You Say We’re Weak? I Say You’re Wrong.


Did you read this NY Times column by Nick Kristof, “How Mrs. Grady Transformed Olly Neal“? It tells the story of how one teacher got through the rough exterior of one student (who made her cry, no less) and turned him into a lover of books. He is now an appellate court judge.

On this one anecdote, Kristof bases his assertion that teachers of the poorest, most disadvantaged students, on the whole, stink:

To me, the lesson is that while there are no silver bullets to chip away at poverty or improve national competitiveness, improving the ranks of teachers is part of the answer. That’s especially true for needy kids, who often get the weakest teachers. That should be the civil rights scandal of our time.

I tweeted this article with a warning that it was grossly oversimplified and overgeneralized. It is too simple to equate leaving books for a student with being the means of breaking the chains of poverty. It is too general to say that such an experience for every student would help them loose the bonds of being poor.

It is also too simple to assume that Mrs. Grady is unique in her approach and impact. That, in fact, is insulting to the thousands of teachers who make similar impacts everyday.

Kristof is as qualified to write such things as anyone else who writes similarly, though, because he has never taught. Therefore, I’ll make my own generalization: If you’ve never taught poverty, you probably don’t know what it’s like to teach poverty.

I have, though, even if for less than four years.

Every year of my career has been spent in a school in which 100 % of the students receive free lunch. I’ve had about 80 students in my career; over 30 of them have had IEPs. All but one was at one time in his school career classified a an English Language Learner. So I think I have at least some kind of grasp on what it means to be a teacher of “needy students.” I have had kids come in hungry, dirty, tired, sick, scared, distracted, and unhappy.

Pardon me, but at the risk of sounding immodest, they’ve been lucky to have me. I am not a “weak” teacher.

Ah, Mr. Kristof. He perpetuates the ignorant myth that politicians and media members peddle: we have too few great teachers and too many awful ones. How idiotic.

Sure, there are teachers who are ineffective in their classroom management and pedagogy. Are most ineffective? I really think not.

Kristof didn’t focus on those qualities, though. He focused on the one thing that I believe all teachers have when they enter the field wearing their rose-colored glasses: a desire to impact change in the lives of young people.

Show me a teacher who doesn’t have that and I will show you a teacher who is a hopeless cause.

But show me a teacher who struggles to move the class along in a safe, efficient manner, and I will show you a teacher who can learn how to do it. Show me a teacher who struggles to deliver a lesson and impart knowledge, and I will show you a teacher who can learn how to do it.

Kristof makes the same damaging, erroneous assumptions that seemingly everyone has about teachers nowadays: they are selfish, money-hungry unionists who care nothing for the students they are paid to teach.

In my school, kids who arrive brand new to the country in the middle of the year, having never attended a day of formal schooling anywhere, are welcomed and embraced. These kids are who Kristof would call “needy.” You think it’s easy? I have some colleagues who would argue that opinion. They care, though. They treat each child with the respect and sense of importance they deserve. They care.

I’m part of a group of special educators that meets weekly before school starts (on our own time, that is) to talk about ways we can continue to modify curricula so our students can access grade level work in an appropriate way. We care.

Many others in my school are similar to me. They go above and beyond what is expected by families, administrators, and even students all because they want their students to do well and feel good about themselves.

You think my school is unique? It isn’t. All around this country, teachers are doing the same kinds of things we are.

Mrs. Grady did a great thing for Olly Neal, but I think she is much more the rule than the exception. Don’t believe what the mainstream media tells you: there are many more great teachers out there than they’d have you think.

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One response to “You Say We’re Weak? I Say You’re Wrong.

  1. I agree 100% with you. I also wonder about Mrs. Grady’s other students. She was able to make a big difference to this one child and probably many others, but not all of her students would have broken through the poverty barriers. If it was as simple as he thinks it should be, then the results would be much clearer; all needy students (or almost all students) of “effective” teachers would succeed while those with “ineffective” teachers would fail, but this isn’t the case.

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