Stories by Thomas Gibbon

Thomas Gibbon teaches in a major inner city school district.

Hold Students Accountable in Testing

July 9th, 2011 at 12:37 pm 19 Comments

The results just came back, try and just 31 percent of my tenth grade English students passed their state high school exam this year. This was my first year teaching a tested subject. My students scored five percent better than those the year before in our school with a different teacher, case so though I’m disappointed in the number, I am thankful that we improved.

All of my conservative self-reliant instincts tell me that the low score is my fault. But 180 days in the classroom with my Baltimore students year makes me less willing to take the full rap for this let-down. This year, my students read Animal Farm, Anthem, The Other Wes Moore, Night, and Lord of the Flies. They wrote and read poetry, did a research project, and created a one act play. They studied grammar from the Glencoe series, did daily drills reinforcing good writing, and participated successfully in weekly Socratic Seminars. All of my formative and summative assessments were aligned to the state exam. I even created all of my assignments in the same font as that which my students would see on test day.

For a good solid month we drilled repeatedly on test prep strategies and covered every single concept that I knew would be tested. I tracked the progress of students on certain testing indicators, repeatedly telling them how much I believed in them. Most importantly, I thought, I told them that I knew they could do it if they just gave it their best shot. After all, they only really needed approximately 50 percent to earn a passing score.

But on test day, I saw what I have seen while proctoring this test year after year in the city. Students began the first 50 minute section working very hard. They were clearly reading the passages, marking them up like I had taught them to do, and using the testing strategies that I desperately attempted to instill in them. As the morning wore on, however, they grew fatigued. Heads began slipping into hands and then down onto desks. Eyes began to twitch and then flutter to sleep. I could do little but watch, knowing that if I said anything to students I might be accused of cheating and risk losing my career. By the final section, my students were “just putting anything,” as several told me later on. I just prayed that my scores would show a gain so people reading scores in the newspaper or online would think that I had taught something this year.

Something that frustrates me is that teachers are the only ones taking the heat for these scores. As someone who put in an honest effort to lead students all year, these scores are devastating. I only wish I could say that my students will be devastated when they see the results. They won’t. That is because they know they will get unlimited chances to pass the test before their senior year. And if they fail to pass by then they will work on a project, which will eventually serve as their graduation requirement. All the while, my scores look like absolute crap, thus allowing self righteous media types and politicians to harp more and more about accountability and pay for performance.

I am more than willing to make changes to my planning, teaching, lesson delivery, remediation, etc. to help my students pass their test next year. That is what I spend day after day trying to do. I am willing to be observed every day if that is what it takes to prove that I am actually teaching. But it just seems like teachers are taking all the blame when students should simply be doing better.

We Don’t Need More Testing to Know Our Schools Stink

March 16th, 2010 at 4:57 pm 12 Comments

The conservative argument against the proposed Obama education reform plan is that it does little to promote school choice. I am a firm believer in school choice, but I work in a large urban high school because kids here are the ones who need the most help and the most care. So, in my eyes, the Obama blueprint for education reform is good for two main reasons. First, it is less punishing and devastating to students struggling to earn the required “passing” measure on mandated state exams. Second, it more broadly measures a schools’ performance beyond standardized test scores, something that is especially important in low-income schools.

Evaluating students for academic growth, instead of labeling as a “passing” or “failing” student, will allow educators to tailor lessons and curriculum to meet the needs of students. I currently have a student who is such a gifted poet that his work is splashed on city buses. However, he has been unable to do well enough to “pass” the mandated state assessment in English; therefore, he is wrapped up half the day in very dull scripted curriculum courses trying to figure out ways to crack tricky standardized question stems. Excited every time he is given the smallest amount of freedom to do something with regards to creative writing, his demeanor changes enormously when given yet another packet of long reading passages with questions attached. I can’t help but feel we are deadening this student’s interests in school and life. He hates school, and rightfully so. He is not alone whatsoever. When we try to standardize curriculums, it limits the amount we are able to do to reach students of all abilities and gifts. Schools should be doing all they can to expand student’s minds – it’s hard to argue that standardized reading passages do this.

In the inner city especially, schools need to be measured on things that go far beyond a test score. I’m the last person to ever make “excuses” for my students, but I’d have to willingly blind myself to not see their struggles. Too many of my students have adult responsibilities — from taking care of siblings to holding down full-time jobs after school and into the night. Pretty much all of them rely on public transportation to get to and from school. Many struggle with the effects of entrenched poverty — hunger, malnourishment, poor medical care and more. Does this mean we as teachers coddle them and go easy? Of course not. But it does mean that a lot more goes into this job than opening up the curriculum to so and so page in order to teach the skill to pass the test. Students come to our schools with many, many more and different needs than wealthier counterparts from more privileged areas. Most conservatives don’t like listening to these sob stories, but, oh well – it’s reality.

