Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Attitude and the Achievement Gap

I taught in an inner-city school for the first five years of my career. As the special education inclusion teacher, I had the chance to teach with a lot of people, rather than next door to them. Moving from class to class, I gained some degree of insight into other teachers' abilities and attitudes. There seemed to be three kinds of teacher, generally speaking. a) talented, dedicated teachers who pushed kids hard and expected them to achieve, b) newbies (like me, at the time), who were optimistic, but inexperienced and mostly not-great, and c) experienced teachers who just didn't believe that "these kids" could learn.

The first group are some of the finest educators you will find, though I think they rarely get the kind of recognition they deserve. Inner-city schools have a disproportionate number of newbies, I think for obvious reasons, and we could discuss ways to keep more talented people in those hard-to-staff schools. But it was the number of teachers who believed our students incapable of achieving that really troubled me. I heard comments like "For a lot of them, sixth grade will be the only graduation they have," and "I don't have time to teach writing daily," in the same breath with "They may only succeed at art and P.E."

Teachers who come to school with this kind of attitude are setting their kids up for failure. They let them off the hook. They give easier work instead of making grade-appropriate work accessible. They clutch their list of excuses and believe that it excuses them from having to make kids achieve.

I know firsthand that there is a list of reasons that learning is much harder for kids in poverty and second language learners. Most of which, educators have no control over. We need to set aside those things which we cannot control and take charge of the things which we can control. We can't make sure a kid is in bed at a reasonable hour but we can make school engaging enough to keep her interested. We can't make the parents learn English or help a kid with his homework, but we can emerse his little butt in the language and print and use proven language aquisition strategies all day, for every day that we have him.

It's a lot harder to teach in an inner-city school if you're doing it right. Teachers who don't believe that these kids can achieve ought to move on and make room for someone who is up to the challenge.

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