You printed in the Winter 2003 issue Josh Kaplowitz?s ?How I Joined Teach For America?and Got Sued for $20 Million,? which your readers may recall as the cautionary tale of a Yale graduate whose good intentions fell victim to the hostile culture of an inner-city school. I taught two doors down from Josh that year at Emery Elementary School. Although Josh?s eyewitness account of school failure may be well-intentioned, I feel compelled to offer my personal testimony to reveal the ways in which his story is incomplete, misleading, and ultimately buries children in the wreckage of his pride.
My name is Nick Ehrmann. In the fall of 2000, I began teaching in Room 312 at Emery Elementary School in Washington, D.C., just two doors down from Josh Kaplowitz. I too was a Teach For America corps member. I too was white. I too had just graduated from a prestigious university. But I have a different story to tell.
Four energetic Teach For America teachers began their careers at Emery that fall, including Josh Kaplowitz. We all faced incredible challenges throughout our first year?administrative turnover, lack of school discipline, and the resulting transfer of power to disruptive students who exploited this vacuum of administrative accountability. My classroom was frequently a stage for fistfights and tears. The difficulties that Josh describes were painfully real, and we all experienced them in similar degrees.
And we all responded in different ways. During the first week of school, I made positive connections with parents that now, two years later, continue to blossom into trusting relationships. Instead of taking student insults personally, I learned to recognize them as pleas for attention. Instead of responding to misbehavior with anger, I learned that my most difficult students were the ones most in need of patient, unconditional love. Despite being a rookie teacher, I refused to wallow in what was wrong about Emery. Instead I committed myself to the arduous task of finding a style that would minimize negativity and reinforce what was positive about my students and their difficult lives. And although I didn?t learn these lessons right away, by mid-year Room 312 had genuinely begun to work as a team.
I bear witness that teachers can and do succeed, and thousands across the country have unlocked the keys to teaching under extremely challenging circumstances. While I firmly believe that there needs to be change on a systemic level to improve the education system at large, until that happens it is our responsibility as teachers to work within the constraints of this broken system and do everything we can to ensure that our students have the opportunities they deserve. Two Teach For America teachers at Emery alone were finalists for the Washington D.C. First Year Teacher of the Year Award, in part because they combined personal responsibility with reasoned frustration and channeled their anger into efforts to connect with their students in the midst of chaotic conditions that were beyond their control. So why was Room 308, just two doors down, the scene of almost constant chaos?
I can?t pretend to know what happened inside those four walls. But I did witness moments that Josh does not mention in his article. I did witness Josh argue with and interrupt our principal during one of our first faculty meetings of the year. I did witness Josh berate a lone student in the hallway, his anger clearly uncontrolled. I did witness Josh place his hands upon this student?s shoulders and shove him against the wall while yelling in his face. Good intentions should not be an excuse for bad decisions.
So when you read Josh?s account that the allegations were fabrications, think again. When you read the intimation that Josh?s physical contact was limited to breaking up fights, think again. Did Emery?s school culture combine with the strict interpretation of the corporeal punishment guidelines to empower students and parents with a litigious weapon? Yes. Do these issues weaken the effectiveness of educators and deserve critical attention? Did the teaching conditions at Emery make it extremely difficult to educate our children? Yes.
In these ways, Josh succeeds in highlighting some of the most pressing challenges facing inner-city educators today. As I read his harrowing account, I couldn?t help but applaud him for having the courage to speak out about the institutional breakdown that we all experienced during that year at Emery. Administrative paralysis, reckless student behavior, and social promotion are inexcusable and limit the opportunities for our nation?s most at-risk children. But Josh?s article has more to do with casting blame than providing solutions.
My personal solution to such challenging conditions was to ignore the disorder and focus on building trust and peace in my own classroom. Over time, as I earned the respect of my students and families, I partnered with them to form ?I Have A Dream??Project 312. Now the Executive Director, we have secured substantial funding for a long-term program of academic support, artistic development, cultural enrichment, family outreach and the promise of tuition assistance for higher education. By building trusting relationships, I have been able to focus on long-term goals without allowing chaos to destroy my students? dreams.
Instead, by courting the media megaphone, Josh claims to be educating the public about ?how bad schools can be.? Tragically, this negative response crystallizes the stereotypes that continue to plague inner-city students and families. If Josh was attempting to call attention to the failures of the system and be a constructive critic, why is his article entitled ?How I Joined Teach For America?and Got Sued for $20 Million?? Relegated to ?uncontrollable? and ?wild? status, the subjects of Josh?s pen have tragically become anonymous casualties in a cycle of blame, a cycle that risks weakening our continued commitment to public education by replacing it with hopelessness and fear (or worse, education policy that is misguided).
Knowing that teachers can and do succeed in even the most challenging environments, we should recognize Josh?s article for what it is: a distraction that appeals to the politics of failure rather than building towards a future of achievement. I believe that his frustrations have poisoned his outlook and harmed children in the process. Late in the year, as he was teaching a group of second-graders, I walked into his dimly-lit classroom. The shades were drawn, and his cheery September face was grown over by a tired beard. ?How are things going?? I asked, sensing that today he was too exhausted to exhale the usual slew of complaints. He shrugged his shoulders and said nothing. ?Why are your shades all down?? I asked, having just been outside in the spring sunshine. He responded with an answer I?ll never forget: ?These kids don?t deserve to see daylight.? I looked at the fluorescent lights of his room, turned around, and left, imagining the buried children that remained trapped inside.