Confessions of a DC Teacher

A young teacher dishes on administrators, addled pupils, and a thing called "joning" in one of the country's worst school districts.

| Mon Sep. 6, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

She welcomed me to the classroom with the coldest of stares, piercing my eyes with hers, saying "Fuck you" without even opening her mouth. When I placed the worksheet on her desk and offered a "Hello, what's your name?" she quickly stood up, snatched the paper, held it a foot from my face, ripped it into 100 pieces, and sat back down, fuming as the shreds of white dropped harmlessly to the floor.

This happened on Day 1 for me as a first-year English teacher in the Washington, DC, public school system. I had never been treated in this fashion by anyone, much less a 15-year-old girl. My face reddened. The other 10 girls in the classroom sat giggling, pointing, awaiting a reaction. "Show them I'm not intimidated," I thought. So I went back to my stack of papers, returned to the steaming student, and put another worksheet—filled with 15 simple yet personal questions—in front of her. If her first greeting was angry, her second was apoplectic. "Who the fuck are you, nigga? Get the fuck out my face!" The words flew out with unchecked fury as she sprang out of her seat, and this time, she did not sit down. Instead, she demanded an answer. "You don't want to participate today?" I whispered, my voice cracking. She widened her stare and held it a moment. "Man, get the fuck out my face!" She then sat down, burying her head in her forearms, disappearing for the remainder of class. And that was that.

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A year later, I'm starting my second year with DC Public Schools (DCPS). I am more comfortable in the classroom. I know how to address situations like the one I encountered on my first day. But trying to educate these students—some of them indifferent, many of them with serious needs—is a continual challenge.

The performance of the DCPS has long lagged behind the rest of the United States. Rampant reading deficiency is a central issue. In 2009, the district had the lowest average reading scale score in the country, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The 2010 data has not yet been released, and I'm unsure where DC will stack up nationally. But I'm here to tell you that my students' basic knowledge of "proper English"—as Strunk and White and Webster and the rest understood it—is disturbingly unfounded. Some speak eloquently, write beautifully, and read with profound command and confidence. They're all capable. But the majority of my kids understand English as they have learned it—from the other uneducated people around them every day. That sets them back in the classroom, hurts them on standardized tests, and, sadly, decreases their chances of ever going to college.

The person leading us all—students and teachers—is Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of schools who took her post in June 2007 and, ever since, has been one of the most polarizing figures in DC—George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Mayor Adrian Fenty, and Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas included.

Rhee has infuriated hundreds of people in her time here, and she has altered thousands of lives—some adversely. This July, she fired 241 teachers, some of whom were deemed "ineffective" by the district's performance evaluation system, called IMPACT. Back in October 2009, Rhee laid off 266 teachers—about one month after the start of the school year. She is trying to abolish tenure, and she is widely disliked by veteran teachers—at least the ones I know.

If Fenty loses the mayoral race next month—as the polls suggest he may—Rhee could be on her way out. But how has Rhee affected the children of Washington? That's really the only question worth addressing.

Every summer, Rhee welcomes hundreds of first-year teachers to the district—mostly mid-20s men and women joining DCPS through alternate certification programs like Teach For America and DC Teaching Fellows. They replace the people she has fired. The new teachers—some fresh out of undergrad, others career changers—participate in intense summer training sessions and assist veteran summer-school teachers around the city. They assume their spots at the front of the classrooms every August, usually in the neediest of the city's 150-plus public schools.

I felt fortunate when I was accepted to the 2009 summer cohort of DC Teaching Fellows—part of The New Teacher Project, which Rhee launched in 1997—and I felt ready for the school year by the time our summer session concluded last July. But readiness is relative, and I soon discovered how ill-prepared I was for what actually lay before me: ninth-graders with no grasp whatsoever of the eighth-grade standards they were supposed to have learned; kids with wildly inappropriate habits and little sense of right and wrong; children with absolutely no positive associations in a classroom; and a local dialect driven by what the kids call "joning"—ribbing, busting one's chops, giving people a hard time—that took me half a year to comprehend.

My first foray into the classroom occurred at Cardozo Senior High School in Northwest Washington, where I assisted a longtime English teacher for six weeks. I loved it. Eight of our 13 students that summer passed the class. The five who failed simply never showed up for school. Today, my full-time job is at Youth Services Center, the juvenile detention center in Northeast that houses many of the city's incarcerated minors. I won't disguise it: What I see every day is bad. So many of our teenagers here struggle to read, and instead of asking for help, they feel a need to front—to show their toughness by refusing to participate.

The first semester was really brutal. I was cursed at repeatedly, threatened, insulted, pushed. I had my pocket picked of its pens. But I kept coming to work. By March, I felt comfortable in the classroom. I learned how to design the kinds of lessons my students would respond to, lessons related to their lives. Our daily activities turned from monotonous to enjoyable. Engagement trumped apathy in the classroom. The joning turned from personal to playful. The jeers transformed into high-fives and hugs. And while I used to be told "Fuck you" or "I hate you" with regularity, several times this summer I was surprised to hear, "I love you, Mr. Garfield."

