Teaching within a high poverty urban public school is challenging, to say the least. Time and again, I hear education policy experts claim that high poverty urban schools don’t have enough effective or high quality teachers “at the helm.” Part of this is due to the misuse of VAM-based models, but another aspect of this phenomenon is the propensity for working conditions to drive effective or high quality teachers out of high poverty urban public schools. In fact, at times, it feels as if teaching within a challenging or “struggling” school is akin to some form of medieval quartering. At each end of a teacher’s limb is a rope that’s attached to a “horse”, or stress-producing trigger, which, collectively, rips the teacher apart at the limbs. In my humble opinion, here are four stress-producing triggers that may cause high poverty urban public school teachers to avoid teaching in the most challenging schools, or leave the profession altogether.
Rope #1: Meetings, Meetings, and More Meetings
The first rope, or stress-producing trigger, is attending mandatory meetings and PDs (professional development), which often occur throughout the school day and week. Before you misread my intention, let me publicly state that meetings are extremely beneficial and purposeful, so I’m not suggesting that we need to eliminate meetings altogether. That said, there are countless meetings through a school day or school week. Most meetings are productive; some meetings are outright pointless and time-consuming.
For example, a requirement, per union (WTU) contract, is for a school to hold at least two “collaborative meetings” prior to the official start of the school day. Within my setting, these meetings occur every Wednesday and Thursday morning (8:10 – 8:40). The Wednesday morning “collab” is devoted to literacy instruction, which is an important skill to teach, especially within our school. Although this literacy-based “collab” is important, there are times when the morning is best used for classroom preparation. Every Thursday, we have a “collab” meeting centered on systems of care, which, again, is an important aspect to our school. My intent is not to criticize the purpose of these morning collaborative meetings, however these meetings require teachers to arrive at school earlier than usual to prepare the classroom and materials for that day’s instruction.
In addition to morning collaborative meetings, every Tuesday morning, our school has a ten-minute “stand up” meeting, designed to talk about housekeeping issues, such as PBS events or certain school-wide policies and announcements. Again, my aim is not to devalue the usefulness of holding such a meeting, but it does take away from a teacher’s classroom preparation time.
Besides school-wide meetings, there is Community Learning Center (CLC) meetings. Within my school, CLCs last for a six-week interval. During a CLC, meetings occur on Monday mornings (8:10 – 8:40). Again, a teacher can benefit greatly from purposeful CLCs. In fact, I recently participated in a CLC, and as a result, I made a positive instructional shift toward using more student-centered / groups-based learning throughout my lessons. Lastly, if you are a special education teacher, then you must also meet every Friday morning (8:10 – 8:40). Although these are important meetings to attend, it restricts classroom preparation time.
The worse case scenario, which does occur, is when a special education teacher participates in a six-week CLC. For six weeks, these teachers have a morning meeting of some sort, every single day. The easiest response, and I’m sure some of you are already thinking this in your head, is to suggest that these teachers stay afterschool to prepare the next day, or show up earlier to prepare their materials and classroom for instruction. Technically speaking, you’ll be correct in suggesting those options. Personally speaking, it’s easier said than done. Teachers don’t live life in a vacuüm.
In addition to the various morning meetings throughout the school week, there are also meetings that occur during the school day. For example, my school has a mandatory student support team (SST), and an interdisciplinary grade-level meeting, which occur on every second and fourth Tuesday of every month. These meetings take place during the first half of every teacher’s planning period, which amounts to roughly forty to forty-five minutes.
Lastly, in addition to the various meetings mentioned above, there are after-school meetings, such as content-specific department meetings. Although department meetings occur once a month, one can see how these meetings add up to create more stress, and not less. Although meetings are important, there are times when it feels as if we’re meeting for the sake of having a meeting, or worse, meeting to discuss the need to schedule a meeting. From a teacher’s perspective, anytime spent away from instructional planning and preparation, in a way, causes more stress, and not less.
Rope #2: The Invisible Hand of a School’s Culture
The second rope, or stress-producing trigger, deals with student discipline and management. In a low-SES environment, both within the school building and the neighborhood, student behaviors are a challenging aspect of teaching. By and large, teachers within this environment don’t have the luxury of using class time to do any paper work, or to “sit back” and let the students work independently (self-regulate). Classroom management and redirections are commonplace throughout the period, whether within a seasoned veteran’s or a first-year teacher’s classroom.
Now before you say, “every teacher has to manage at least one or two challenging students in their classroom,” let me assure you that when you are teaching in a challenging environment, i.e. Ward 8 in SE DC, you have more than just one or two challenging students in each class period. In fact, in my last period class alone, I have at least seven challenging students who, at any given time, can show up to class annoyed or irritated. Yes, it’s my responsibility to use “teacher diplomacy” to acquire student “buy-in” and generate student motivation, but doing this everyday, for each class period, is taxing. From my personal experience, a typical classroom of thirty students, within my school, includes at least five to eight behavioral “high flyers.”
Another important aspect of a school’s culture is the attitude held by students and adults. When you work in a “low performing” school inundated with “challenging students,” then you have to guard against negativity. Easier said than done, right? Not really. Given the daily grind and stress levels, negativity often rears its ugly head throughout the school building.
Unfortunately, it’s quite normal to hear teachers bickering about policies, students, colleagues, administrators, etc. From my experience, I don’t hear too much negativity from the first year teachers, whether they’re right out of college or career changers. Sadly, the negativity occurs often among veteran teachers. Perhaps it’s a sign of feeling jaded. Nevertheless, a school’s culture adds positive, and negative, stress to a teacher’s daily grind.