So, as Obama’s blueprint says, it is necessary to evaluate schools based not only on test scores, but also on things like attendance, graduation rate and learning climate. School climate is arguably the most important thing to foster in a struggling school. I’d say that climate in many ways determines test scores, so to judge a school only on the score makes little sense. Kids in a poorly run school don’t need a test to tell them that their school stinks.

Of course, school climate can only be improved and revolutionized if entire staffs and administrators are on board. This is something that no policy from Washington can ever address. Mentioned often these days in school reform debates is the need to “fire bad teachers.” It is one of the ways Obama plans to deal with failing schools. Newsweek devoted an entire front page to it the other week. Everyone seems to know what a “bad” teacher is, but few actually talk about what can or does make a good or great teacher. All I know is that as the bell rings to start this last period, I’ll “teach to the test” again, because that’s my job. That, and much much more that is immeasurable.

New School Year, Same Frustrations

August 31st, 2009 at 12:52 am 18 Comments

Driving up Eight Street into town on the first day of school in my Wisconsin home town, click it would only be a matter of time before we saw the yellow school buses driving into the middle and high schools. My brothers and I knew the school year was beginning because our mother would start crying as soon as she saw them. Once we saw the tears, we knew it was official – summer was over.

Today, the start of another school year doesn’t bring me anywhere near nostalgic tears. It brings me rage and frustration. Knowing what is about to happen in Baltimore city schools and in Washington D.C. schools just down the interstate from where I live is infuriating. Another year in America’s big city schools is about to be lost to disruptions that go beyond any complex intellectual, philosophical or political discussion.  The chaos of urban high schools, a product of poverty, violence, high incarceration rates, joblessness and more, joined with the incompetence and apathy of the teachers and administrators who know just what’s coming to them the first minute the bell rings to signal the new year, will be too much for anyone to overcome.

As long as no one dies or any major crimes happen throughout the merciless seven-hour school day in our worst city high schools, the staff of these schools will go out to their cars knowing that the day could have been much worse.

New teachers stepping into inner city high school chaos for the first time will be rudely awakened by kids who cuss at them, run in and out of class, pick up cell phones with loud ring-tones, throw books on the floor and refuse to do anything. The new teacher will be shocked at the behaviors witnessed and will attempt to discipline the student(s). The new teacher will fail and lose control of the classroom. Lesson plans will go out the window for the day, week, maybe forever – it all depends on if this new person is really committed to the chaos they’ve signed on for. The new teacher will soon learn that he or she has a choice: survive the school day and make it a personal struggle, or dig and claw and try hard to teach in the face of relentless rudeness, misbehavior and demeaning frustration.

Administrators will have been told by the likes of Michelle Rhee, the over-hyped crusading leader of the D.C. Public School System, that they aren’t allowed to suspend kids this year; suspensions, they will have been told, will only lead to more kids out on the streets, higher incarceration rates, children out of wedlock, and on and on.

So every school will have something like a “timeout room” for disruptive students. Kids who roam the halls for hours on end will run in and out of the timeout room as hall monitors try and chase them down, playing on walkie-talkies like it’s a more important game of hide and seek. Kids who cuss teachers out or threaten them will be sent to the timeout room – not home. The assumption here must be that the children have no real home to go to.

The news today is that SAT scores for American high schoolers dropped to new lows last year. Asian-American students and whites increased a growing achievement gap over lower performing minority students. Experts tell you it’s because No Child Left Behind has failed, but that’s not true. School systems have failed, and they have failed in the same places year after year for decades now. And they will continue to fail as long as schools are out of control, unsafe and without discipline. Every administrator has a beginning of the year speech to their staff; inevitably, the speech will be something along the lines of this being a “new day,” or “out with the old, in with the new.”

But it’s not a new day in our worst urban high schools. Last year’s colossal problems had three months off. As soon as the bell rings and the buses roll in, the embarrassing reality of “education” in inner city high schools will resume. The problems of last year will have snowballed; a new crop of students will be sadly left behind.

Marry the Father? ROFL!

August 7th, 2009 at 8:40 am 6 Comments

The first thing I ask a student of mine who tells me she’s pregnant is, search “Are you going to marry the father?”

Traditional me thinks that’s the solid and most focused reaction. The kids, health however, laugh at me and they laugh hard when I bring up the concept. For all but a couple of my many students who have become pregnant, marriage isn’t in the equation with the baby’s father.

When one of my shot put and discus throwers was walking his two lap warm-up at a track meet last spring, hundreds of meters behind the rest of the team, I knew something was wrong. While the rest of the team stretched, he told me the girl he was fooling around with had missed her period; his jaw was on the track – he had no idea what to do.

