Back to School
Lessons from an Inner-City Classroom
While scrubbing graffiti off the desks and walls in my classroom, I often ponder “What am I doing?” “Am I learning anything?” “Did that student really mean it when he said, ‘I will find you and mess you up’?”
After graduating from HBS, I moved to Washington, D.C., to work at a nonprofit education-reform group. Then, as now, I feel the future of any society depends on its ability to educate and prepare the next generation to take its turn at the wheel. For a time, I rejoined the for-profit world, but the desire to return to education remained. In early 2008, I decided to make the leap: I began the process of becoming a certified high-school math teacher.
When D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee spoke to the HBS Club of Washington in October 2008, I introduced her, presented her with a nice speaker gift, and gave her my résumé. Within two months I was teaching Algebra I at Spingarn Senior High, a school situated among several housing projects in Northeast Washington. My three classes are composed entirely of repeaters, students who have failed the class before.
Challenges abound, for my students and for me. My students often throw baby showers for each other: Ten percent of the females are pregnant, and one of my students is expecting her second child. Other students simply cannot function in a classroom environment. The concept of No Child Left Behind is great, but one or two students can derail the class, and in order not to leave them behind, they need to be placed in a different setting. As for the rest, most students feel that showing up for class, at any time, is sufficient to pass, and if they participate, they’re thinking honor roll. The attrition rate is high: The student body of 580 consists of 250 freshmen, 150 sophomores, 100 juniors, and 80 seniors.
A significant percentage of Spingarn students receive reduced-price lunches. Many of those same students eat their lunch while sporting iPods, iPhones, and watches bigger than Texas belt buckles, wearing tennis shoes that cost more than my dress shoes and are shinier, too. And yet I supply pencils and paper. When I ran out of lined paper, I tried to be “green” and use the blank side of obsolete handouts. The students said this was “too ghetto” and refused to use the paper. When I demonstrate the utility of finding the area and perimeter of a rectangle (to fit carpet for a room, or length of fence for a backyard), I’m told, “I’ll hire someone to do that.”
And yes, at various times I’ve been hit, spit on, and the target of insults that would make a sailor blush. But there are bright spots. Nothing has been stolen from my room. In fact, students return my calculators when they realize they’ve accidentally taken them. Some are eager to learn, the two out of twenty who get to class on time and try hard. Several of my students from last year, including some of the newly minted alumni, have stopped by to visit and greet me warmly in the halls. The Prom was a fantastic affair that engendered a deep sense of family.
I view this teaching experience as a self-sponsored internship; after two years, I’ll reflect on my next step. If I love teaching, then I’ll continue. Or maybe I’ll try school administration, the U.S. Department of Education, or a nonprofit. Mean-while, every day brings something new. I’m still learning, but this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, superseding marathons, triathlons, and AP Calculus. But when a student “gets it,” or requests to have me next year, or says “Thank you,” that makes it the most rewarding as well.
— Anthony Priest is a math teacher at Spingarn Senior High School in Washington, D.C.