My heart broke — one more time — when I read about the recent fight between students at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg.
I was a math teacher for 35 years in middle school and know the feeling of the weight of society in the classroom. Some of my students grew up to become successful professionals and community leaders. Some dropped out of school, became homeless, and committed crimes. I taught them all.
I understand and support the strong rhetoric about having world-class standards and having our students outperform students in other countries on math and science tests. The reality, however, is that the sociology of the classroom is a powerful determinant of academic outcomes for students and mental health outcomes for teachers. The resilience of both students and teachers is impacted by the social forces that work for or against them.
Some seem to think that if teachers would just do better and if the research of teacher educators were just implemented in the classroom, our public education system would be OK. It wouldn’t.
Still feeling the joy of successfully teaching algebra to a challenged student and the emotional stench of failing to reach a student who I knew had potential except for the social odds stacked against him, I often read the preachments of politicians that are as empty as telling a teacher to walk on water.
What happened at Gibbs is happening every day in classrooms; it just doesn’t reach the threshold of public notice. Teachers show up with varying dispositions, levels of preparation and experience. Students show up with all of their worlds — the parts that value and support them along with the parts that have been singed by tragedies and lack of resources in their lives. The social climate in which students are expected to learn is as predictive of student outcomes as the pedagogy, curriculum and resourcefulness of teachers — perhaps more so.
Go ahead and “walk on water,” teachers. The last person to do that was viewed as the savior of the world. If you succeed, you might be so regarded.