Traditional me told him to man up. I told him his life wasn’t all about him anymore – that his responsibilities were to the girl and the baby. He mentioned abortion as a solid option. I asked him what the girl would think about that. He didn’t know what she’d say. Exactly, I told him. It’s not about what’s easy for you now. You do what’s right for the girl and the baby. He mentioned not being able to buy new shoes or jeans. I told him that was a good place to start cutting
back.

A few days later, he told me it was all a scare and she wasn’t pregnant after all. I asked if he’d learned his lesson. He mentioned something about being lucky and using condoms. I told him he hadn’t learned anything at all from the experience if that was all he was thinking about.

That marriage is in decline in our country is no shocker. It’s frequently cited that about 40-50% of marriages end in divorce. The average age at first divorce is 30.5 for males and 29 for females, so even those taking the nuptial challenge early on aren’t necessarily sticking with it. By taking marriage out of the equation, or putting it off until the “right time, as many of my peers say they want to do, our society is losing an important part of life’s “script.”

It’s this script, says Kay Hymowitz, a City Journal editor and prominent writer on the topic of marital decline, which focuses people and gets them planning and saving for the future. Hymowitz has written that a caste system has formed in our country between the middle and upper classes, which have higher rates of marriage, and the lower classes, which tend to have much lower rates of marriage. Committed and strong marriages are a foundation for society, and as they decline the society slips.

Weak, broken or non-existent family structures are among the major reasons for failed schools. In the last two years, our school held parent/teacher conferences three times per year. Teachers had to stay until 7 p.m. The same two or three parents would visit me each time. I had well over 100 students. Strong schools and parental involvement go hand in hand; parents hold students, teachers and administrators accountable in these environments. Lacking parental involvement, students lose what should be their biggest advocacy group. Bad schools are great places for bad teachers to hide out in and it’s made all the easier when strong families aren’t demanding excellence for their students.

Hymowitz explained that the collapse of marriage creates a sense of drift, especially among low-income kids. The script that leads to a middle class life in this country is “increasingly lost,” for these kids, she says.  Every disruption in a low-income child’s life – every time the pantry is empty or there’s no parent around to support them at an after school activity – chips away at the middle class script. Marriage used to be a way to “keep your eyes on the future,” says Hymowitz. Lower income folks are making what she calls “the accidental family – where you’re stumbling into making a baby. The whole idea of a planned pregnancy is a middle class concept.”

It isn’t just book knowledge that’s creating an achievement gap between lower income and upper income students. The consistency of a middle class lifestyle brings planning and goals for the future. That consistency is given a major boost when parents are married and involved in every aspect of their child’s life. Hymowitz says middle class parents are often “obsessed with their child’s achievement.” Lower income kids, on the other hand, can often “grow into an adult and not have a tremendous amount of socializing or shaping.” The childhood of a middle class child is geared towards going to college. The childhood of a lower class child is more geared towards survival.

Counterterrorism Strategies Could Work in Our Schools

July 25th, 2009 at 10:03 am 10 Comments

While teaching for two years in inner city Baltimore, the same scene played out just about every day. Kids would tag the walls or halls of the school with whatever markers, paints or pens they could find. After school, our hard-working, sleepy custodian would then be carefully painting over them with silver or red paint – the colors of our school. “I got to do this everyday. These kids,” he’d say.

Gang leaders recruit all types of kids. The smart ones handle the money and more responsibility. The ones with ADD or learning disabilities are typically the ones standing on the corners or running the drugs to and from. Girls are prevalent in gangs too; often, in order to get into the gang, girl’s are “sexed in,” meaning they have sex with many other gang members until proven worthy of acceptance into the gang. The kids who enter gangs are basically brainwashed; they are promised protection, prestige and a type of family environment they might not be getting at home. At least that’s what the Baltimore City Police Dept. detectives would tell us when they’d come and brief teachers about gang activities and wars. We had these briefings a few times per year.

Much attention is paid to the violent drug wars in Mexico. Not enough is paid to the drug trade fueled by deadly gangs on our streets. Thousands have died in Mexico since the government began battling like hell against the armed cartels. Thousands die in cities like Baltimore every year across our country; it’s not much better than Mexico, if at all better in the slums of urban America where gangs thrive and residents are held hostage.

The deaths of gang members or drug dealers (it’s of course too broad to say they are one and the same) are usually written up as little blurbs in the paper, if at all. BaltimoreSun.com has a little map checker where one can pinpoint where recent murders were. The dots represent humans killed. It’s eerie looking at it – to think how far removed one living in an American suburb can be from a city that is only a few miles away.

