I am coming up on my first month teaching full-time at an urban, majority-minority American high school. Or really, I’ve already taught five weeks. I meant to post this last week, but I didn’t because I was exhausted.
The school is violent. Four of the five days in my first week featured fights during passing period. Last week included a large fight at lunch involving multiple students, and this week an almost-team brawl in gym class over a football game. The bathrooms close intermittently because students defecate on the floor, rip off stall doors, and even steal soap-dispensers and sinks. Students must enter school under a metal detector and submit to random police searches of their bags because, last semester, a student brought a loaded gun to school. Earlier this month, an unidentified “teenager” was shot a few hundred feet from school property. Two years ago, one was killed.
In such an environment, it should be no surprise that the school’s general discipline and classroom behavior is obnoxious. Academics suffer in turn: less than 15% of high schoolers in the district passed their state math and English exams last year.
As a potential point of ease, I should note that my school performs better than other, higher poverty schools in the state and country and that the pandemic has almost certainly made conditions worse than in typical years. But rather than make me feel better, that just furthers my despair. If so much student-on-student violence and academic disfunction isn’t rock bottom, how many millions of American students have experienced worse?
I have no means to explain why this has happened or how to do better. Given the current round of polarization around public schools, I absolutely don’t want to touch that political fireball right now anyway. As a new career teacher, I just want to express my dismay with the hope that acknowledging the problems might help me face them. And my god do we have problems; in denying them, we only do further harm.