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This article was printed from Teachers.Net Gazette,
located at https://teachers.net.
Several years ago we received an unsolicited manuscript from
Christina Asquith that had us transfixed. It was about
her year of teaching in the Philadelphia Public Schools. Her writing
style and the subject had us riveted on her every word.
Since we have a publishing company, we quite often get requests
from teachers wondering if we would publish their materials.
Regretfully, we declined because we publish only our own work and we
hated to disappoint Christina.
However, through the years we have remained friends with her.
Go to www.educationnews.org
and under the list of columnists in the left margin, click on Christina
Asquith and you will understand why we have remained in contact with
her through the years. As a correspondent from Iraq, she covered
the war, befriended Iraqi women, and got involved in the fight for women’s
rights in the Middle East. In fact, while she was in Iraq, we
sent her copies of The First Days of School
to distribute to educators who were patching the schools back together.
Two Questions to Answer
But, back to the manuscript she submitted to us! The book was
about Christina leaving her job with The Philadelphia Inquirer
and going into the classroom to teach. She aspired to “make
a difference in a child’s life,” or so promised the School
District of Philadelphia’s marketing brochure.
Without certification or training—an “emergency
teacher”—Christina is hired on the spot and (unknowingly)
assigned to the classroom that few veteran teachers would take—sixth
grade in the city’s oldest school building, in a crime-infested
neighborhood known as The Badlands.
“Sink or swim,” Christina is told on her first day!
Being the good journalist that she is, she promises herself on the
first day of school to answer the two classic questions:
American inner-city public schools failing?
Can one young, motivated person make a difference?
To get a glimpse of Christina’s answers to those questions, read
from an article she wrote with us for school board members—those
people who determine policy and have the power to change schools.
Christina wrote in the article:
many days I truly loved teaching, but my lack of experience made the
bad days too terrible for everyone involved. Overwhelmingly, I
felt guilty, confused, and hopeless about the experience. Yet,
in the back of my mind, I wondered if I hadn’t been thrown in
cold, if I had had some training, any training—some support, could
my brief career in teaching have turned out differently?
teachers are always excited and nervous for the first day of school,
and I was no exception. At 26 years old, I had a college degree,
a background in journalism, and dreams of teaching English to a classroom
of low-income children. In Philadelphia, a recruiting campaign
pushed the idea that we could make a difference, and the city’s
$1,500 hiring bonus sweetened the offer. In September of 1999,
I began my second career as one of the city’s 1,200 new teachers.
We were all filled with hope.
away, the troubles started. The district assigned me to a middle
school—the least desirable age group—and I unknowingly selected
one of the most challenging schools in Philadelphia. I received
one day of orientation, during which I mostly filled out forms.
No one officially welcomed me or the other three new teachers to my
school; in fact the veterans received us with skepticism, at best.
Apparently, I was assigned a mentor, but she was busy with her own classroom.
I’ll never forget the first morning when a student asked me for
a pass to the bathroom and I didn’t know where it was. I
have heard administrators describe a new teacher’s first year
as a ‘sink or swim’ experience. I began to sink.
the end of September, the newspapers reported that 100 of Philadelphia’s
newly recruited teachers had already quit. Throughout the year,
six teachers in my school walked off the job, and I fought the temptation
to join them. Isolated in my classroom with few supplies, no experience
and nowhere to turn for help, I struggled to control students.
When the $1,500 bonus arrived, it meant little to me—as I would
have paid twice that to succeed.
I had it tough, the loss was greatest for my 6th graders, almost all
of who failed the state writing tests in the spring. It was seeing
their disappointed faces each day that pushed me out the door in June.
Many teachers can relate to Christina’s situation as
a brand new, first year teacher. The rest of the story
of her experience teaching in the Philadelphia schools can be found
in Christina’s just released book, The Emergency Teacher,
Yes, she found a publisher and she has graciously allowed us to share
with you an excerpt from the book.
From The Emergency Teacher, Chapter 1:
They’ll Take Anyone
That could not be a school.
A weather-beaten gray-stone edifice glared down at me as I stood on
the corner of Eighth and Lehigh in North Philadelphia. The building
looked like a prison. No, a dungeon. The roof had four turrets
with menacing gargoyles arched forward. Surrounding the massive
building was a cracked concrete parking lot ringed by a black iron gate.
Empty, rotting factories loomed in the distance. It was hard to
believe any parent would send children here. I parked in a pothole
and walked up the steps.
open the only door that wasn’t chained shut and saw a little placard
with the words MAIN OFFICE, down the hall. I walked quickly towards
it. A woman behind the counter shuffled through papers.
