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The Stubborn Hope of an Urban Teacher

August 26, 2014

Yesterday I read a book written by Carole Marshall which she called Stubborn Hope: Memoir of an Urban Teacher (thanks to Ernest Davis for sending it to me). Just to give you an idea of how quick this read is, I read it before class. I think it took about 1 hour and 10 minutes in all.

In a nutshell, it was the story of a really hard-working and dedicated urban school teacher who learned how to teach reading skills, and prose and poetry writing skills to her poverty-stricken students in the urban Providence, RI area. She develops curriculum, making it relevant to the kids, and gets them to read every night and to aspire to college. The school that she mostly taught at is profiled in this article from the Brown Daily Herald.

She’s a really good writer herself, and she profiles a bunch of her students with enough details to make you feel enormous empathy for their struggles. In other words, she makes this shit very very real. After reading this you stop wondering why we see a strong negative correlation between standardized tests scores and poverty levels, because it is so obvious.

You might want to check out this video to get a satirical idea of what this woman was like and what she was dealing with (hat tip Jenn Rubinovitz):

Here’s the thing. We need nice white ladies in our schools! And of course nice other people too.

But we are presently losing such dedicated people. Carole Marshall, the author of these memoirs, quit teaching after the school system she worked in was taken over by the mindless testing zombies. She describes her experience like this:

After spending years refining strategies for getting my students to become enthusiastic readers and writers on thoughtful, relevant curriculum, I was being forced to teach canned curriculum purchased for millions of dollars from textbook publishers who knew nothing about urban teaching.

School and district administrators roamed the halls and classrooms, taking notes on shiny new iPads, to make sure teachers were on the same page every day as every other teacher in our grade and subject in the district. All the activities we had used in the past to open our students to a world beyond the narrow constraints of their neighborhoods were no longer permitted; they were seen as time wasted. Every path to good teaching was effectively blocked off.

It had become impossible to do the things with students that I believe teachers need to be able to do. What was going on in the classrooms could no longer be called teaching. When I realized that, it was a sad day. At the end of that year, I left teaching.

That was in 2012, I believe. Since then she’s become more aware of the national disaster that is defined by the testing insanity. She even worked for a time with a test prep company based in Florida that was clearly scamming for the $5 million consultant fee and removing cherry-picked students from important classes so the school would look like it had improved based on the arbitrary measure of the month.

We are so used to pointing at examples of bad and defeated teachers and saying that they are the problem, and that a strict and regimented system of curriculum will improve the classrooms for the students of such teachers. And maybe in some cases that is true.

But when we do that we also push out really talented and inspirational teachers like Carole Marshall. It is painful to imagine how many great teachers have left the educational system because of No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top. Come to think of it, that would be a great data journalism project.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. August 26, 2014 at 8:56 am

    “We need nice white ladies in our schools!”

    The nice [white] ladies of the previous generations had few options after getting their college degrees. Today they can be lawyers, doctors, professors, business leaders, … That’s something to celebrate.

    There are as many reasons for quitting teaching as there are teachers. Often it’s because of tyrant principals.


    • Guest2
      August 26, 2014 at 9:41 am

      Not to worry. The principals have the answer!

      And California’s legislature is transforming their community college system so that they will soon be producing all the teaching degrees that urban schools will ever need, taking turnover into account. Just like in Florida.

      But, yeah, Richard M. Ingersoll has been arguing for years about teaching conditions.
      And his papers are available through scholar.google.com


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