Can Anyone Really Teach For America?

It’s personal for me. I remember being shocked and perturbed when I started teaching and realized the kinds of lives some of our students lived. It’s one thing to see it on TV; it’s another to get to know a kid who only comes to school when he feels like it because he lives in a house without any responsible adults, where there is no food but there are plenty of drugs and prostitution. Every teacher wants to help. And every good teacher realizes he or she can never help enough–the problems are so big and so overwhelming for so many kids that one great history class seems awfully meaningless in comparison.

A new memoir brings this crusty old question up one more time: How much impact can a teacher really have on students’ lives? Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo tells the story yet again. Kuo goes from Harvard to Arkansas with Teach For America. She finds herself shocked and unprepared for the conditions in which her students live.

At The Atlantic, reviewers gush. They write that Kuo manages to avoid the “every kind of awful” clichés of the teacher-as-savior genre.

Veteran teachers aren’t so smitten. Curmudgucrat Peter Greene laments the stale story. As he puts it,

only in teaching do we get this. Students who drop out of their medical internship don’t get to write memoirs hailed for genius insights into health care. Guys who once wrote an article for the local paper don’t draw plaudits for their book of wisdom about journalism and the media.   But somehow education must be repeatedly Columbusized, as some new tourist is lionized for “discovering” a land where millions of folks all live rich and fully realized lives.

Coincidentally, this week I’m asking the grad students I work with to consider this very question. Given the many structural and social inequities that create “tough” schools, how much positive influence can one teacher have on students’ lives?

As Greene points out, in every generation affluent Americans like to “discover” the “shocking” conditions in some urban schools. It’s such a cliché that the Onion can parody the predictable storyline without even breaking a sweat. In my class, I’m asking students to consider both the question itself and the way American pop culture keeps finding itself surprised to hear the same story.

We start with the movie Blackboard Jungle. In 1955, this movie shocked audiences by its depictions of gang warfare, sexual assault, and unruly teenagers. Oh, and of course rock-and-roll music, which was apparently a big thing at the time.

Of no surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH, in Blackboard Jungle, an earnest new teacher has some trouble with these violent and turbulent teens. Of even less surprise, he manages to forge positive relationships and get most of them to reevaluate their ideas about school and literature.

Next up: Up the Down Staircase. This 1960s memoir told the same story. In the 1967 film version, we see the earnest and affluent teacher move in to an urban high school. The students are rowdy. They are not all white. They give the teacher trouble.

After some twists—including one frank African American drop-out who explains to the naïve teacher the uselessness of school credentials in his life—the teacher manages by dint of personal awesomeness to help her students get something out of school.

Last but not least, we hear the story again in 2007’s Freedom Writers. In this version, we have an earnest and affluent teacher—wait for it—teaching in a gritty and violent urban school.

I don’t know if you need to hear the rest. It’s the same story told in twenty-first century accents. After significant struggle, by dint of extraordinary effort and personal moxie the heroic teacher manages to connect with her students. The students recognize their own potential as writers, thinkers, and voices for social change.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying these stories aren’t heroic in some sense. Most Harvard grads don’t take Kuo’s detour through Arkansas before law school. And even fewer return when things get scary. And I’m certainly not saying I don’t share the moral dilemma of these teachers.

But I still struggle to make sense of a few key questions:

  • Why do Americans keep finding themselves surprised to hear this same story?
  • Are these really “inspiring” or “hopeful” stories, when nothing has actually changed for most students?
  • What long-term impact can isolated, self-sacrificing teachers have in a hierarchical society?
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4 Comments

  1. Daniel Mandell

     /  October 24, 2017

    I hate to extend this list, but there’s also my favorite: “To Sir With Love,” with Sidney Poitier and Lulu.

    Reply
  1. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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