She glanced up over the glasses perched on her nose.
my name is Christina Asquith,” I said. “I’d like to
of Philadelphia still had fifteen hundred teacher vacancies—more
than 10 percent of the teaching staff. The district was desperate
to hire anyone, or they’d have thousands of kids without a teacher
that September. I was a 25 year old journalist, and had recently
finished a two-year internship with The Philadelphia Inquirer.
I ought to have been looking for a job in journalism, but the other
day I had come across an advertisement at the bus stop: “Change
a Life. Be a Teacher.” The ad showed a sweet young boy gazing
longingly for a teacher.
I’d worked for newspapers since college, I had felt frustrated
with newspapers as of late. I wanted to make a difference, particularly
by covering urban school systems, but from the distant perch of the
newsroom, I felt out of touch with the real problems inside the classroom.
Teaching was always something I had a passion for, but I didn’t
want to go back to school for years to get an education degree.
Apparently, I didn’t have to.
behind the counter was Mrs. Jimenez, the assistant principal.
She looked sophisticated in gold jewelry and pinned up hair. She
was friendly and offered to give me a tour. Gliding along the
wooden floors, she told me she had taught here for a decade, but that
the school was much older than that.
school used to be called the Northeast Manual Training Center, but they
renamed it twice, and now it’s called Julia de Burgos Bilingual
Middle Magnet School, after the Puerto Rican poet,” she said.
was old, but strangely beautiful. A dimly lit staircase led up
to an antique stained-glass window that filled the archway with the
colored light of a church. The wooden floors creaked. As
we moved along them, I took in all the trappings of a public middle
school: the trophy case, the library, the halls of lockers, the white
Halsey Taylor water fountains, the nurse’s office, and the science
labs. The school hallways formed a square, with a courtyard in
the middle and three sets of staircases leading from the basement to
the third floor. Years had passed since I’d stood in the
long, shiny hallways of a school, and I was flooded with memories of
my own private school in Northern New Jersey. My favorite teachers:
the reading teacher Miss Mercer, who taught us to love Shakespeare,
J. D. Salinger and F. Scott Fitzgerald; and the math teacher Mr. Senn,
with the great stickers, and Math Quiz Mondays. I saw myself marching
to class wearing an oversized Benneton sweater, a Swatch watch, and
purple jeans tucked into thick white socks, carrying a thick binder
divided up neatly into all the subjects. Middle school was this
golden period, before the complications of high school, when life was
about playing tennis in the Fall and going to clarinet practice in the
Winter and acting in the school play in the Spring, while my parents
watched from the audience. How exciting to step back in time like
this, and become the teacher! Around me, I saw a few other teachers
shuffling beyond open classroom doors, dusting off the desks and applying
fresh paint—setting up the theater for the grand performance,
for which I was auditioning. The thought sent chills down my body.
smiled at me warmly, as if she really wanted me to teach here.
And she didn’t seem shocked when I told her I had never taught
before. “Mmmm, yes. Well, we really need teachers,”
she replied simply. Even though the school needed some serious
renovation, I saw that the teachers and students had painted pretty
murals of Puerto Rico, and hung signs of school pride that gave it a
sense of spirit.
how I imagined an urban school. This would be tough, but if I
were going to do this, I didn’t want a school that anyone would
teach at. I wanted the kids that no one else would take.
When Mrs. Jimenez offered to write a letter requesting I be assigned
here, giddiness overwhelmed me and I engulfed her in a warm hug.
“I’ll be the best new teacher, I promise.” She
looked slightly surprised.
I really teach without any experience?” I asked Eppy, the recruiter
for the Philadelphia School District. Most teachers were required
to graduate from a college program and log at least forty hours in the
classroom training alongside a real teacher.
my comments away. It wasn’t necessary. “Believe
me, we need you more than you need us,” he said.
no direct experience in the classrooms, but had always dreamed of being
a teacher. My first year at Boston University I had taken several
education classes. Eventually, though, I’d switched to journalism
because the classroom seemed too confining at such a young age.
I wanted to go out and learn about the world first, and journalism was
a vehicle to travel, meet new people and explore different subjects.
Immediately after college, I moved to Chile for one year to write for
a newspaper. Upon my return, I was accepted into The Philadelphia
Inquirer’s two-year internship program. While there,
I always kept a foot in the education world. For two years, I
volunteered in the Big Brother Big Sister program of Philadelphia and
also for the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club. At the Inquirer,
I had gravitated to education, and written dozens of stories about testing,
school life and teachers programs. Eppy didn’t seem too
interested in my experience, or lack thereof.
real need is in the middle schools,” he was saying. “I
was a middle school teacher.” Eppy was overly friendly, like a
salesman. He never stopped grinning and looking relaxed, even
as he constantly interrupted our meeting to take phone calls that always
seemed to involve an emergency.
