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My Choice

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Several years ago, I went with my son's church on a mission trip to rural Alabama. Even though I had been a teacher in a Title I School for many years, I was not prepared for the poverty I saw that summer. When I returned to my classroom in August, I looked at my students and I realized there was one role as a teacher I had neglected and that was the role of being a voice for children, especially children in poverty. This information became my burden and I knew I had to do something with this new knowledge. I just did not know where to start.

A few months later, my colleagues at Leeds Elementary nominated me for State Teacher of the Year. This was the first time our school had ever participated in this program. At the time,I was not sure my being singled out was a good thing because my colleagues were such outstanding teachers and I had learned so much from each one of them. However, my co-workers seemed very excited about the possibility of my being named State Teacher of the Year. One question on the application asked what issue do you consider to be most important in education today. I liked this question because it was an opportunity for me to use my teacher voice. I wrote about equity in education. After being named Alabama's 2002 State Teacher, this became my platform and the issue I addressed in my speeches. I continued with this theme during my term as the 2003 National Teacher of the Year.

While traveling as State Teacher, I learned that not only was local funding inequitable in Alabama, but also the teacher quality in our most needy schools was often lacking. I became convinced we had to have our strongest teachers in our weakest schools. I knew after my term as National Teacher, I would return to my school system and go to the most needy school in our district--Brighton. So, on August 4, 2004, I began my work as Curriculum Coordinator at Brighton School with very high hopes of making a difference and following my conviction.

21 Comments

I was so thrilled to read your blog. You were the keynote speaker at our opening teachers' meeting this year. I passed your link on to others here at Elida Local Schools in northwest Ohio. Forgive me, but this is the first time I have "participated" in a blog. You seemed like a nice person when you came, so maybe you won't think I'm stupid if I don't do this correctly. I enjoyed your talk and can't forget about those snakes. Best wishes to you! :)

Thanks for your dedication and for sharing your insight with us. It is a sham to expect educators to remediate all of several centuries of accumulated cultural wrongs with their current students in the short amount of time we have with them.

I lived in Wayne County, Michigan starting at age 10 and I taught in Detroit for seven years, and have many colleagues and former students who have taught or are still teaching there. They are high quality, loyal, and caring indivuals, who, even with prayers and God's help, can't save many of the lost souls enrolled in the Detroit Public Schools. They try, though! The vast majority of them work as hard as I do at about half the pay, with astonishingly insurmountable constraints in their working conditions. For example, teachers pass out four sheets of toilet paper to each student as they enter the rest rooms, and give each a squirt of liquid soap as they exit. Otherwise, the students will take the toilet rolls and soap home. In the high schools, girls carry their own rolls of toilet paper in their purses.

Like you, I feel that my mission is to be the voice of not only the children in poverty, but also for the people who make it their mission to try to work with them. That is why I am currently working on a doctorate in educational leadership at Michigan State and am teaching in an affluent district that adjoins the DPS.

Again, thanks, for the work that you do. I am doing work of my own, on another front. Yesterday I told my students some stories from my experiences "on the other side of Mack Avenue," and charged them and their generation with the mission of making change happen. I am hopeful that if our generation was able to make the progress it did in civil rights in our lifetime, that if the work continues, perhaps someday future generations will see the world that Martin Luther King Junior envisioned.

You are certainly an inspiration. I knew I wanted to be a teacher at the age of 15. However, I followed two different career paths. I was quite elated when I was hired as a 7th grade ELA/Reading teacher at a Title I school in Clayton County, Georgia. I go in each day knowing that I will not reach all of my students. Moreover, I am pleased at the end of the day when I know that I have made an impact on some of my students. Teaching is not for the faint at heart, but it is the only profession that I have ever worked in where I go to bed happy and go to work honored. I look forward to the day when I earn my Specialist and Doctoral degrees. Lastly, teaching is the profession that gives birth to all other professions.

Hi, Betsy...I just want to say that I am so thrilled to see that you are still "giving" to our public school children!!! I am Vi's friend, and we met at a previous conference. Your writings are so inspiring...and they also reflect your commitment and enthusiasm for teaching children! Please keep up the wonderful inspirations!!