But getting along with my students doesn't mean that they're learning. One of my colleagues calls our daily charge as English teachers "re-education" instead of "education," and I agree with that notion. It's a lot to ask a 15-year-old who thinks she knows a language to "unlearn" those words and phrases in her database, break bad habits, then commit to memory a completely new set of skills that, in the broad context of society, are perceived as "proper." But really, in these kids' neighborhoods, "proper" English is foreign. My students demonstrate their knowledge of English all the time, chatting incessantly, but they speak with such regionalized slang and unique interpretation of the language that people outside of DC—and even many people on Capitol Hill and in Georgetown here—would consider the kids' discussions indecipherable.

My students don't necessarily represent the District of Columbia and its educational status, but they do represent a big part of its youth culture. The teenagers of DC are diverse and vibrant, and very troubled. Many of our high-school students are already parents, 16-year-olds with no clue how to raise a child. Many come to school hungry, paying $2.50 for train or bus fare in the morning instead of for breakfast. Some come to school exhausted after working through the night. Serious needs, indeed—needs that lessen the desire to learn.

But there is learning taking place. Good students with serious college aspirations exist. Good teachers with exceptional command of their routines and their subjects and their students are working hard to close the achievement gap. The numbers prove it: In May, a study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that DCPS had made the most significant gains in reading achievement among urban school systems over a three-year span. "We still have a ridiculously long way to go," Rhee told the Washington Post at the time. She's right, of course, but in school systems like DC's, the small victories must be recognized.

There are other quantifiable reasons to feel good about Rhee, even for veteran teachers—certainly the good ones. On June 2, DCPS and the Washington Teacher's Union finalized a new contract that will increase DC teachers' average annual salaries by $14,000 a year and provide extra incentives for teachers identified as "highly effective" through the IMPACT ratings. George Parker, president of the WTU, called it "a great day for teachers and students."

My take on Rhee is partially biased. I'm not the greatest detector of bullshit—definitely not as good as my students are—but I like to think I can read people. I met Rhee once with a group of other young teachers, and I felt like she was genuinely interested in what we were doing and how we were feeling. We stumbled upon her at the DCPS central office in Northeast Washington, boarding an elevator as she was riding down. When the doors opened, she had her laptop open in one hand while she thumbed on her Blackberry in the other. She looked up, and it was clear she'd had a long, busy day, yet she said hello and asked about us—where we taught, what we thought of the IMPACT evaluations, how we were handling our respective experiences. We all chatted for about 10 minutes, and most of us agreed that it had been a warm visit—that her curiosity had been authentic.

But while Rhee is much talked about, she is not what defines DC Public Schools. And neither are the teachers. All of her work, and all of the teachers' efforts, are geared toward helping kids. The children define this city and its schools, and I consider myself lucky in these past 15 months to have met hundreds of young men and women born and raised in DC who will continue to live here for the rest of their lives. They make me chuckle. They make me cringe. That's who they are.

I think often of one of my students, a 17-year-old whose charge was serious enough to keep him detained at Youth Services Center for close to four months. He, like many other DC kids his age, struggled mightily to read aloud. When I first got to know him, he outwardly refused to participate, trying to disguise his ignorance with fake bravado, eschewing my encouragement, directing anger toward me when I would approach him with a worksheet, or a question, or simply a handshake. The times I heard him say, "You know I ain't working, mo!" were countless. ("Mo" is the local kids' way of saying "dude," or "man," or "bro.") But I tried different ways of talking to him, offering little incentives here and there, and he gradually responded to the positivity.

Within a month he was writing—copying other students' papers mostly, but it was a start. Every time he would copy, I would give him a fist bump and say, "Tomorrow, you're going to write more." And he would nod.

Soon he was constructing short sentences on his own. The reading barrier seemed insurmountable, though. He had no confidence at all in his ability to read in front of others. When I would ask him to read a paragraph, a sentence, even a word on a flash card, the response was usually the same: "You know I can't fuckin' read, mo! Stop asking me!"

But we kept trying. After a few months, he agreed to try a software program in which he could read words that popped onto a computer screen and say them into a microphone. He took a liking to it, locking in on the words and staying busy on the computer for up to 20 minutes at a time. But whenever I would walk behind him to try and hear him speak, he would freeze up. Sometimes he would rip off his headphones and glare at me.

We kept trying. In a one-on-one setting, he would say the words on the page out loud, in a soft mumble, and I could barely hear him.

Every day, in front of the class, I kept asking him to read. Nothing, except the same predictable outburst.

Until one day in May. After four months of trying, he did it. We were reading an article pulled from the Internet about the rapper T.I., who had recently been released from prison. When I asked him to read, he glared at me, then looked down at the paper, put his finger on the correct paragraph and dove right in.

"It...came...from...an...What's that word, mo?"

"Attempt," I said with a laugh.

"Attempt, I got that! It...came...from...an...attempt...that...was...made...on...my...life," he said, quoting T.I.

I told him to stop, looked him in the eye, nodded and then clapped. The rest of the class joined me. He smiled for a second, caught himself, put on his tough face again, looked down and kept on reading.