One Bronx Teach Too Many

It's always an interesting experience when I run into another NYC teacher outside of a teaching/learning environment. Depending on the situation, it can be a very painful or pleasant experience. Regardless, it's always a reminder that just like students and classrooms, teachers and schools come in many different forms.

When I find myself at a dinner or party and happen to run into another NYC I always approach somewhat cautiously. Unlike my interactions with Teaching Fellows, I'm never sure what sort of environment they work in, or what sort of attitude they have towards their work. With most Teaching Fellows we're working in similar "high need" schools and we got into the program out of a similar passion and drive to close the achievement gap. Usually this is the case for non-Fellows as well, but it's not always so. But, Fellow or otherwise, I've had some interactions with other teachers that just leave me puzzled.

One of the more frustrating scenarios I've found myself in is a game of poverty oneupsmanship. When you're the only inner city teacher in a room you're usually able to just bask in the mixture of shock and admiration as you tell your war stories. Now if there's two of you in the room this won't happen as easily. Before you know it you're stuck in a competition for whose kids are poorer, whose school has fewer resources, or whose neighborhood is more violent.

Perhaps I'm exaggerating a bit, but I found myself in almost exactly this situation last night. And it sickened me. I found myself annoyed at my colleague who seemed to insist on some sort of perverse bragging right. At the same time I was annoyed at myself for caring.

I've always worried that beneath the surface, I held some very selfish reasons for teaching. Beyond wanting to make a difference I worried that I was doing it for the "dinner party reaction" - that mix of sympathy and awe that you encounter among a certain crowd (parents' friends, college friends, etc.). An extension of this is the tendency to sensationalize the characteristics of urban blight, e.g. breathless stories of child abuse, alcoholism, drugs, vandalism and violence that we encounter on the periphery of our classrooms.

I don't like to think of myself as someone who succumbs to this urge, who uses the painful environment of teaching for self-aggrandizement. And yet, last night I found myself trying to convince people at a dinner that my school was "bad enough" or whatever to compare to the South Bronx school where another diner taught kindergarten.

Meanwhile there was a tone in her voice, a barely hid, racially charged contempt for her teaching environment. ("Are there any black kids at your school?" I heard her whisper to an 8th grade dinner guest. "I just want to know if your basketball team is going to be any good.") Her devotion to teaching was obvious, but there was an attitude I sensed that was inexcusable.

Nonetheless, I still found myself dwelling on the way I was trying to measure my school against hers. I think (or at least I'd like to) that I was annoyed at the way this teacher and her family members wrote my school off as incomparable or "way better." But really, why should it matter? I'm not teaching to collect horror stories and social accolades. I'm teaching to help the kids for whom these stories are daily life. It's just one of the unintended consequences of finding myself in the room with another Bronx teacher. Sometimes I'm disgusted by what I see in them, but sometimes I find something equally ugly within myself.


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