A Teacher’s Tale: Joy, Tragedy and Weirdness

November 17, 2015 | By John Thompson

(Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from A Teacher’s Tale, a new book chronicling author John Thompson’s experiences teaching in inner-city Oklahoma City Public Schools. The portion reproduced here is the book’s introduction, which has been slightly edited for length and style.)

I was never a hat-snatcher. I did not believe in grabbing students’ contraband, whether it was hats, cell phones, marijuana, or gambling proceeds. So how did I find myself firmly holding half of a gang leader’s hat, ignoring the teenager’s threatening look?

This standoff occurred in the library hallway, as I organized about 20 of my class’s 70 students for checking out textbooks. I had approached several disruptive students with a teacher’s typical phrase, “hats please.” Hats were removed, as I addressed another group causing a disruption. I repeated, “hats please” to those who had put their caps back on, when I heard a loud scuffle near the library door. Immediately in front of me, I saw the “gang banger” with a heavyweight championship boxer’s physique and a cap back on his head. I took it from him, leaving us both in a standoff.

It made no sense to distribute books in such a tense situation, but what was the alternative? The 2006 school year had just begun, and I was assigned 247 students. I had experienced my share of challenging classes in the past and won them over. This year, however, my class schedule was overwhelming; it was the same for every other teacher at John Marshall High School in Oklahoma City.

Should I just hold recess or should I attempt to teach? When our school’s teachers found themselves in such a mess, they often chose extended recess, and many of my colleagues had again done so, contributing even more to the anarchy throughout the school. Giving up on instruction for an unknown time flew against all of my instincts. Intimidating students was not consistent with my temperament, either. Leadership alone would not be enough to settle this class down. I had to make it clear that I was in charge, and to do so I had to approach the crowd with a mindset that I did not enjoy.

Ignoring the student who was glaring down on me, I instructed students to enter the library in groups and obey the librarian. A principal eventually appeared. As opposed to a teacher, she could bluff, “I’m on my last nerve. Do you want me to send you home for the year?”

This episode encapsulates many of the trends that have complicated the challenge of improving poor schools. Teachers nationwide are expected to educate, discipline, protect, mentor, and evaluate students and report on successes, achievements, and progress within a system of often-shrinking resources. Politicians, policymakers, administrators, and parents demand results—quality that can be translated into measured outcomes. This meant that our activities in the classroom to educate children needed to be reflected in specific numbers—higher rates of graduation, better scores on standardized tests, every student college-ready and marked for success in the competitive global marketplace.

Like so many other districts across the country, ours had adopted a new data-driven formula for determining how many teachers should be assigned to each school. District policymakers had no way of knowing how many of our students, who had endured so much trauma, were different from most low-income students. The central office had no way of knowing the difference between children of situational poverty caused by divorce, an illness, or the temporary loss of a parent’s job, and generational or extreme poverty. Even worse, the district embraced data-driven policymaking before creating a system where humans could override policies that the numbers suggested might be a good idea, but that would not be adequate when all of the complicated realities were considered.

Joy, tragedy and weirdness

In 2006, John Marshall High School was 84 percent low-income and 87 percent black, hispanic, and American Indian, with a quarter of the student body requiring special education services. The proliferation of school choice, a movement designed to give parents options to select alternative schools when their local public institutions were failing, had, in fact, created more intense concentrations of generational poverty in urban schools. From the smaller cities like Oklahoma City and Kansas City to industrial metropolises like Baltimore and Philadelphia, school districts had reached a tipping point, a fragile and teetering position bordering on complete meltdown.

And yet we teachers keep coming back, year after year, fueled by another surge of optimism. A Teacher’s Tale is for young people who look to the profession as a career choice that offers the opportunity to contribute, to make a difference in the world, one student at a time. A Teacher’s Tale is for you—the teacher who has—or will—land up in this inexplicable situation, faced with pressure to achieve measurable outcomes of student learning on the one hand, and violence and chaos in the hallways and classrooms on the other.

The adrenalin rush of teaching comes from the combination of joy, tragedy, and, simply put, weirdness, and the myriad ways that these ups and downs keep on coming. There is no other profession that provides that kind of rollercoaster thrill. Before the morning bell, I would sip coffee, chat, joke, pass out newspapers, magazines, flowers, and fruit to students at John Marshall. The instant the announcements were over, I completely threw myself into instruction. I would forget about my cup of coffee and what craziness might await around the corner. I’d be there one-hundred percent for my students.