Gangs are too often dismissed as a result of urban issues such as bad schools, lack of job opportunities, institutional racism, broken homes, drug addiction and the like. They ought to be treated more as a cause of these things.

The counterterrorism strategy our military uses in Iraq and Afghanistan is “clear, hold, build.” Something similar is needed to sweep out gangs in this country, particularly in our inner cities, where huge numbers of residents feel they are held hostage by hot-headed, violent, destructive and angry young men and women.

This doesn’t need to be done by police, but by residents demanding to take back their cities. There are movements to end gang killings. There are brave and proud individuals and community groups who try so hard to combat the gang problems in Baltimore. The gangs and drugs and violence, which perpetuate the same old urban issues, are winning though, and it’s not even close.

I go into the city and meet with my students to run or talk about books I’ve given them to read over the summer. These are good kids and they come from good families. They go to church on Sunday, help their grandparents, and do their best in the awful school they attend. But across the street, there are kids chilling around in white tanks and blue K.C. Royals hats. They are there to show who is in charge of the neighborhood. And it’s sad because I know who is winning. I don’t even speak about it with the kids I go and visit; it’s unspoken that they are just trying to get the hell out of this city alive and with a possibility to live a better life somehow. I go not to preach about any kind of better life. I go to talk about running and the goals that can be set to achieve personal greatness. I go to talk about the universal themes and ideas that literature represents to people of all races and backgrounds.

Test scores just came out for the year and Baltimore City and P.G. county, a suburb of D.C., were in dead last in Maryland, a state that was awarded a title for best public school system in the country. The scores in the cities and slums don’t have to be so bad; they are a sign that people give up on each other and their country. There is no hope and no true freedom without an education.

We have more than enough political pundits in this country; we need more people discussing life and death issues like gangs and inner city violence and poverty and test scores that reveal that our nation is not equally committed to education as a civil right. These shouldn’t be treated as abstract “social issues” but as issues that make or break the heartbeat of our nation.

Inner-city America might never vote Republican, but the liberal ideal will only keep the blame game going. The liberal ideal keeps people dependent on a government structure that will never be big enough to clear the Crips and Bloods off the corner, hold them at bay while kids work uninterrupted in school to receive the education they deserve before they can come back to build tradition and foundation for generations of greatness to come.

Falsely Accused of Racism? Me Too

July 24th, 2009 at 6:27 pm 25 Comments

As one of the only whites in the Baltimore high school in which I taught, buy viagra  I was called a racist – “You white racist bitch!” or “You skinny white racist bitch!” – on a rather consistent basis, medical mainly by students I was disciplining. Their first reaction to my discipline policy was to cuss me out and call me a “cracker ass bitch,” or something equally artful – it almost always revolved around the B word though.

The first time I was accused of racism by a student who wasn’t raging at me, I was teaching To Kill a Mockingbird. Most of the books on the curriculum dealt with race in some way, shape or form. Whites were always the bad guys, for sure. It’s hard as a white guy to not get sucked into a category with the ugly racist Robert E. Lee Ewell from that great novel when teaching it to a class of 30 African-American kids. I did my best to convince them I was an Atticus type figure, mainly by showing up each day and expecting greatness from each of them.

But I was shocked and really let down when an older African-American teacher told me that word was going around among the kids that I was a racist. I held my head low for a couple days – what had I done? I literally had no idea what I could have said. Here I was, doing my best as a 23-year-old white guy right out of college, in a notoriously bad and persistently dangerous all-black high school. Excuse me for feeling a bit out of place. A few days went by and the charge dropped without a whisper because there was absolutely no basis for it.

I was profiled constantly: “Hey, is you Peyton Manning’s twin?” I would hear one kid ask. “Nah, he look like Eli,” another would answer. They would laugh, and so would I, as they walked down the hall. “Who that white man is?” a girl would ask a friend as I walked by. “He look like one of those ones from High School Musical!” It was constant and hilarious. It revealed to me that the students hadn’t come across too many white people in their lives, except on television. I apparently look like every white guy from Wayne Gretzky, the hockey star, to Mr. Prezbo, the famous cop turned teacher from “The Wire.”

One thing I actually took away from a diversity training session was when a presenter said that white people don’t think about being white, but that black people think about being black every single day. When I started teaching in the inner city, it really was the first time in my life I’d felt cognizant of my skin color before. My whole life had really been surrounded by white people. It gave me a new respect and perspective, but it also has given me a new look at what racism is and isn’t. Racism is hateful and ignorant. Racism is not racism just because that’s the default position our society takes when someone is made uncomfortable by a person who doesn’t look like them.

So I hope I have some perspective on the feelings of Professor Henry Louis Gates when he was arrested for disorderly conduct.  At the same time, I think I have some perspective on false accusations of racism as well.

Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested, not for being a “black man in America,” but for being a belligerent jackass. It doesn’t matter if you’re an esteemed professor or a college kid hammered off of keg beer – talking back to an officer is stupid and will eventually get you arrested. This is called equal application of the law.

Thankfully, Sgt. Crowley, the accused “racist cop”, is standing up for himself. If we really need a national conversation on race, Crowley is standing up for people who are sick of petty racism charges – people who are sick of holding their tongues because they aren’t quite sure what someone is going to think. What progress can be made if we beat around the bush on racial issues? How else will any progress be made regarding black on black crime or failed schools, largely made up of black students, or disproportionate unemployment in the black community, if everyone has to worry that their career will be ruined if they are perceived to be a racist? As a good buddy of mine, a black male gang outreach counselor in Baltimore told me when he looked around the halls of our terrible school, “It’s not a black white thing anymore, it’s crazy – that’s what it is.”

F$@#*N$ Wit Da Teacha

July 10th, 2009 at 3:33 pm 19 Comments

The video was called “F$@#*N$ wit da teacha” and it revealed the horror my teaching colleague, a native of Nepal, went through each day.

Mr. B is a short man and he always dressed in a classy jacket and shirt each day with pressed trousers. He is really a brilliant man – a wonderful writer in both his native language and in English. The man has a Ph.D in English and teaches at a local community college to earn more money.

But in this video, which is no longer on YouTube display, he was standing near his door, visibly on his last nerve as he tried to clear his room of several stray students who were running in and out of the room. “You must leave. I am trying to teach,” he said to the main student messing with him. The student proceeded to touch the collar of his shirt, taunting him by saying, “I bet you won’t pop your f’in colla.” What this meant, I have no clue.

Mr. B did not react well to being touched by the student. The last footage is of him shouting down the hall for help from an administrator. No help ever came. Several kids cuss and laugh in the background of the video and then it goes blank. Another colleague of mine is the one who found the video. He frequently searched YouTube to see if the kids had posted anything. If you’re interested, check this one out of the hallway in my school, posted by a student a while back. (Yes, this is America and it happens in schools every single day. This is why there are weapons checks.)

Mr. B is a very smart man, but his accent presented a huge language barrier with his students. This made him an easy target. His classes were tormented – not because he didn’t know his subject – but because he was unable to manage the chaos, rudeness and downright meanness shown to him each day. Kids frequently came to me and asked to sit in my class during the hour they had Mr. B – not because they didn’t like him but because they knew a big block of students were not going to let them learn anything. And they knew Mr. B wouldn’t stand up for himself. As harsh as it may sound, in doing so, he wasn’t standing up for his students.

Our school had several foreign teachers who were tormented along similar lines as Mr. B. On Halloween, gangs of students ran the halls egging teachers. Our Kenyan and Ghanian Math teachers were both egged on their heads. Our French teacher, a nice older man from Canada, was egged as well; he never came back after that day.

On any regular school day, Ms. E, a chemistry teacher, would lock herself in the chemical closet during certain class periods because she was so afraid of the kids.

On and on I could go, but the point here is that the failed schools in America do not require more money so much as they require better discipline policies and classroom managers. Those in charge of our school knew these things were going on. They often acted cowardly in their discipline policy because having too many suspensions would rouse too much suspicion from the central office. Those teachers who were taunted and tormented didn’t have to take it; they should have stood firm and held their ground. They knew what they were getting into each day.

Really, it’s a battle. Though clichéd, urban education is a war for our future. Can we really as a country let videos like that one stand?

God bless all those teachers above who I describe – they are all doing very well in other job placements now. But none of them belonged in that school. There is no place for weakness on staffs in failed urban schools. The discipline problems in these environments are just too bad. It’s hard for me these days to go to a family gathering or some sort of classy party and hold forth with normal conversation because all I want to do is tell these stories, which often involve lots of cussing and other vulgarities. This makes for poor small talk because people are uncomfortable when they hear it. “It can’t be true – it can’t be that bad,” they must think.

Mr. B once told me that he would rather be blown up by a bomb in Baghdad because “boom – one time and it’s all over.” Here in the school, he said “You die many times every day.”

This… in America… It’s true.

Kids Were Having Sex In The Staircases, Butt-Naked-Caught-On-Camera Sex

June 1st, 2009 at 10:15 am 20 Comments

Two years ago this month, advice I graduated from my masters program, remedy packed a bag full of preppy college boy clothes, thumb kissed my girlfriend goodbye for the summer and went to Philadelphia for a summer in training for Teach For America. There, I spent five weeks with hundreds of motivated, nervous and stressed incoming young teachers. Sitting in sweaty, non-air conditioned schools throughout that city, we were drilled on the fundamentals of teaching in low-income inner cities. Days began at 5 a.m. We battled for seats and grub in the Temple University dining hall. We picked up a sacked lunch – some form of cold cut on a stale roll – and boarded yellow busses. We were all heading to low-income schools in the city. My bus-driver was a Muslim woman in full burqa, and she drove like a mad-woman through the back streets of Philadelphia to the high school where me and many others attended classes all day and spent a couple of hours student teaching kids who had failed classes during the school year.