Dear Betsy,

I am finding it difficult to untangle the threads of thought that came to me after reading your postings. More questions than answers struck me by what you are trying to do. What assumptions about how schools succeed made you believe that you could make a difference in a "failing" school? If a school were staffed with only exceptionally talented teachers, would that be sufficient to improve a school's performance? Are standardized tests the only yardstick used to determine success? Why do schools in poor neighborhoods seem to "fail" more often? What attitudes do parents, children and teachers bring to school which interfere with school success? How can teachers change the expectations of their students? What role does the principal have in improving a school's performance?

Of course, we all have our own perceptions, even prejudices, about what makes schools work well. I think that your love of children and your drive to improve a school are necessary building blocks to any success. I think, though, that this is not sufficient. It is time for us educators to speak a common language, as if we were scientists, so that we could share our knowledge without ambiguity with each other and our communities.

Are there blogs on different topics? I am interested in a forum for improving our gifted and talented program's identification and teaching process. Ironically, for a gifted child who is not understood or taught by our schools -- there may as well be snakes and no tables in the richest school. - Mary M

Betsy,

I also work in Alabama and have been following your career after you were named Teacher of the Year. Although, I am in a county system that is much more affluent that most of Alabama, we still see the results of severe poverty. Our ESL, MiGrant, Title I problems are not, in most cases, anthing but a poverty issue. Do you have suggestions for helping middle class teachers understand the issues of poverty and how it impacts student achievement? This too is my first experience with a blog. I believe I will like it. Mary Horton

I applaud your efforts to ensure that ALL children have access to a quality education. It is very easy to work in good schools and preach about best practices. I know I'm one of those teachers who worked in a great school with great students, great families and an excellent staff. As a Curriculum Specialist working in a historically low performing school, I have found it is quite another to successfully work with students of poverty. I commend you for putting your money where your mouth is and hope you can shed some new light on ways to build success in schools that serve families of severe and generational poverty.

I began this job in August 2004, enthusiastic and determined to make a difference. Many days I go home feeling defeated and hopeless. The accountability is brutal and stressful for all of us. How do we continue to motivate teachers and students to strive for academic excellence when they are literally fighting to survive?

I look forward to reading about your experiences. Thanks for sharing!

I agree the most capable teachers need to be in the neediest schools. However, with the provisions of NCLB (students allowed to transfer, district report cards,the press, etc.), this is not likely to happen. How do you propose to motivate capable teachers to teach in needy, underperforming schools?

I am an Alabama native (who spent several years living in Birmingham)and now live in Virginia. After many years, I am finally going into public school teaching and earning a masters degree. I always enjoy hearing any information about my beloved home state and it is exciting to read about your commitment to making a difference in the lives of those children.

My questions are: How does this school / system address the issue of tecnology in the classrooms? Is there funding avaiable for computer labs or in room computers, software, laptops, teacher training, etc? I assume funding is limited. How do you expose everyone to technology in such a way that the students don't lag behind in this area? (I am currently in an educational technology class and it has spurred my interest in the area.)

This is a comment to Carolyn especially. The situation with educational technology in schools is really in crisis right now. I work in Missouri and because of the tight state budget for the last few years the state cut back ALL funding for technology (there used to be some state grants that schools could apply for). In the recent federal budget proposal the Federal Funds for technology in schools is also cut. For our state that means that there will be NO regular funding for educational technology. There are other grants and awards that schools can apply for, but the poorest school districts do not have grant writers or anyone with the time and energy to put a grant proposal together.

In the last 10 years of working in the field of ed tech I have become convinced of two things:
1. Technology is NOT going away and is an essential skill that our teachers need to be comfortable with and a rich resource that students need to be literate in.
2. Teachers need ONGOING professional development and both technical and curricular support to use technology in ways that really enhance instruction. Giving out equipment and one time training sessions will NOT make a difference.

I work for the eMINTS National Center. We are seeing some exciting changes in what can happen in classrooms. Check out the Digital Stories at this web site: http://www.emints.org/about/video/

Thanks also for this blog. It is SUCH an interesting and important topic.

