What does it take to teach successfully in America’s highest-need communities?

Photo Credit: SGoAguilar2013 

by Marietta Geraldino

As we edge towards the last days of this school year, let’s reflect on the question, “Just how hard is it to teach in America’s highest-need schools?”

Ryan Fuller, an aerospace engineer turned high school math teacher, offers interesting insights in the Slate article “Teaching Isn’t Rocket Science. It’s Harder.”

Fuller was hired to teach 11th grade math and robotics at Sierra High School in Colorado Springs, through Teach for America, after quitting his NASA engineering job, during a severe recession.

He was ‘schooled.’

He found out that designing a NASA spacecraft was easier than teaching algebra. “In teaching,” he wrote, “a person can be extremely competent, work relentlessly, and still fail miserably.” He claimed that he faced more failure every five minutes of teaching than he experienced in an entire week as an engineer.

But a teacher, he emphasized, must be ready to get the students back on track, because he believes that “no matter what the students say or do to detract from the lesson, they want structure, they want to learn, and they want to be prepared for life.”

A typical teacher task, he said, involves “explaining for the fourth time how to get the variable out of the exponent while two students put their heads down, three students start texting, two girls in the back start talking, and one student provokes another from across the classroom.”

Having worked both as an aerospace engineer and as a high school math teacher, Mr. Fuller learned first-hand that “no one can fully understand how difficult teaching is until he or she personally experiences it.”

“When I solved engineering problems, I had to use my brain. When I solve teaching problems, I use my entire being – everything I have,” Fuller wrote.

Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond offered another angle in the Huffington Post’s, “Maybe It’s Time to Ask the Teachers.” 

In the said article, Prof. Hammond  pointed out that:

“American teachers deal with a lot: low pay, growing class sizes and escalating teacher-bashing from politicians and pundits. Federal testing and accountability mandates under No Child Left Behind and, more recently, Race to the Top, have added layers of bureaucracy while eliminating much of the creativity and authentic learning that makes teaching enjoyable.”

Indeed, teaching in America’s highest-need communities is uniquely hard. Successful teaching requires a supportive and transformative brand of leadership. It requires a teacher’s pedagogical content knowledge and an inherent love for the job itself. 

Hard-to-staff schools deserve and require great teachers who are able to ‘spark’ student success and have the skill, the will, and the heart to do the job.

Yes, teaching is truly meant for those who really care and truly can. As Fuller aptly puts it, “in teaching, a person can be extremely competent, work relentlessly, and still fail miserably.” 

Photo by Johnny Andres Zamora
Photo by Johnny Andres Zamora

2 thoughts on “What does it take to teach successfully in America’s highest-need communities?

  1. “no one can fully understand how difficult teaching is until he or she personally experiences it.”…….this says it all. That’s why all administrators should have to teach. At least ONE class.

    Liked by 1 person

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