Repeatedly, we were told that this would be the hardest two years of our lives. I would sit through countless hours of lectures on the achievement gap and the strategies I might employ to push my kids ahead – to help them make “significant gains.” I didn’t know how weighty all these discussions were because I had no reference point as to how bad the schools we were going to were. I had no idea how far so many children in our country are. I didn’t know how ignorant I was to the problems in our inner cities.

The book learning I got through Teach For America training was nothing compared with the reality of stepping in front of my first class on a Monday morning in late August, 2007. Within minutes of students entering my school in West Baltimore, I realized that it would take every ounce of my strength as a human being to survive my two years.

For a long time, I was more interested in me and my survival than I was of my students. The students were going to be there the next day and they were coming as they were and are; how I would be emotionally, mentally and spiritually in order to help them was up in the air. The lessons I planned were to help me survive the day. I tried so hard to teach and to think of things for the kids to do. But I would go home tormented by the cussing I heard, the disrespect that was leveled at me, the dysfunction of a school where even the bell system didn’t work and kids could roam the halls without fear of punishment.

I was haunted by what I saw. Kids were having sex in the staircases – butt naked – caught on camera sex. As teachers, we were asked to assist the police in checking the bags of students and help waive the metal detecting wand at the front door during random weapons checks. During one of these checks early in the school year, I saw two cops throw a boy out the door and down so hard I was sure we’d need to call an ambulance. “That’s what they be doin’ to niggas,” a student said to me as I watched it happen.

After the weapons check, we were ordered to restore order in our classes and teach kids who felt like objects and criminals, not students. I remember having a particularly hard time going back to class one day after seeing one of my own students getting handcuffed after cops found drugs in the sole of his shoes. Just a day earlier, I had given this boy a book about basketball that he was quietly reading in the back of class.

Fights were daily. The rush in between classes was something like an episode of The Wire on steroids – kids playing dice, running in and out of the classroom, refusing to come inside on time.

My eye twitched constantly until the end of October when fall break came. I remember going to church and just staring at the Cross. I didn’t even have words to ask for help.

Eventually, I learned how to manage the chaos, but first I almost quit. The closest I came was when I had my laptop stolen from my room on a Thursday night in November. I had left my classroom door open for about three minutes and it was well after school was over. I was just running a quick errand to the office. I came back and my laptop was gone. I was so sad and defeated. More, though, I was furious. I drove with a buddy of mine – an Army man now stationed in Iraq – to a couple housing projects looking for the kid we knew had stolen the computer. When the kids found out I had gone there searching for my laptop, they said they knew I had heart.

Two years later, I hardly recognize the person I was when I left the middle and upper class, predominantly white background I was accustomed to my whole life. I feel like I’ve lived ten years in these two. I have two large journals full of stories and experiences.

I don’t know if there’s a political solution to the things I’ve been writing about. There needs to be a cultural shift in low-income areas to the point where everyone sees something in the schools, whether they are places where kids are training for professions, learning right from wrong or preparing for college. Schools, more than anything, need to be places where kids learn to take pride in themselves, their communities and families. Until then, the achievement gap won’t go anywhere.

The stimulus plan gives an unprecedented quantity of money to schools across the country. I don’t think it will solve the achievement gap. I bet a lot of the money will be wasted and squandered. I bet the money will look like the beautiful new laptops our school has that have sat in an empty room for the last couple years because the administration was too afraid that kids would break or steal them. Money won’t mean anything until education is valued.

I would like to say I’ve helped a ton of kids and been a wonderful inspiration to all. I would like to say I was the most prepared teacher and the finest of Christians each day. But there were more days than not that I was sick to my stomach going into the school – many mornings I would have to block out a thought that repeatedly popped into my head as I drank my coffee and looked through my apartment window and was saying “I would rather be dead than go to that school today.”

I think I’ve done my best. I did all I could to survive as a teacher in Baltimore. I don’t have all the answers, nor do my colleagues in this program. As conservatives, we should push for school choice and speak passionately about lessening the influence of teacher’s unions so more bright people feel it’s a legitimate and fulfilling option to teach in our public education system. And really, it’s about more than just talking. If our senators are so passionate about school choice in the District of Columbia, they should go to S.E. Washington, D.C. and talk with the people about their ideas. It’s not enough to lecture people from the comforts of the Capitol.

