COOPER REFLECTS ON EXPERIENCE WITH TEACH FOR AMERICA
By Joseph C. Cooper ‘07
Last year was a hard one for me, but it helped me understand the hopelessness that many educators feel, working in urban public schools. I taught 8th grade reading at Treadwell Middle/High School in Memphis. I have never known failure like I did at Treadwell. This year, though, my passion for social justice has returned. Teaching 6th Grade Reading at Power Center Academy, a charter school, has helped me realize that educational equity is a realistic ideal.
During a faculty meeting at the beginning of last year, the Assistant Principal held up a line graph titled, “First Year Teacher Morale.” The graph started out high on the y-axis and fell gradually until October, when it plummeted in a free fall toward the x-axis. Sometime around May, with that month’s promise of summer, the line slowly began to rise again. I don’t have a line graph to represent my experience at Treadwell. But, if I did, the line would never make it to May. The idealism that led me to join TFA was not misplaced or misguided. However, it was not, unfortunately, strengthened by experience. I wanted to provide urban youth with hope and a sense of possibility. Those urban youth, though, needed a reading teacher. I didn’t know the difference, and before long, my idealism quickly turned to resentment.
I resented my students. They would throw pennies at me in the crowded hallways; they would call out, “Crack!” followed by, “Er!” during class, shouting the racial epithet like the Budweiser frogs; they would tear up quizzes and throw them away or throw them at me. I thought I had gone to hell and was being punished for all the terrible things I had done to my own teachers. I resented the community. Parents would come into the school to beat up students who picked on their children. Uncles and brothers would walk into the school wearing gang colors and guns, shouting into the classroom, “Crips on the prowl,” threatening middle school students belonging to rival gangs. And I resented the administration for allowing any of this to happen. Unfortunately, I never surmounted this resentment. I carried it with me until the end. Artavius was a 16 year-old, eighth grade student of mine. He walked into my room on April 28 and swung his right fist into my left jaw, knocking me unconscious. I saw students standing over me with pointing fingers, yelling, “You got knocked the ---- out!” I learned later that this attack was a prerequisite for Artavius’ gang initiation.
I came to Treadwell ready to provide a stellar education to my students. As did all the faculty and administration. Instead, we allowed inconsistency to plague the school; we failed to enforce our own rules; we set high expectations without providing students with the skills to attain them. We blamed the students and each other for these failures, rather than accepting responsibility. Whose failure was it, then, when a year of education, which could have set students on a path to educational, economic, and social success, instead wasted away? It took getting knocked out by a student, but I realize now that it was my own.
Power Center Academy
This year, I have rediscovered the hope and sense of possibility that led me to join Teach For America. I am at a charter school. The students wear ties and blazers and walk in lines. They raise their hands and say, “Excuse me” and “Thank you.” And, most importantly to me, they discuss literature with interest and intelligence. They are highly successful, scoring 100% proficient or advanced proficient on the state test. The story of this year, thankfully, is not nearly as interesting as last year’s.
I have spent a lot of thought recently, as I prepare to enter law school, asking myself -- much as I did last year concerning failure -- whose success is this? Is it my own? Does it belong solely to my students? Are they simply more driven than my students last year? Is it the success of a competent administration? Or, is it because I am at a charter school? I imagine the answers are all yes and no. I started the year with lesson plans prepared and classroom procedures practiced. I don’t presume to be a life-changing presence in my students’ lives. Instead, I teach them reading comprehension strategies and the difference between figurative and literal language. In short, I am a teacher. I have yet to “write up” a child to the office. Instead, I handle all discipline issues either in the classroom or with parents. I think this has ingratiated me to an already overworked administration (something I wish I had done last year). As for charter schools, they are great. They provide students and their families with ownership in education, and they provide teachers and administrations with autonomy to make their own educational decisions. As a result, charter schools like mine benefit from a culture of accountability, rather than one of shifting blame. There should be more charter schools, but by no means are they the only answer.
I have taken away a few key understandings from my two years of experience. My students’ failures are my own (whether I want to admit it or not), and so are their successes (whether they want to admit it or not). The culture of a school begins and ends with you, whoever you are and whatever your role may be. Finally, and I know it’s a cliché, but social justice in education is a forest. Lesson plans, differentiated instruction, procedures – they are the trees. You have to plant the trees before you can grow the forest. It is hard and very rarely inspiring. But it is worth it. And every once in a while, you get a glimpse of the forest you’re planting.