OK.” I thought I would be better in high school, teaching maybe
English, science, or history. I was imagining the famous teacher-movies:
Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds and Lean on
Me. But I trusted him, and we spent about two hours together
on that first day. By the end he had convinced me to take middle
school. Philadelphia had only a handful of Spanish/English bilingual
middle schools, so that narrowed the choice to Julia de Burgos and a
few others. He gave me a stack of application forms. He
warned me to hurry because it was already July.
not the eleventh hour, Christina. It’s quarter to twelve.”
I had a million things to get: a criminal-record check, a child-abuse
check, a doctor’s physical. And I needed to enroll in a
certification program at a university. I was excited. After
years writing about education, interviewing principals, reading about
the troubles of urban schools, and pleading to see a real classroom
in action, I’d finally be on the inside and able to uncover how
schools really work.
could wait. For years I’d been covering the suburbs, school
boards and sewer projects. At 25, I was full of determination
to change the world and make a difference, and inner city schools seemed
like the perfect place for me. A year as an inner-city teacher
would be a challenge, and a chance to help children in need and find
answers to my questions, such as: why were inner city schools failing?
I’d find the solutions. Maybe I’d write about it afterward.
But I’d worry about that part later. I hadn’t been
in middle school in more than a decade. I didn’t even know
any twelve-year-olds. The school district wasn’t really
going to let me do this . . . were they?
seem unbelievable that someone could simply walk off the street and
into the classroom, but in Philadelphia and many urban districts, this
was exactly what was happening.
economy of the late 1990s drew potential teachers and college graduates
into other, higher-paying jobs. This occurred just as birth patterns
gave rise to a massive increase in student enrollment. At the
same time, an aging workforce meant that scores of teachers were retiring.
This perfect storm in the education-employment world led to one of the
periods of greatest demand for new teachers in thirty years. An
estimated 7 million new teachers would have to be hired between 1997
and 2007, and the need would continue to increase until 2013, according
to the U. S. Department of Education.
demand, schools hired “emergency-certified” or “alternative-certified
people.” These were candidates who didn’t have a university
degree from a college of education; neither did they have a major in
the field in which they planned to teach, such as chemistry, math, or
English. They also didn’t have to take any state or school-district
teacher exams. In the case of Philadelphia, all teachers typically
had to take the Praxis exam, designed by the Educational Testing Service.
It’s a basic battery of tests to assess prospective teachers’
basic knowledge of math, reading, and writing. Emergency-certified
teachers would not have to take that test until after three years on
turn of the century, forty-five states, and Washington D. C., allowed
for emergency-certified teachers, and their ranks were growing.
In Texas, one in four new teachers was emergency certified. In
Detroit—the city with the greatest numbers—one in three
teachers was uncertified. In rural and poor inner-city schools,
their numbers are even greater.
opposed the idea of emergency certification, pointing out that the equivalent
in medicine would be to solve a hospital’s doctor shortage by
doing away with medical school and board examinations, and simply telling
anyone who wanted to be a doctor to “train on the job.”
No patient would want to go to an emergency certified doctor.
said that loosening standards allowed people to change careers and go
into teaching, without having to go back to school for three years.
In these instances, schools benefited from diversifying their teaching
ranks with successful professionals, such as scientists, mathematicians,
entrepreneurs, and writers. One popular national program, Troops
to Teachers, gave former military commanders emergency certifications
to become teachers and eventually school leaders. Teach for America
was another popular national program that recruited college graduates,
placed them in underprivileged school districts for two years, assisted
them in getting their emergency certifications, and ran training courses.
It also acted as a support for new teachers in their first year.
gave between one to six weeks of summer training, but new teachers like
me, who applied directly to the school district, often received less.
I would receive only a few days. Supposedly that was enough to
take on a classroom of the city’s toughest-to-teach children.
a Philadelphia think tank found otherwise. When Philadelphia’s
emergency-certified teachers finally did take the basic licensure tests—the
Praxis exam—the think tank uncovered: “less than half of
the emergency-certified teachers passed the basic mathematics test.”
Only two-thirds passed the reading. Only 60 percent passed the
inexperience makes classroom management a problem,” stated the
report titled “Once and for All” by the ‘Learning
from Philadelphia’s School Reform Project. In math, science,
and bilingual classrooms—the areas that were the hardest to find
teachers for—half of all new teachers were uncertified.
