When I first started teaching in Baltimore City Public Schools in 1995, I could not figure out how to get my middle school students to sit down long enough to teach them anything. I felt simultaneously adrift and jarred every day with the contrast between the abject poverty of the school and nonchalance of some of the staff. I was sure, however, that my classroom was in chaos and I was failing as a teacher. A colleague across the hall from me, who had all of his students in order, gave me a tip. "Give them lots of work, from the moment that they walk in the door to when they leave. Then grade everything and give the grades back the next day. The kids will settle down."
The strategy seemed odd, nothing like my own public school experience in suburban Western Pennsylvania, but I did it. My colleague proved to be right. In a matter of days, my students were attentive and doing what I asked. The only drawback was that I spent hours a day grading everything they did so that I could give them their work back the next day. The volume of work that I graded, for completion and correctness, was massive. I did not spend much time thinking about what I was teaching and why; I was too exhausted. I was confident in one thing though—I was effective. This was reinforced by any teacher or administrator who walked by my orderly classroom and told me so.
It wasn't until I started to teach on the high school level in Baltimore City Public Schools that I started to doubt myself. Even though I had "survived" longer than the average new BCPS teacher (six years!), I observed with panic that as my students neared graduation, the way that I taught them was not preparing them for college. My high school students were just as attentive as my middle school students were, because I constantly graded and returned their work as well, but they could not read, write, or think like a college student. My students and I were focused on short-term goals—sitting in seats and turning in daily assignments. As much as I praised them for their hard work and consequently I was praised for my competency as a teacher, together we had really only accomplished two things—sustaining an orderly classroom and processing daily busy work.
My strategy for classroom management was a temporary and poorly constructed bandage for college-ready curriculum. Tragically, most of my colleagues taught this same way and had no intention of changing it. It was too effective and too comfortable. In fact, the schools where I have taught operated on a larger scale of this classroom model—immediate consequences for minor infractions. This kept our students tightly managed and tightly wound. Any variation in this structure resulted in chaos in the classroom and chaos in schools, but teaching in this way felt wrong and dehumanizing for all involved—administrators, teachers, students, and families.
Over the next 14 years and with the help of colleagues, a new school, and trial and error, I started to teach differently in Baltimore City Public Schools. I learned that making learning interesting and authentic was just as engaging. I learned how to show students that I cared about their growth. I gradually spent less time grading behavior and more time nurturing skills and concepts with my students. But this piece of writing is not necessarily about how I learned to teach, it is more about improving education in Baltimore.
Last April, when I watched chaos erupt in Baltimore outside of a Baltimore City Public School, I had the same sinking feeling that I had 14 years ago in the classroom. The entire city was an open wound, as the fabric of short-sighted policies, like my own classroom management strategy, burst open under the pressure of Freddie Gray's death to reveal that we were not, in fact, a democratic state for all residents. What happened outside of the school mimicked exactly what I had seen for years in schools: Students, who had been routinely controlled by immediate consequences for minor offenses, emerged into chaos when that structure was removed.
I felt a part of this collective failure when I thought about how many students I had taught in the last twenty years that currently live in Baltimore, attend the schools, or have children that attend the schools. I had continued the tradition of preaching to students that if they attended school and earned good grades, that they would have a better future. But our short sighted strategies failed them. According to a 2011 report commissioned by former Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Andrés Alonso, "for the [Baltimore City Public Schools] Class of 2004 who ever enrolled in college, 23% earned either a 2- or 4-year degree by 2010." (Durham and Westlund 2011). This class of 2004, who conceivably started kindergarten in 1992, were raised in a time of Baltimore's "zero tolerance" era of legislation, policing, and education. Even the ideal student, adhering to every policy and demand, was not given the tools to compete in college, but rather the skills to avoid infractions. Isn't this alone a reason to riot?