My God, have we failed our children

I am coming up on my first month teaching full-time at an urban, majority-minority American high school. Or really, I’ve already taught five weeks. I meant to post this last week, but I didn’t because I was exhausted.

The school is violent. Four of the five days in my first week featured fights during passing period. Last week included a large fight at lunch involving multiple students, and this week an almost-team brawl in gym class over a football game. The bathrooms close intermittently because students defecate on the floor, rip off stall doors, and even steal soap-dispensers and sinks. Students must enter school under a metal detector and submit to random police searches of their bags because, last semester, a student brought a loaded gun to school. Earlier this month, an unidentified “teenager” was shot a few hundred feet from school property. Two years ago, one was killed.

In such an environment, it should be no surprise that the school’s general discipline and classroom behavior is obnoxious. Academics suffer in turn: less than 15% of high schoolers in the district passed their state math and English exams last year.

As a potential point of ease, I should note that my school performs better than other, higher poverty schools in the state and country and that the pandemic has almost certainly made conditions worse than in typical years. But rather than make me feel better, that just furthers my despair. If so much student-on-student violence and academic disfunction isn’t rock bottom, how many millions of American students have experienced worse?

I have no means to explain why this has happened or how to do better. Given the current round of polarization around public schools, I absolutely don’t want to touch that political fireball right now anyway. As a new career teacher, I just want to express my dismay with the hope that acknowledging the problems might help me face them. And my god do we have problems; in denying them, we only do further harm.

2 thoughts on “My God, have we failed our children

  1. More than 35 years ago, I went on my first student teaching assignment. After finishing that, I was one class short of my secondary teaching certification.

    What you just described is a lot more intense, but it’s the same kind of thing that was happening even back then. My first day in class, a student sat in the back of class cleaning his fingernails with a switchblade. Later, I was on my way to class. The teacher I’d been assigned to, who was around five feet nothing tall, walked beside me. We came on a fight between a football player and a basketball player. I hesitated, trying to figure out how I wanted to approach them, but the teacher waded right in. To this day, I think it was accidental, but they broke her arm.

    I went back to my car to find someone had broken in and had stolen my cassettes. I doubt they liked my taste in music.

    I made a selfish decision then. I decided that I couldn’t justify working in those conditions for the amount of money they paid teachers. to be honest, I’ve regretted that decision ever since.

    I think it’s great you flat out admitted you don’t know how to attack the problem. I’m there, too. But somehow, we have to figure it out, don’t we? We’ve failed too many students as it is…


    1. Thanks for sharing. I don’t think you need to call the decision selfish if the conditions would have prevented you from giving anything of yourself.

      Since I wrote the post, there was another shooting, this time on the school’s sporting grounds. The media has confirmed that it was student on student, one arrested and the other hospitalized. My department head tells me to not involve myself in fights except to report them to a school police officer or principle. If I try to break one up, I might end up hurt (like you described), on administrative leave or even lose my job. I’m honestly already thinking of leaving though; I spend so much time on discipline issues in the classroom that I can hardly teach, and because I am emphasizing discipline, most of my students already dislike me, making it difficult to engage even a calm classroom.

      I’m still in awe at the scale of the problem though. I always knew urban schools had a poor reputation, but it’s quite different to experience it. I don’t know what to say.

      Liked by 1 person

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