No, there aren’t many conservatives in an organization like Teach For America; it’s made up largely of idealist young liberals hell bent on making social change. A group of smart and determined people working together as we do in TFA doesn’t make it a socialist organization. We know, regardless of our political affiliation, that our society won’t be as great as it could be until all students receive a top rate education, or at least an education that shows them that they have the right and responsibility to be responsible and successful members of America.

I will not be in this school next year and neither will anyone else. The school is being shuttered after four decades. It was once a powerful symbol of the African American community in this city as a good school – a place where kids and adults were thriving and pushing towards a better future. Now, it’s a place synonymous with drug trafficking, gang violence, bad/no teaching, lowly test scores and failed social experiments. I don’t know what my particular future brings. I’m going back to school to work on a Ph.D. But I’ll be back in the inner city schools because they need me here. They need you too.

“Men Finish What They Start”

May 19th, 2009 at 7:52 pm 4 Comments

“Men finish what they start.” I repeated this over and over as I passed out uniforms and track warm-ups to my groaning athletes on Friday after school. In our dingy, discount dirty and grafittied locker room, the kids grumbled; “Coach Gibbon, we thought the season was over last week.”

“No, you knew we had regionals this week; don’t fool yourself,” I snapped back. “I’ve been telling you all year that the season ends at regionals – maybe even states.”

The City Championships happened Saturday, May 9, and we didn’t do very well. Our 4×800 team got stomped after showing some promise the week before. My best 800 meter runner stepped off the track and quit after going out in 57 seconds for his first 400. The shining performance was an 8th place finish in the 100 meters for my best runner, a senior named Patrick. To put it lightly, we got whipped.

I knew it would be a bear to get the kids back to practice last week, especially with the disappointment of the City meet. I knew it would be even more difficult fielding a team to compete on a consecutive Saturday, and this time out in the county against the bigger, richer and more experienced track programs at the regional meet.

Early in the week, four of my athletes flat told me they wouldn’t come another weekend. “The way I see it, it’s not quitting,” said one of my sprinters, who convinces himself that mediocrity, or slightly worse, is fine on a daily basis. Certainly, he had no shot of making the top four at the regional to qualify for the state meet, but I told him to watch that these small attitudes don’t become major character flaws in the future when life gets really difficult. Another kid bailed, saying he had to prepare all day Saturday for the prom.

Most things in this city slide by in mediocrity or worse, and athletics are no exception. Many coaches fudge their rosters to make it seem like they have a full team all so they can get the three small stipends that come with the gig. If anyone questions the numbers of one’s team, the easy excuse – one that would be impossible to dispute – is that the kids skipped school and missed the game or meet. This is such a common problem in the city, no one bats an eye if a team shows up on a bus with just three or four kids.

All year long, my runners in cross country and track go to shabby city meets. In cross country, the courses aren’t mapped out or official in distance. During track season, we run on beaten up old tracks with maybe one or two good lanes to run in. There is no pole vault in the city because the equipment is too expensive and the majority of high schools don’t even have proper high or long jump pits to practice or compete in. We coaches do our best – we run the meets, set up the hurdles, measure the shot and disc throws, try to keep the kids engaged, motivated and interested even though we have no awards or medals for them. In my time here, my team has never been able to afford going to an invitational, where the prospect of awards is there.

So getting out to the county, where track and field is treated very professionally and respectably is quite a shock to my city athletes. After much prayer and summoning of my John Wooden spirit, I was able to rouse seven kids (out of a school of 800) out of bed last Saturday morning to go out to the county and, as my 1600 meter runner said, “compete against a bunch of white boys” when they could have been sleeping or relaxing.

The “white boys” were there in full force too; granted, they weren’t all white kids, but the wealth gap between the city and county was very obvious to me and my athletes; they had nice uniforms – all matching compared with our mix and match, – tents to sit under, plentiful refreshments provided by parents or boosters, brand new Nike or New Balance spikes, athletic trainers, and dozens of parents and supporters in the stands to cheer them on to victory.

My squad – the only city team in this regional that actually bothered to show up – had no tent, shared four pairs of my old high school and college track spikes and, as always, went without any support from parents or fans.

But when they stepped out on the track, my kids competed their guts out. Every single kid ran a personal best, and they knew it. My miler, who calls himself “the ice man” because he likes to wear slick watches and fake silver jewelry, ran a 5:06 for the mile, outkicking a few kids in Nike track uniforms. While the other coaches around me talked about the excellent “base training” their top kids had put in over the course of the year, I cheered on Gerald, telling him to “do it for the ice.” He avoided taking last place by three spots and he was so pumped. My two miler went out in 65 seconds because he was so excited to lead a field of great runners, but finished last in 11:45 – still, it was a 20 second personal best. My captain, the kid I wrote about earlier in the year who has been locked up twice on drug charges, ran 52 seconds for the 400 – a personal best by four seconds. He finished 7th in the regional – a really good showing. When he got back to the stands, he yelled out to the rest of our team that he “ran like I was running from the police. I was scared!”

