All those devoted to teaching deserve praise and respect, and none more than those who teach where all the school lunches are free, where expectations have been too low for too long, and where every hand goes up when the guest speaker asks: "How many of you know a family member who's in prison?"
Ed Morman was there, in a classroom at Patapsco Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore's Cherry Hill, when a former prison warden asked that question. Every hand went up again when the kids were asked if they'd ever been inside a prison for a visit.
Morman wasn't surprised. No one who pays attention to life in Baltimore should have been.
"These are lovely kids," Morman says during a conversation about his brief experience as a math teacher. "And it breaks my heart."
What breaks his heart: Too many of the kids behind the clock on academic achievement, too many from poverty, too many from homes where good grades have never been valued, and too many too noisy and unruly, making teaching them almost impossible.
Morman wishes there were more moments like the one "when eighth-grader Alexis jumped up and whooped that she understood something her math teacher had explained."
"There was at least one day a week when I felt like I was really accomplishing something," Morman says.
But that wasn't enough. Teachers who can handle the behavior issues and still inspire Baltimore's children to learn - those are special people, Morman says.
He wasn't one of them, by his own estimation.
A native New Yorker, he had been a librarian at medical institutions, including Johns Hopkins, for many years. Last spring, looking for a new job, he decided to give teaching a try and enrolled in the Baltimore City Teaching Residency, an attractive program for professionals who seek a career change and who wish to "positively impact the lives of the students who need them the most."
By the time I knew Morman had stepped into teaching, he was stepping out of it. In April, he sent an e-mail to numerous friends announcing his resignation. He'd found another position - as librarian with the National Federation of the Blind.
"The [teaching] job was the hardest I've had, by far," Morman wrote, "but the potential for job satisfaction was far greater than I'd ever felt before. I told the kids that I quit teaching because I needed to make more money. This isn't true. ... I quit because of the stress I felt. The main cause of the stress was the kids themselves. I could never rise above the feeling of humiliation that I felt each day when I tried to address 20 or 25 kids and might find none of them paying attention to me. I seethed when I asked a student to stop talking and heard the response, 'Get out of my face.' So often I stood in the classroom wishing I could be anywhere else.
"I try to get a class to come to order while one kid is jumping on a second, a third calls out my name asking me for a pencil, a fourth demands that I let her go to the bathroom and a fifth needs to go see Miss Smith, while a sixth needs a pass to the nurse's office and a seventh starts making silly, repetitive noises. ... One day a cheap calculator hit the wall just above my head. Another day, it was a Jell-O cup, whose contents dripped down the wall and stained the picture of Harriet Tubman I had hanging on a bulletin board. ...
"I had a meltdown after seeing how poorly my kids did on a standardized test.
"I resolutely refuse to place the blame anywhere other than on myself. ... One thing I absorbed from my otherwise inadequate training is that it was up to me to make a difference. And I did make a difference, but not enough to sustain me through the nonsense. ... Nothing useful comes out of blaming the parents for the bad behavior of the kids. And certainly nothing useful comes out of blaming the kids themselves. There is the short-term problem of how to change their behavior in order to be able to conduct class. ... But in the long run, there is a fundamental problem."
The problem, he says, is one of money and priorities.
"I detest the politicians who say, 'You know how to spend your hard-earned money better than the government does.' This is junk. ... Someone once said that taxes are the price we pay for civilization. I agree."
In Morman's view, we simply don't spend enough on education. "I'm all for throwing more money at it," Morman says. "We should pay people $100,000 a year to teach."
Not that that would have kept him in the game. Those who can teach, he says, are special people.
Larry Smith, a professional counselor enrolled in the same teaching residency program, is Morman's replacement. He finds the students at Patapsco Middle "unruly while being nice," and sees in their eyes the same spark of potential Morman did.
But Smith says he spends way too much time "just trying to get them to behave all day." He wants to teach.
Having worked as a counselor of at-risk teenagers, Smith stepped up for this job so that he could influence kids "on the front end," in school, when there's still hope for them.
"This isn't really a career switch for me," he says. "I don't expect to be rocked by it the way [Morman] was." At 51, he still has the spark of idealism in his voice. That's a voice the school kids in Baltimore need to hear, assuming they can be quiet enough, long enough, to hear it.
Information about Baltimore's Teaching Residency can be found at www.bcteachingresidency.org. Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays. His radio show, Midday, can be heard on WYPR-FM, 88.1, Mondays through Thursdays.
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