As I read comments on stories about Hurricane Sandy, I see people understanding that even hard-working people can be thrust into situations that they need help to resolve. My favorite comment pointed out that even “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” Republican’s along the wealthy Jersey Shore have asked the federal government for help because of Sandy. It is easy to think that success in this country is determined by one’s own hard work and self-control until one is in the midst of a storm system or a socioeconomic system that overpowers even our best efforts at self-sufficiency. The Hurricane has made it abundantly clear to many citizens that even if they have never needed help from the federal government before, they might need it in the future no matter how hard they work.
I didn’t need Hurricane Sandy juxtaposed with political rhetoric to understand that hard-work is necessary but not sufficient to ensure success. My classroom was my Hurricane Sandy moment. And not only because it often looked and sounded like it was hit by a cyclone.
In a hurricane, just as in a classroom, working hard and planning ahead can contribute to positive outcomes but there is only so much that can be done. I had hard-working students and students who had already given up; the hard-working students definitely improved their probability of a successful future and the ones who had given up often failed. However, even my brightest and most dedicated students were still battered by the system that they had no control over. They were still in overcrowded classrooms, without textbooks or qualified teachers. Their counselors spent more time holding parent-teacher conferences for failing students than helping them prepare for college admissions. Their SAT scores were painfully low compared to peers at wealthy schools.
Just as we are not blaming residents of the East Coast for failing to prevent global warming or moving away from their jobs to a safer state, we can’t blame my students for being enrolled in a district with fewer resources to help them or not knowing how to fix their classrooms. We can’t blame them for not assigning themselves more rigorous homework when the teacher assigned something that the people who were four grade levels behind had the hopes of completing. We can’t blame them for not teaching themselves AP History if the course was not offered at their school. It is not their fault if college admission officers know that their school is associated with violence and failure instead of demanding coursework. And it’s not their fault if the college admission officer reading their essay doesn’t realize that they had no top-notch teacher or parent to help them edit and perfect their statement and puts it in the “no” pile.
My students who attended a good college did so by working hard and with the support of their parents but still faced challenges when they were less prepared than other college freshman. It is clear that these students must believe that they can escape the system if they have any hope of changing their fate. Yet to not acknowledge that these students must work harder to succeed than peers at elite schools, is like saying that it is just as easy to find clean water and medical help today in Arizona and New York City. The system we are in doesn’t entirely determine our fate but when we are in the middle of something nasty even the strong and determined are affected and may need help.
Many of my students failed in my classroom. I felt responsible for this failure because I could see that on some level the decisions I made a teacher affected the success of my lesson. I could see my minor mistakes unravel into major incidents. For example, if I turned my back on the classroom to write something on the board, it was kind of my fault that someone threw something at me and that I had to stop class to launch a Dean’s investigation into the four most probable suspects. The only way to be a good teacher was to take responsibility for my student’s learning. Yet, I to was in the midst of a powerful system. My students were years behind and I didn’t have appropriate curriculum to deal with this or the knowledge to create it myself. In fact, no one who was supporting me understood student thinking in mathematics and therefore many of the majors issues of my classroom were never addressed or pointed out in the many observations designed to help me. From my current standpoint as an educational researcher, I can see that the tests I was required to give my students by the district were absolutely inappropriate. To give a new teacher a test that every single one of her students failed, despite her very best efforts, is cruel. I cried because I felt that I’d failed my students when it was really the system who had failed. It was a small consolation prize when I found out that 93% of the giant Clark County School district failed the Algebra test.
My students and I were both in a system that made our success much more difficult. As a third year teacher at a private school I knew that my lessons and attitude was essentially the same. But instead of seating my students in rows and asking them to memorize procedures to maintain order, I let them design instruments and use trigonometry to map the soccer field. In my wealthy school all of my students passed, all of my students went to college, and many had the chance to work with me on advanced math. I know that my work ethic and ability was not the factor that changed between my second and third year. The system I was in was what made it different.
I hope that the people who believe it is fair for poor students to receive a poor education because their parents pay fewer taxes will consider the parallels to the Hurricane. Do people in poor states deserve less help? Should we ignore the plight of New Yorkers who continued to live on an island barely above sea level because they should have found a new job and moved their families?
Consider that your place in the storm system and social system really does have an impact on what you can do for yourself and to be told otherwise is insulting. Even my students failing algebra still dreamed of being doctors, lawyers, and teachers. None of my students ever said they wanted to take advantage of government systems designed to help the poor. They wanted to work for their livings and contribute to society yet they didn’t know how to get there. I believe that very few people want to be helped by the government until they find themselves in the midst of a system that they don’t have the resources or knowledge to escape.