot change a child without first changing his environment.

They need teachers who care. By consistently tearing teachers down, despite our efforts, one thing that is to be guaranteed is an exodus of teachers leaving inner city schools or the profession entirely. Micro-management of teachers will not make them better teachers, it will make them unhappier teachers, who will begin to hate their jobs. Micro-management of teachers destroys the relationship that teachers have with their students, and with each other. It is toxic to the school environment. Teachers in schools that are micromanaged begin moving to other schools - schools where the stresses of a poverty-stricken community do not exist. The ones that stick around are shells of their former selves. They cannot provide the same love and support that they were once able to provide their students. They watch the clock for dismissal.

As for all of my teachers who are present today, let us send a message not of hate, as much as we may hate what these policies are doing to our schools, to our children and to our own lives. As Dr. King advised his fellow demonstrators, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” Let us send a message of love for what we do, and for who we do it for.

Mr. President, I am not the enemy. I am a teacher. I love what I do. I love my kids. Like the teachers of Newton, Connecticut, I’d give my life for my kids. I have been educated and trained to teach but some of my kids will still fail the test because the test is limited in what it can measure. Failing the test doesn’t mean they aren’t able to achieve in some way. And it doesn’t mean that I have failed them. Please do not reduce my impact to a test score. My kids will remember me when they’re old and gray. They will remember they were loved. They will remember my passion. They will remember that someone cared about their future.

Written by a New York City teacher. Originally published in "With a Brooklyn Accent".

Mark Naison, Editor
With A Brooklyn Accent

Friday, 12 April 2013