The assembled parents below us, there to support their sons and daughters, spent the afternoon looking back with annoyance/disgust at my city kids up in the bleachers making all the ruckus – laughing and yucking it up. My kids were there to have fun. I was proud of them. They had stuck out an entire track season, from the brutal, cold and windy days of March to the sunny and pleasant days of May. Like men, they had finished what they started.

I won lots of awards in high school and captained a nationally ranked division one college team. I got to run at state and even national championships, but I realized after seeing the struggles of my kids, that what I did wasn’t so serious. I had parental and material support and people there to help me each step of the way. I had proper nutrition each day and trainers if I had a muscle tweak or some soreness. My city team taught me to appreciate other things: friendship, overcoming basic obstacles like a lack of nutrition and proper attire, and always doing the best you have with what you’ve got.

Flunking For Welfare

May 13th, 2009 at 8:08 pm 8 Comments

Suddenly, a couple months before graduation, about ten kids I teach – kids who were passing and were bound to graduate high school – just completely stopped coming to school. I made calls home, left messages and notified the office.

The kids continued to not show. I talked to a few parents, saying, “I want your kid to pass. You just need to get them to come to class and get their make up work and sit in on a couple after school sessions.”

Even I, who tries to pass every kid in order to avoid completely dealing with a central office and administration that wants teachers to prove they’ve “diligently” made every single effort to help and contact dysfunctional students from dysfunctional families, can’t pass these kids. In this district, the lowest possible grade a teacher can give out is a 50%, even if a kid has never come to school at all. A 60% is passing here – you do the math! It’s not very hard to “pass.” But these few kids have literally done nothing to try and pass. And there’s nothing wrong with them; no sickness, tragedies – nothing. So, I asked my principal – “what gives?”

Her hypothesis, based on decades in this dysfunctional city school system was simple and disturbing: Many parents fear their kids’ graduation because it takes away a substantial part of the income on their government benefit checks once their dependent is out of high school – off the government’s books – and on their own. She said she’s seen it time and again in her career.

“So you’re saying these parents want their kids to fail high school?” I asked.

“Sure, as long as the child is in high school in some form, the parent continues to receive government money for them on their check,” she said.

And it’s true. This, according to the official website of social security:

If your child is a student

Three months before your child’s 18th birthday, we will send you a notice that benefits will end at age 18 unless your child is a full-time student at a secondary (or elementary) school. If your child is younger than 19 and still attending a secondary or elementary school, he or she must notify us by completing a statement of attendance that has been certified by a school official. The benefits then will usually continue until he or she graduates, or until two months after reaching age 19, whichever comes first.

Maybe this isn’t news to you, but it’s sickening to think that kids might be held back because parents fear losing their government dole money. Recently, a female student who had disappeared from my class for about two months came back demanding all the make-up work from the quarter. She relayed a seemingly far-fetched story about how she has been in New York City suing her mother for not providing material support that is supposed to come as a result of the welfare benefit the mother receives for this child. This isn’t a “the dog ate my homework” type of excuse. It’s hard for me to believe that a young girl would have to sue her own mother, but also hard to discount after working in this system for two years. The girl says she hasn’t been eating much and sleeps at different friends’ houses. The girl can’t read fluently and her writing is nearly unreadable. She is emotionally distraught and unhealthy. I don’t have enough skills to give her all she needs and I don’t know who does. Her story panned out with the social worker at our school, so I know she wasn’t lying, but I don’t know what kind of program could help her. Her parents have abandoned her.

Our city has a relatively new superintendent who has made it a goal to get dropouts back in classrooms regardless of the cost or their age. My school and others like it, as a result, are stocked with 18 year-old high school freshmen who have sometimes been out of school and on the streets for years. What kind of example does that set for the kids who are actually on grade level?

At what point does the public dole run out for people who SCORN the free education the state provides them?

Stringent student attendance laws should be tied to parent’s welfare benefits if taxpayers are really to pay into a system that is abused by this ingrained social dysfunction. There’s no reason for parents to be getting welfare benefits because their kid has failed; most likely, it’s more the parent’s failure than it is the child’s. Meanwhile, schools fall apart because of dependent communities that have fallen apart. Teachers and administrators, usually not even from these communities, can only do so much.

Teachers can put F’s on kid’s report cards forever. Some parents, however, see the F and then wait for the check in the mail for as long as it will come.