Janice

Dear Betsy, I am a curriculum coordinator in a big outer suburban school in Melbourne Australia. There's not such terrible poverty but our results are very low. I look forward to continuing to read your 'diary' .
Kindest regards
Susan Livsey

Dear Betsy, I am a curriculum coordinator in a big outer suburban school in Melbourne Australia. There's not such terrible poverty but our results are very low. I look forward to continuing to read your 'diary' .
Kindest regards
Susan Livsey

Hi Betsy,
I teach in one of the lowest economic schools in Cols. Ohio. We are in our third year of not meeting out AYP.We also service the homeless children in Cols. This makes our transitional rate very high (100%). I am also a NBCT and the on-site staff development/coach/intervention specialist at our school. I believe that a teacher leader can make a difference and I hope your position in Curriculum can do just that. I have been in this position for seven years now. I am saddened when I see teachers use the same old traditional way of teaching our children. They are happy for me to come into their room and teach a lesson or an entire block, however when I leave they go back to their same old boring routine. I am considered a teacher with a special assignment and not given any authority at all. It's not that I want to tell the teachers what to do, but I do wish they would listen to me and follow mine and others examples. It's frustrating! I hope that your position gives you a little leverage as far as authority. I am leaving this school after this school year. Maybe if they get in someone they don't know so well to take my position they will listen to them. I am thinking of applying to a school that has been reconstituted by the state and are hiring only NBCTs. Hopefully I can help you with your question after next year. We'll see if a highly qualiied teaching staff can make a difference for a low-achieving school. By the way, I've battled head lice, poverty, fleas, roaches and mice, but never SNAKES!!!! Yikes!
Sincerely,
Bev Maddox

Wow-You're articles are powerful stuff! I look forward to reading more. Thank you for the inspiration and insight. You are truly leaving a legacy.

Wow-You're articles are powerful stuff! I look forward to reading more. Thank you for the inspiration and insight. You are truly leaving a legacy.

I congratulate you on taking the lead and trying to make a difference in a failing school. I am a retired high school teacher (Naperville, Illinois) and employed by Wheaton College to prepare social science/history teachers for the middle and high school. My problem is that the students I work with all are from middle class or upper middle class backgrounds. They are all very successful students and have had little contact with kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds or even from diverse cultures. Right now I have three student teachers in underachieving schools with high levels of poverty and great cultural diversity. These student teachers strugle with issues of classroom management and creative ways to teach the content to their students. I want to help these teachers bridge the gaps between themselves and their students so they can be effective teachers in these situations. The question is how to do this? In some cases their cooperating teachers have all but given up on some of the kids. I'm sure these middle school student's problems are not as severe as those in many schools in Alabama and elsewhere. Yet, the schools seem to be failing them in important ways. Can anyone give advice on how I can help these student teachers reach these kids and start them on the road to educational success?

Being involved in a school improvement situation is very eye opening. This is my first year at a school in school improvement and your blog was very encouraging.

This message is specifically for Jack who posted some questions on March 7, 2005. Jack I am a teacher who works in a very low socio-economic area in Espanola, New Mexico. Before your student teachers can reach their charges, they must first understand them...who they are...what daily challenges they face...where they come from.
Have your student teachers get out and explore the community of the students. Have them view the residential areas, visit families in their homes, identify local resources...perhaps even complete a demographic project. Too, I recommend anyone working with children who live in poverty read the book A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby K. Payne. It is a short read, but very insightful.

Dear Betsy,

I hope you and others who read this will forgive me if this message is inappropriate. My guess is that many of the students in your school have not mastered "math facts". If you would like a free sample of a FlashMaster(R) (pictured, described and reviewed at www.flashmaster.com) which I am confident that you and students at Brighton will find addresses this challenge very well, please email me your U.S. Mail address. Chuck Resor, owner of Flashmaster LLC, 800-884-3531.

I just came across this due to the latest ASCB bulletin. I would like to continue to read of your journey as you describe a situation that touches many teachers who are "living the poverty school" assignment. I too feel a moral obligation to stay at my school to help students who have major obstacles to overcome in their journey to a productive adult life. I worry that without strong adult advocates, their future is dismal. We have some very experienced and strong teachers but if the pressures continue, it will be a matter of time that some of them will give up the battle and migrate to a higher socio-economic school. What keeps you committed to your mission and how do you re-energize each day/year? How do we attract and keep positive and strong teachers?

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