by Christopher Paslay
Philadelphia public schools and their teachers have been getting quite the media exposure this week. On March 31st, the Inquirer ran a story headlined, “Group urges improved teacher quality in Philadelphia”.
The gist of the story was that as a whole, the Philadelphia School District lacks “quality” educators, and that too many of the 10,000 or so hard working teachers currently staffing our schools aren’t quite cutting it. This at least was the opinion of The Education First Compact, a collection of local education-reform organizations, and the Philadelphia Cross City Campaign, a coalition of community groups.
Apparently, the district isn’t doing enough to retain talented staff. My question to these groups is: What are we who are currently teaching in our city’s public schools? Rogues? Lepers? Vagabonds?
The following day, on April 1st, the Inquirer ran a story called “Student shot four times near Philadelphia school”. The article was about a teenager who was “shot twice in the head, once in the left chest, and once in the back by another teen . . . outside a disciplinary school in Feltonville shortly after dismissal time.”
In light of this negative coverage, I’d like to reprint an article I published in the Inquirer on October 26, 2006, headlined, Schools: High praise in need. It is about the need for the community to recognize the outstanding (yet unsung) work Philadelphia public school teachers do on a regular basis:
He was 16, highly motivated and the best student in my 10th grade English class. One morning, when he failed to turn in a major writing assignment, I kept him after class to see if anything was wrong.
“I’m having trouble concentrating at home,” he told me, and explained that he’d recently watched a man die from a gunshot wound outside his house in the city’s Logan section.
When I instructed him to see our school counselor, he refused. Although he was clearly shaken, he insisted he could work things out for himself. Before sending him to his next class, I gave him some advice.
“Try meditating,” I said, and showed him how to clear his mind by counting his breaths. I also played a holistic healing CD on my classroom computer to help him relax.
To my surprise, my student took to the meditation very well. He especially enjoyed the soothing effect of the CD and asked me to copy it for him. I did, and by the end of the week he had turned in the missing assignment.
The semester ended the following month, but I kept an eye out for this young man, watching with pride as he made the honor roll his junior and senior years.
A week before graduation, he stopped by my classroom for a visit. “I still listen to that CD, Mr. Paslay,” he told me, and shook my hand. “Thanks for all your help.”
It was then that I knew, metaphorically speaking, that I had “saved” him.
For every student who drops out of school or dies in a random act of violence, there are dozens who are “saved” by dedicated teachers. In my 10 years as an educator, I’ve watched wayward students become successful athletes, chefs, auto mechanics, business persons, electricians, carpenters, computer technicians. I’ve watched confused teens—teetering on the brink of self-destruction—become responsible adults capable of making important contributions to society.
But these success stories are rarely told. As a result, our city’s school system has an image problem. Public perception is that the Philadelphia schools are beyond repair, and that nothing teachers do makes a difference. Like a missionary trying to end world hunger, they say, “Why bother?”
My response to them is this: Tell that to the Ethiopian child who is filling his empty stomach with a bowl of donated oatmeal. In other words, teachers might not reach every child, but we are making a difference.
To improve the image of Philadelphia schools, local educators should get together and write about the students they’ve rescued from the pitfalls of everyday life. We could call it, “The Ones We Saved,” similar to “Chicken Soup for the Teacher’s Soul.”
My father, a 33-year veteran of the Philadelphia School District, could fill half the book himself. He could start by telling the story of a confused ninth grade skinhead from Southwest Philadelphia.
After reading one of the teen’s violent journal entries during English class, my father confronted him. “Is this what you do on weekends?” he asked the rather large boy. “Go around your neighborhood beating people up?”
The student told my father that’s exactly what he and his friends did. They went around town, clad in fatigues and combat boots, jumping other teenagers. My father, who has a knack for reaching people on a personal level, sat the boy down and gave him a long talk. He asked him to take a look at his life and where it was going.
Whatever my father said to the boy it must have worked. Eventually, he broke away from his neighborhood friends, and decided to put his energy into football. Three years later, he was on the honor roll and accepted a scholarship to play NCAA Division I football for the University of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Pitt with a degree in accounting, and ended up on the practice squad of the Chicago Bears.
It’s time to redirect our attention when it comes to education in Philadelphia. We can start by taking our focus off some of the fistfights, shootings and sexual assaults, and by paying more attention to our children’s joys, successes and victories. Lives are being saved. And teachers are helping to do that.
Philadelphia public school teachers are working hard and making a difference, despite negative headlines in the press and insensitive attitudes from community groups.