My own story of “a teacher’s tale” is first offered as an introductory handbook for my fellow educators. New teachers will encounter their own challenges, but my tale can serve as a “heads up” for the types of experiences and decisions that make our professional calling so intense, for better and for worse. I also aim to help veteran educators put their own experiences in perspective. As we enter into the isolation of our classrooms, teachers need the fortification that comes from sharing our stories, exchanging advice. We need to rely on each other and draw upon our collective resources as we navigate the rough waters of national, state, and district policies, and educational theories that seem forged in a vacuum divorced from real-life. Ultimately, though, this adventure we call teaching is all about the students, who are our greatest hope for the future.

I hope that A Teacher’s Tale will also be read by parents, voters, researchers, and policy-makers for insights into real world effects of policies and practices. The book provides guidance for addressing the toughest issue in education: overcoming intense concentrations of generational poverty. It calls for high learning standards for poor children of color. It argues that we must build on children’s strengths, especially their moral consciousness, and not just remediate their weaknesses. It makes a case for cultural literacy, multimedia, and multidisciplinary instruction. It explains why chronic disorder and truancy must be addressed before student performance is improved in high-poverty schools. And, it offers concrete policy suggestions.

Data-driven reformers and school-choice advocates

I entered the classroom at the age of 39, in 1992, just as the modern era of data-driven accountability began. At the time, many newcomers to the profession came to urban schools without following the traditional education school path. Many of them became school reformers, liberals who saw education as the civil rights issue of the day. Some adopted the tactics of civil rights lawyers who used data to document and remedy patterns of discrimination. Imposing accountability on our educational system was seen as a battle for our democracy’s soul. If our schools could not prepare poor children for 21st-Century jobs, the result would be a permanent underclass and even greater inequality and segregation. This new generation stressed data, accountability, and market-oriented solutions for failing schools.

Many of these reformers were Gen-Xers, who were born in the 1960s and attended public schools in the 1970s. Generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe described this group, whom they called the 13th Generation (after the number of generations since the founding of the United States) in their 1991 book, Generations. For Strauss and Howe, 13ers tended to have different assumptions than the Baby Boomers, the bloated cohort of Americans born after World War II who were the last to report almost universally happy memories of public schools.

The younger generation of reformers grew up in a society dominated by consumerism, materialism, less of a sense of community, and increased time pressures. They were more pragmatic and often viewed education as a market-like transaction. They borrowed many management tools from business, and stressed competition and choice as remedies to improve schools. Many data-driven reformers explicitly adopted the goal of destroying the educational “status quo” through accountability metrics, so they could have a blank slate for rebuilding schools.

When I began teaching, I welcomed any ally in trying to close the racial achievement gap. But I soon learned that imposing quick-fix transformational change on schools, especially of the type prescribed by number-crunching reformers, did more harm than good. My students, who were the kind of children who reformers sought to help, became collateral damage. One reason why the reforms were so destructive was because policymakers were in too much of a hurry to engage in the difficult conversations that are essential for improving our schools.

Around the same time, the school-choice movement took off, driven by a mix of liberal-minded reformist politics on the left and libertarian stirrings on the right. Charter schools, as well as magnet and enterprise schools, sought to stimulate competition in order to break up the status quo. In Oklahoma City in the 1990s, for example, competition failed to produce better methods of schooling, but it did offer an escape hatch for thousands of poor children of color. The problem was that the “creaming” of the best students left greater concentrations of intense generational poverty in neighborhood schools. The students who benefited from choice might be low-income and some had overcome great obstacles. They or their families tended to be more motivated or better able to take full advantage of the positive peer pressure of selective schools.

Also, in the 1990s, schools throughout the South were just over a generation removed from the remnants of “Jim Crow” segregation. De facto segregation continued to undermine the efforts of the most committed educators to close the achievement gap. Then, the destructive power of isolating children from the mainstream worsened as cultural forces and school choice encouraged extreme segregation. Texas journalist Bill Bishop, in The Big Sort (2009), described this new form of separation. It was social fragmentation created by consumerism and personal tastes, whereby Americans divided themselves into discrete, like-minded enclaves. “The Big Sort” fostered separation based on lifestyle, personalities, and income. It also created a homogenized environment where it was all too easy to hear only what other like-minded people had to say, about schools or anything else. The policy makers also live in and govern from worlds that are separated by the same chasms. The politicians in Washington by-and-large send their children to elite schools, rather than to the toughest public schools of D.C. They, like all of us, are like blind men “seeing” only a part of the elephant. Not only does this fracturing insulate would-be reformers from the realities of poverty and chaos in urban school systems, it reinforces alienation on a large scale.

So for some, from the vantage point of their selective-school bubble, accountability-fueled school reform has benefited students, as some test scores and other measures might testify. That this outcome has been cost-effective is a more dubious claim.

I argue that data-driven reform has been more likely to cause harm than good in the urban schools serving children of color in poor neighborhoods.