This meant a child in Philadelphia’s public schools had less than
a 50 percent chance of getting a math teacher who could do basic
concluded: “The data makes clear that students in Philadelphia
have not been able to count on getting a teacher who has mastered basic
summer drew to a close, the Philadelphia schools still needed to recruit
hundreds of warm bodies. It offered $1,500 sign-up bonuses.
A few hundred more signed on, and a couple hundred additional bodies
joined in September and October. Like me, they would be too late
for the one-week induction seminar, so they received no training at
all. I didn’t want to imagine the kind of unqualified, uninterested
teacher who would take the job at the last minute just for the sign-on
time school started, more than eleven hundred random people—one
in ten teachers—had wandered off the street and been handed classroom
keys. They were directed to the most troubled schools, and when
September started they stood in front of their classrooms. They
had no educational experience, no guidance, no instruction and scant
support. Like me, many had no clue how to teach.
my boyfriend, took on the task of training me to be a teacher.
He was, at that moment, the only person really behind the idea.
Years earlier, before entering medical school, Pete had spent a year
teaching in a New York City public school. Tall, handsome, outdoorsy,
Pete was the perfect boyfriend, and also a good friend. Although,
he had some bizarre advice:
remember, you’re in charge. The most important thing is
discipline,” he said. “You gotta seat‘em first, then
I said. “No problem.”
spent the morning researching the school district through back issues
of The Philadelphia Inquirer and found out that Philadelphia
was then the fifth-largest public school district in the nation, with
210,247 students, twelve thousand teachers, more than two hundred schools,
a $1.6 billion annual budget, and a very frightening $80 million deficit.
Like most big urban areas, the school system had turned abysmal in the
1970s—correlating with the disappearance of big industry and white
flight to the suburbs—and hasn’t turned around since.
These days, 78 percent of eleventh-graders couldn’t even complete
basic-level work in any major subject, according to scores on the SAT-9,
the city’s standardized test.
had been trying for decades—without success—to turn the
system around. The latest trend strove to make schools run like
businesses, an approach that was gaining in popularity in urban districts
across the country. In the spring of my year teaching, the school
board fired its school superintendent, David Hornbeck, and replaced
him with a chief executive officer. Plans were afoot to turn dozens
of schools over to for-profit companies. Voucher programs, in
which children use public money to attend private schools, were also
being pushed by the governor’s office. So were teacher-accountability
measures and teacher recruitment.
from this list were proposals to improve teacher training.
out on the warm, well-manicured, summer grass of Rittenhouse Square,
sipping from my latte, fanning out the teacher training workbooks we
had splurged on in Barnes and Noble. While I waited for Eppy to
process my application I devoted all of July to training myself how
to be a teacher. I read The First Days of School, by
Harry and Rosemary Wong. Rather than comfort me, it opened my
eyes to how much I didn’t know. What was a lesson plan?
How did I decorate a classroom? How did I discipline a child?
How would I get parents involved?
over teaching books that explained concepts like name charts, pencil-sharpening
procedures, and positive reinforcement. I learned all kinds of new details
about preteens that I had long forgotten, such as the most important
thing a child wants on the first day is security. Transition frightens
them, and teachers should explain every small detail, such as how to
pronounce the teacher’s name and classroom locations and schedules.
down tips for myself: “Don’t mark X on the answers
that are wrong, just mark C on the answers that are correct.”
“Never, ever raise your voice.” “Teach a new vocabulary
word each day, and call it, ‘Word of the Day.’” The
most important thing was to “plan and plan extra.”
dark sunglasses, my eyes closed and my mind wandered as Pete was reading
aloud from a teacher training manual. Thoughts of teaching filled
my head, and I reveled in the sense of purpose and meaning that came
from helping others. A smile spread across my face as I dreamed
of having my own gradebook, and my own quizzes and students reading
aloud and calling me Ms. Asquith. This was a major life change,
and yet I was counting the days until September.
kick a student out of class to be disciplined,” Pete said, interrupting
my reverie. “That sends the message that you aren’t
the authority. Handle all your own discipline.”
me not to smile until Thanksgiving, either. “There are two
different types of teachers—the ruler-cracker and loving pushover.
Who are you going to be?” He explained that, in his school, the
female teacher across the hall from him was soft and fuzzy, and won
over the kids with warmth. Her class was always chaotic, but the
students covered her desk with gifts at Christmas. They listened
because they loved her.
the opposite, a real “hard-ass” teacher who demanded quiet
and didn’t let the kids get away with anything. When a fight
broke out in the hallway one morning, he’d jumped in and put a
red-faced boy in a headlock, pushing the kid’s chin into the floor.