Rope #3: The Dreaded “Sub-Duty”
The third rope is substitute duty. When teachers call in sick or take a personal day, fellow teachers perform sub-duty during their planning periods. When you’re working in a challenging school, substitute teachers are more reluctant to pick up an assignment. For example, if, and when, the word is out that the students at your school are too disrespectful, or behaviors are too chaotic, then you are left with teachers filling in the gap during their planning period.
To perform this role once in a while is not the issue. The issue becomes when you forego your planning period to perform “sub duty” on a weekly basis. In fact, this year alone, I have had to forfeit a planning period to cover a colleague’s class at least once a week, for the past four weeks. As previously mentioned, the environment is challenging, so teachers are more than entitled to request leave for health reasons or for sanity’s sake. Please understand, I’m not chastising teachers who use that opportunity. In fact, in my school, taking personal days throughout the year is necessary. However, given that substitute teachers are “avoiding” our school, performing “sub duty” puts a strain on one’s day.
For example, last week I had to cover a sixth grade class during my planning period, which is during second block (10:34 – 12:02). The sixth grade schedule for second block is different from my usual seventh grade schedule, due to a split lunch period. On that day, which was on a Wednesday (morning collaborative meeting), I worked the following schedule:
8:10 – 8:40 (collaborative meeting)
8:45 – 9:10 (advisory class: 22 students)
9:14 – 10:34 (first block: 20 students)
10:38 – 11:22 (sub duty: 34 students)
11:22 – 12:02 (working lunch)
12:02 – 12:42 (resume sub duty: 34 students)
12:42 – 2:02 (second block class: 30 students)
2:06 – 3:25 (third block class: 28 students)
Again, I’m not chastising teachers or administrators, but this IS our reality. When substitutes don’t answer the call, then the burden falls on teachers to fill in the gap. Right now, this is becoming a weekly issue, and, unfortunately, even a daily occurrence. Therefore, performing “sub duty” adds more stress to a teacher’s daily grind.
Rope #4: The Effects of Disconnected (Top-Down) Education Policies
The fourth rope is the stress related to top down policies. In my honest opinion, this rope causes the most damage, because, all too often, it comes from non-educators disconnected from my school’s reality. I can understand how writing policy requires learning / mastering a different skill set than teaching, but I still have a hard time understanding how one can become skilled at writing policy that affects a teacher’s classroom, all the while not having meaningful classroom experience. There is a noticeable policy gap, at least with regard to my view and school.
For example, anyone who reads my blog pieces, or tweets, definitely understands that I’m an advocate for reduced class sizes. I don’t advocate for reduced class sizes because I want a lighter workload. To the contrary, I advocate for reduced class sizes because, in my setting, making connections with students – beyond knowing their first and last name – is often THE lever to use to gain buy-in and generate student motivation. From my experience, a classroom consisting of twenty students is ideal because the propensity for students to remain on-task and engaged is highest when the teacher can devote more personal attention to each student.
In fact, my first period class consists of twenty students. I can firmly claim that there are very few instructional minutes wasted due to student redirection. Moreover, I will even proclaim that within a school week (four hundred instructional minutes per block/period), that my first block/period might lose five to ten minutes of instructional time due to student misbehavior, per week. That is enormous benefit, especially given that this period is also my “Below Basic” class.
With few exceptions, every student in that class is a struggling reader. I have students ranging from “beginning readers” to those reading on a fifth/sixth grade level, per Lexile score. In my experience, I find that students who are the furthest behind tend to “act out” in class due to academic frustrations, i.e. misunderstanding. However, given a healthy teacher-to-student ratio, and personally spending countless hours planning and preparing differentiated materials, these students are grappling with fundamental reading comprehension skills in a comfortable environment. A smaller class size allows me to devote more time to conduct one-on-one sessions with students, while not risking classroom management.
Sounds great, right? Well, as much as education policymakers insist that ALL teachers must differentiate instruction, I find that they fail to differentiate policies themselves. It’s a classic “do as I say, and not as I do” approach to education. As teachers, we MUST “meet our students,” and provide them with differentiated instruction, however policymakers consistently fail to “meet teachers,” by differentiating policies to meet the specific needs of a challenging school. If a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching is an ineffective practice, then why is it not considered ineffective policymaking?
Top down education policies, regardless of intent, need differentiation. Not every school is created equal. Not every classroom is created equal. To view education in such monolithic terms is to remain grossly disconnected from the ground level. Education policy makers need to support classroom teachers, and not spend countless hours writing narrow policy prescriptions devoted to identifying which teachers as “effective or ineffective.” Until this policy shift occurs, i.e. differentiated policy making, then the incubated world of education policymaking is simply adding more stress to the teaching profession.
The most under-rated aspect of teaching in a high poverty urban public school is the daily working conditions teachers encounter. All too often, I hear or read “experts” claim that high poverty urban schools lack a sufficient number effective or high quality teachers. In fact, they often submit that the only way to turnaround a “low-performing” school is to recruit and train more effective teachers. If only it were that simple. The reality on the ground is very different from the ivory tower view. The working conditions, the four stressors mentioned above, are the leading culprits behind high turn over rates and instability within high poverty urban public schools.
Moreover, “effective” teachers avoid working in such conditions, even when offered an increase in salary. What education experts must understand is that teaching within a high poverty urban school isn’t for the faint of heart. Rather than avoid listening to the teacher voices within these environments, or worse, generalizing every teacher as ineffective or “complainers,” why not spend meaningful time within the environment? Why not step down from your perch of policymaking to substitute, for at least a week, within my school. I can assure you, I’m more than willing to give you lesson plans, and I’ll even stay in the room to aid with classroom management. Then, and only then, will education policymakers comprehend, first-hand, the reasons why so many teachers avoid, or leave, high poverty urban public schools.