Opinion

Opinion: In Praise of the Teachers Lifting Up Students in Underserved Neighborhoods

By Talia Kovacs | April 11, 2016

If you are reading this, chances are you have been to school. If you have children, they likely go to school. That woman who held the door open for you this morning? She did too. One of few things we have in common as a nation is that nearly all citizens have attended school for part of their lives.
Ask someone about their teachers as children and chances are they remember their names, personalities, and a lot of what they were taught. Based on what teachers do for us, and the deep impact they have on us for our whole lives, the people who bear the great honor of molding the minds of the next generation should be revered, respected and recognized as some of our greatest national assets.
Let’s take some time out of our day to think about, praise and recognize teachers across the nation, especially those in our most underserved communities, as they are some of the most hard working Americans you’ll ever meet. As a literacy consultant, I have had the opportunity to observe, coach and learn from teachers across the country. Whether in sprawling Dinuba County, California or bustling Harlem, New York City, teachers are facing some of the hardest times for their profession in our nation’s history. The people who interact with and shape the worldview of our youth on a daily basis are underserviced, overtested, and underappreciated. It is only until we understand the unique challenges facing teachers today that we can begin to change the collective narrative.  
Imagine a doctor working at a hospital asking for an IV for a sick patient and being told that the hospital ran out several weeks ago, and that the patient will have to remain dehydrated until next year. Imagine a construction worker needing asphalt to finish the road she’s working on only to be told that her team has already used its quota and she will have to purchase some more on her own. The premise is absurd and yet, for teachers across the nation, most notably in underserved areas, this is a fact of the job.
In spite of what could be insurmountable obstacles, teachers across the nation are using their ingenuity, their commitment, and their own money to solve these problems. I recently met with a teacher in the Bronx who had requested pencils for her classroom only to be told that there were none left in the school building and she’d have to wait for two months for the next shipment. This, perhaps, wouldn’t have been much of an issue if it was the year 2100 and her students could simply beam their thoughts onto a tablet via neuro-implant; unfortunately, no such technology exists and kids still needs pencils so she went out and bought her own. A teacher in North Carolina requesting lower level books for his striving third graders was told that there was no way the school could get him these books to use. This teacher went out and bought his own, despite the fact that his state pays teachers some of the lowest salaries in the nation. These teachers are constantly being told that wanting the actual bare necessities for their students will have to wait; that because of the financial priorities of bureaucrats, their children won’t be able to read a book on the appropriate reading level or write that day.
Teachers in underserved environments face a double challenge. As with all teachers, they must ensure that their students are college and career-ready. However, teachers in underserved environments must do it without funding from well-stocked PTAs or the world knowledge that summer camps and extracurricular activities impart. Despite these challenges, teachers dutifully prepare their students for state and national exams, walking the tightrope of including interesting and engaging content while preparing students for assessments that unfortunately, in this moment, often do little to measure actual student knowledge.
Typically, one day at your job does not make or break your performance review. Most teacher evaluations, however, weigh heavily on their pupil's’ test performance, while doing little to evaluate the teacher throughout the year. Asking students about the teacher, conducting comprehensive observations, or speaking with colleagues are much more comprehensive ways of measuring teacher effectiveness, but are rarely used and when used, do not hold as much weight. Teachers must contend with this overtesting year after year and the best of them do so with aplomb, making up songs, dances, mantras and other teacher tricks to put their students at ease during this high stress time.
Despite the fact that most teachers in our country are on their feet for eight hours a day, work nights and weekends, care for their students deeply and often make a life-changing impact on many kids throughout their lives, the teaching profession is woefully underappreciated. Many young teachers entering the profession must contend with their families’ perceptions of the reputation of teaching. This especially applies to those who work in underserved neighborhoods. These teachers face a unique combination of back-patting, condescension and pity that comes from the media and their own communities telling them what a “good person” they must be to try and help these kids while at the same time insisting that the negative effects of living in poverty mean their life’s work won’t end up making a lick of difference. Moreover, many teachers are vilified in the national discourse for having summers off, for working short days and, of course, for being “those who can’t do…” I encourage us all to speak to a teacher — do they work short days or do they stay late analyzing work, speaking with parents and preparing for the next day? Do they laze about on their summers off or do they often spend weeks planning their next year’s lessons and unit plans? Is this truly how we feel about the people shaping our children’s minds day in and day out?
Any one of these huge challenges would (and do) make anyone rethink their profession. Our country’s best minds, however, are hard at work at this very moment ensuring that our next generation of citizens, professors, lawyers, artists, doctors, politicians, developers, and engineers are thoughtfully prepared for the changing world. With further understanding of the challenges teachers face in their professions, we can begin to see a clearer picture of the kind of steel-minded hero it takes to teach in our schools today.
Let us praise teachers for the physical, emotional and intellectual work they do and the creativity, inspiration and perseverance they demonstrate to our nation’s young minds each day.
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