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Baltimore teachers must commit to not accepting unacceptable circumstances

The Baltimore Teachers Union is urging the city to close down all schools until officials get a handle on heating problems that have already closed some buildings and left children shivering in others. (Kim Hairston, Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun video)

To the folks who were shocked and appalled by the images in the media this month of Baltimore students huddled in their classrooms with all of their winter gear, I have news for you: This isn’t new.

I’ve seen this for years. Attending classes in coats all day long is a reality for many Baltimore kids each winter. The district says they’re fixing things, but we teachers see situations like this year in and year out and are asked to be flexible. Looking back, I wonder if I should have stood up and said how wrong this is. Or was I supposed to bring a space heater, put my coat on the shoulders of a student who doesn’t have one, and teach on?

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As a city educator for the past six years, I’ve struggled with these two conflicting approaches: Do I speak up about what’s unacceptable for Baltimore kids, or do I grin and bear it, accept that this is just city teaching, model flexibility and perseverance for my students and teach the next lesson? Ultimately, the latter has won for myself and many other city teachers, and I believe it has perpetuated the inequity our students face every day.

Gov. Larry Hogan blames mismanagement for city schools heat woes. But state policies have played a big role, too.

When I was a young city teacher, I was groomed to accept unacceptable circumstances for myself and my students. I remember setting up my very first classroom in a since-closed school in southeast Baltimore. I was quickly warned that the lock on my classroom door had problems. The latch was completely duct taped to prevent the door from securely closing. I learned that if the tape came off and I was in the classroom, I’d be locked in. I was rightfully concerned about this door, because it was unsafe. My classroom had no windows, and if there were a fire and the tape weakened on the latch, we would be locked in with no way out. The presence of this tape also meant that if the building were under lockdown, I couldn’t lock someone out. I talked to my principal and assistant principal about it dozens of times. “We’re working on it” was the message I got for months. I spoke to my manager through my certification program about it. She offered no advice and brushed it off. It took until mid-November in the school year — and filing a report with the Baltimore Teachers Union — for it to get fixed. It’s unacceptable that it took that much time and effort to resolve a critical safety issue, but the message from everyone was, “that’s city teaching.”

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Months later at my end-of-year conversation, my aforementioned manager characterized my three-month struggle to get the lock on my door fixed as rocking the boat. The message was clear: Just deal with it, that’s city teaching, lower your expectations.

Last week, in a dizzying string of inaccuracies, Gov. Larry Hogan expressed his “outrage” at Baltimore City Public Schools officials for their handling of freezing schools. Here's a fact/reality check on his statements.

We saw in our recent cold snap the consequences of having low expectations. Schools across the city suffer from failed heating systems and frigid classrooms. Although some schools close when they have issues, far more do not, and teachers and principals are encouraged to just deal with it: Get creative, teach in the hallway, that's city teaching.

As novice teachers we were also taught cheesy sayings like “FTK” — for the kids — to help cope with the miles of red tape we put up with regularly. We were told to “work relentlessly” as the staff cited examples of teachers grinning and bearing unacceptable circumstances and teaching on. This meant I was really committed, right? If I ignored the problems and kept on teaching, that meant I was doing what’s best FTK, right?

Rising crime, unheated schools and a woman in a hospital gown being dumped at a bus stop on a freezing night: At a time when Baltimore is competing with more than 200 cities for Amazon's second headquarters, the last thing the city needed was for such images to go viral.

Now that I’ve experienced teaching at a great Baltimore City school and have more years under my belt, I’m able to look back and say that this culture of just accepting problems in Baltimore City only perpetuates them and sends both implicit and explicit messages to our children: You are of less value. As teachers and residents of this city, we need to commit to not accepting unacceptable circumstances for our children. My students have value. They deserve better. As a city, let’s raise our expectations and demand better for them from our leaders.

Delilah Holmes is a teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools; her email is lilahmholmes@gmail.com.

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