The rest of the students saw this and knew not to mess with him.
He never let the slightest infraction slide. That may sound harsh,
he said, but these kids craved borders. My strictness would pay
off, and I’d be glad, he promised. For example, he recalled
a day in the spring when he conducted a physics experiment. He
was able to leave half his class—unattended—while he and
several other students went to another floor to study velocity.
His students behaved. Other teachers saw this and marveled at
his control. “Watch out for the cynical veterans.
They will try to drag you down with them.” When he reminisced
about teaching, he grew nostalgic.
will be the best thing you’ve ever done,” he said, giving
me a hug.
gave me a piece of advice.
enter a showdown you can’t win,” he said.
showdown?” I asked.
That night he demonstrated a judo move in which I was to grab his wrist,
wrap it around in a circular orbit, and grip him in a headlock.
This could nail someone in three seconds, regardless of weight.
I tried it a few times, but it didn’t really work when I did it.
in case,” Pete said.
me wonder what the students would be like. Were they dangerous?
Would they wear leather jackets? Were they the kind of kids with
hard exterior shells, but crack them a little and they were hidden geniuses.
What would they think of me?
I had to tell my family. They were less supportive.
you crazy?” said Jon, my brother, a twenty-seven year old stock
broker who lived in a mini-mansion in the New York suburbs. “Don’t
you know what happened to Jonathan Levin? Is that what you want
to happen to you?” he asked.
Levin was the wealthy son of then Time Warner Chair Gerald Levin.
He had eschewed his family fortune and fame to become a beloved English
teacher in an underprivileged school in the Bronx, and he paid the ultimate
price for it. In 1997, two of his students arrived high on drugs
at his Upper West Side Manhattan apartment, robbed him, and shot him
not going to happen,” I said uncertainly.
do you have to do that? Do what your friends are doing,”
my friends were setting off for well-paying jobs with Internet start-ups
or glamorous new magazines or in bureaus of The Wall Street Journal
or The New York Times. Why didn’t I want to do
that too? I didn’t know. I wanted to “make a
difference in a child’s life,” as the Philadelphia Department
of Education recruitment posters promised. I felt like the failing
inner city schools were an injustice that I should stand against, not
only with words but with real action. Especially these days, as
the economy boomed and people in their 20s were becoming Internet millionaires
overnight. In the newspaper the other day, I read that some rich
Wall Street guy rang up a $200,000 tab at a restaurant and left the
waiter a $40,000 tip. Yet, in the same city there were children
who lacked textbooks. Something was wrong with this. Once
inside the schools, I would understand the problems and then find solutions.
I could take those solutions to politicians and make a change in schools
across the nation.
into advertising, real estate, finance,” Jon was saying.
“You’re crazy. It’s the ghetto. It’s dangerous.”
say anything. I couldn’t articulate my beliefs, but I knew
I had to finally find answers to the questions that had burned in my
brain for years: Why were inner city schools failing? Why didn’t
anyone do anything to improve them? I couldn’t stand up
to my brother. He filled the silence.
man, wait until dad hears this one,” he laughed. “Dude,
I’m going to earn your annual salary in one day.”
Did She Answer the Two Questions?
Christina’s excerpt is only the beginning of her quest to answer
her two questions.
are American inner-city public schools failing?
young, motivated person make a difference?
Christina entered into teaching not for the money, but for
the dream—the dream of making a difference in the life of a child.
Even though you don’t know the outcome of her story, we’ve
given you enough hints to know that Christina did not return for a second
year of teaching. She left broken, crestfallen, and frustrated
with the dismal year she endured. But, these emotions were not for herself,
but for her students. She had failed them miserably—she
To Christina and the many teachers who relate to her journey, we say,
stay steadfast to your dreams. Give each student your
all, for you may never know if you’ve succeeded with that child.
It may be years, even decades, later that one of your students will
think back to you and recognize what you meant in his or her life.
Eyes will wistfully close and silent thank yous with be etched in the
mind as that former student transforms into that better person you so
diligently wanted all of your students to be.
You have the capacity to touch the life of every child who sits in
your classroom waiting for the bell to ring. Never lose that dream.
It’s the reality all children deserve.
Footnote: We often talked of publishing Christina’s
book, but if we did we would convert it into a series of case studies
to be used in preservice and new teacher induction programs to help
beginning teachers. If you are a college professor, a staff developer,
or a teacher-leader and you do this, please share your “teacher’s
guide” with us so that we can share it with others.
So many of us will profit from our giving to help others.