Those Urban-Education Heroes

Some teachers worry about the growing popularity of books and movies about poor city schools lead to damaging myths about their students and communities.

The storyline is a familiar one: An idealistic new teacher, full of hope and enthusiasm, embarks on a career at a tough urban school. The plot then takes one of two typical turns: Either the fervent novice, facing the unyielding and ever-increasing pressures of the classroom, leaves teaching and emerges with insights on improving urban schools—or the newbie, due solely to individual moxie and an untiring work ethic, achieves seemingly miraculous results with a hard-to-teach student population.

One of the latest iterations of this all-too-common narrative is found in a new memoir on teaching that has seen its share of plaudits and detractors. In The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School, Ed Boland recounts his brief stint in 2006 teaching ninth-grade history at Henry Street School for International Studies on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Boland encounters numerous challenges in teaching children with what he describes as “tremendous, adult problems”—including poverty, gang violence, and homelessness—and subsequently leaves the job after one year to return to his prior work as an educational administrator. Like Confessions of a Bad Teacher and Teach with Your Heart: Lessons I Learned from the Freedom Writers, Boland’s story follows a well-tread path of a new teacher that enters a public-school classroom, burns out quickly or ignites dramatic change, and exits.

Publisher’s Weekly review calls Boland’s book a “bold call to action [that] perfectly summarizes what is wrong with public education in America, and how we can fix it.” But increasingly, educators and others are labeling this literary genre a mix of naiveté and bravado that leads to damaging and persistent myths about urban schools, students, and communities. Nicole Dixon, who’s taught in New York City public schools for seven years, sums up the prevailing view in a recent essay on Boland’s book for NPR. Additionally, detractors say these accounts reinforce harmful stereotypes of urban teaching, and bring to the surface underlying racial aspects that add to the discord.

One such critic is Rachel Smith, a student who in 2012 was a member of Chicago’s Kenwood Academy Slam Poetry Team, and participated in a highly respected teen poetry competition that rewards self-expression through storytelling and spoken word presentations. Smith’s poem—Hallelujah the Saviors are Here—in its opening lines offers a blistering critique of the type of teachers often celebrated in urban public schools like hers:

We can save them I still believe
Crowd of saviors riding in on their steeds
Tucked in shirts and rolled up sleeves
They barge in coming to save these … niggers
With copies of Freedom Writers tucked tight in their hands
They come to explore our unchartered lands
And rescue us … urban kids

In countering the criticism of his first book, Boland argued that his relative short time in the classroom is balanced out by nearly 20 years working in the education sector. “Sometimes the voice of failure is more telling than the voice of success,” he said. He also resists the notion that his book describes his students—teens from underserved and under-resourced communities—through a deficit lens. “I wish I could have written a book full of stories of empowered young people who overcome the odds … at every turn, but then I wouldn't have written a very honest book,” he said. “If I portrayed my students as having deficits, it is because they had a great many of them.”

News reports, though, show students at Henry Street School have also experienced bright spots. In 2008, a nationally recognized poker team from Boland’s school was invited to Oxford University to represent the U.S. in an international tournament. Boland’s depiction fails to reflect such assets, said Camika Royal, an assistant professor of urban education at Loyola University Maryland, and, in the process, bolsters distorted mainstream views. “A book like this does have mass appeal because it confirms existing pathologies about urban schools and urban people,” Royal said. “It takes courage, insight, wisdom, and humility to look past what students are wearing, what they are saying and doing, to see the … strengths in our students and communities.”

The trope of the gung-ho greenhorn in the wilds of urban public education can trace its roots back to popular classics like To Sir, With Love(1967) and contemporary films like Dangerous Minds (1995). In each, a novice teacher is able to overcome and succeed where others have failed. The stories entertain movie audiences, but it is the way in which these tales have shaped the discourse about teaching and urban schooling that is of rising concern among some critics in the education world.

There is a questionable subtext to the many teacher stories—be it in books or on film—that perpetuate the image of the lone teacher who doesn’t need experience, sleep, or support from other adults in his or her school, said Roxanna Elden, a National Board Certified high-school teacher in Miami and the author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. “In real life, that’s not a recipe for great teaching,” she said. “That’s a recipe for a teacher whose emotional rubber band is almost always stretched to its breaking point.”

Elden admits that these stories have the elements of a good Hollywood plot, but fall short as a guide for real teachers who “fall into the trap of comparing their unedited footage to other people’s highlight reels.” The maverick teacher “has become the only acceptable story to tell about our experiences as educators,” said Elden, adding that it creates a dynamic where beginning teachers are afraid to admit they’re struggling and soon are exhausted from trying to keep up with a false ideal.

“It’s discouraging when the version of the story playing in real time in your classroom doesn't contain these same plot points,” she said. “What I needed most [that first year] was to hear from someone who kept teaching in spite of the low points and became a successful teacher over time.”

Loyola University’s Royal agrees, noting that in urban schools there are always veteran educators—both those who share racial identities and cultural experiences with their students and those who don't—who work hard to meet students' academic, social, and emotional needs. Yet they are “mostly overlooked or villainized” in literature and movies, she said, with an alarming effect on education policy. She pointed to the overreliance on standardized testing and the push for immediate results as a byproduct of a trope that feeds into the idea of educators as martyrs.

“This makes it difficult for education policymakers to understand that educators are whole people with whole lives, who can be developed into excellent educators over time instead of having to be excellent from day one … Savior narratives are sexier and easier to digest.” While the mythology surrounding the teaching profession is strong and pervasive, most striking may be the messages that are amplified about white teachers in predominately non-white schools—and the qualities that are necessary to educate children in urban school districts.

This breed of books and films “hold up … white people as exceptionally brave or exceptionally self-sacrificing or just exceptional and heroic for doing the same work educators have done for years without fanfare,” said Royal, whose work with preservice teachers brings this sharply into focus. “I debunk this idea with my students before we begin field experience in Baltimore City schools each semester,” she said, stressing that “white saviors aren't bringing light and hope. The hope is already in our students and in our schools and communities. Our job is to cultivate it, to bring out what already exists.”

Royal said these well-worn images ignore structural, systemic factors that serve as barriers to success and advancement for many urban students, and ultimately feed a falsehood of students of color as “deeply flawed and only salvageable in the context of adults' anger, threats, and tough love that is more tough than loving.” She cited real-life examples as evidence: the teacher at Success Academy in New York City who berated a first-grader for getting a math problem wrong, and the teacher in Greene County, Georgia, caught on tape telling a black high-school student that she is the “dumbest girl” he has ever taught. Equally problematic are portrayals of educators of color, as in Lean on Me, a 1989 film based on Joe Clark, a black principal in Paterson, New Jersey, who gained notoriety for patrolling the halls of his high school with a bullhorn and baseball bat.

“Where success happens, there is often a group of people working in concert to support students and their families, not one single hero,” Royal said. “These books and movies … prevent people from seeing urban students and communities as sites of possibility and hope, where good work happens every day.”