Teaching in the Schools of Ferguson, Missouri
by diane ravitch
India Schaenen is an eighth grade English language arts teacher at Normandy Middle School in Ferguson, Missouri. She writes in Education Week about how students were affected by the death of Michael Brown and how she as a teacher was affected.
School started nine days later.
“Even before the shooting and the dramatic aftermath broadcast around the world, our district was accustomed to being and bearing bad news. Normandy is a poor, predominantly African-American community beset by challenges in housing, employment, and access to social, emotional, and physical health care.
“In January 2013, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education stripped the Normandy school system of its accreditation. The district consequently lost close to 25 percent of its students (and related education funding) to a transfer program that was upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court. Then, on July 1 of this year, the state board of education officially took over the Normandy district; meanwhile, the transfer program’s fate continues to play out in the state courts.
“As part of the takeover, state officials decided to eliminate embedded teacher-coach positions such as mine, increase the number of professional-development days, and add hours of consultant-facilitated professional development to the end of regular school days.
“Consequently, I was assigned to teach 8th grade language arts; I now work in circumstances that daily, even hourly, challenge the most seasoned of the seasoned veterans. Middle school teaching is a new experience for me, and my learning curve is beyond steep; it’s a cliff. In rock-climbing terms, I am “crack climbing”-locating available seams, trying any grip, using all of who I am to gain purchase during my ascent. I am working 18 hours a day.”
The tragedy is the background and often in the foreground of school.
“Will I be able to make what happens in my classroom so compelling that these children will feel it’s worth their time to come in and take a seat alongside the 32 others in my classroom?
“Now, factor in the shooting, followed by the protests, the looting, the hyper-militarized reaction to the protests and looting, and the local reaction to the reaction. Many of our students showed up at school traumatized; teachers, too. The granddaughter of one of my colleagues was related to Michael Brown. Another staff member was his great-aunt. In many ways, north St. Louis County is one community. During the first week of school, one of my students reported in his new journal that he’d been struck by a rubber bullet while attending a protest. “But I’m OK,” he wrote.
“Since Aug. 9, there is the unspoken but ever-present awareness, especially among the boys, that life can end in a flash, even for the kids-like Michael Brown-who manage to navigate the system and graduate. So how do you tell a 14-year-old about the value of staying in school, given what happened here? Believe me, I’m trying.
“The other day, I watched a group of my students-all boys, unprompted-wordlessly re-enact the shooting from beginning to end, using a fistful of my newly sharpened pencils as the cigarillos Michael allegedly stole before he was gunned down. My students were highly engaged in a standards-based, collaborative group activity that turned into the kind of play that processes pain.”
The teachers know their students are in pain.
“Over and over, I assure my students that I will not leave. That I am here for them. That principals and teachers are working together to figure out how to get our school right, or at least more right. I have no idea how long it will take, and I have no idea-yet-how to connect and leverage for optimal learning all the factors that shape the lives of my students….
Somehow we need to integrate innovation across multiple public sectors, because meaningful, student-centered curriculum and instruction cannot unfold in a vacuum. How might the design of schooling be more responsive to matters of school funding; criminal-justice policy; social, emotional, and physical well-being; housing and food security; and even income?”
Are we as a society willing to address the needs of these children, these communities? The answer seems to be no. We want them to have higher scores, and the state will punish their teachers if they don’t get higher scores. But we refuse to address or acknowledge the conditions in which they live, or our obligation to change them.