I teach in a “failing” school and you should too

“Welcome to White Swan, where you can teach whatever you want – even if it’s nothing at all.” ~ anonymous former colleague


“If you can teach here, you can teach anywhere” ~ anonymous colleague



I work in a very small rural school located in a high poverty area on an Indian Reservation. Funding is scarce and highly dependent on federal impact aid. Test scores are low and dropout rates are high. We are labeled by our state as a “failing” school.



This is not an easy place to teach, by any means.


And yet, I’ve come to realize how blessed I’ve been to teach at White Swan High School.


Yes, working in a school like mine comes with tremendous challenges; challenges that can become incredible opportunities:
  • I teach 3 different science classes (biology, chemistry, physics) and actually taught 4 preps my first year;
  • Attendance is poor and the dropout rate is high;
  • Many of our students come from squalid, toxic or neglectful home environments;
  • Our students’ scores on state standardized assessments are very low; and,
  • We have had 4 principals and 3 superintendents in my 6 years of teaching at White Swan.
Why should all teachers have the opportunity to work in a school like this one?


I understand the depth and importance of the educational reform debate on a visceral level. I have felt first-hand the impact of federal and state funding cuts to our schools as. I have been through 3 school improvement programs in 6 years. I’ve been down that road and back again! From this I have learned to roll with the punches and to get whatever I can from these programs while still advocating for what I so strongly believe in.


I have worked with students that are homeless, orphaned, in and out of treatment, severely handicapped, and those in the early stages of learning English. From this I have learned to treat students as individuals and to explore deep-seated causes of behavior before cracking the whip. This has taught me to differentiate instruction and discipline.


Our budget is limited and fluctuates wildly from year to year (or even within one school year). From this I have learned to be an experienced grant writer with many successful grant proposals under my belt. I have also learned to make do with what I have and to be creative in my planning.


My students do have other school options (private schools) but these come with a cost – one that many of our families are not willing or able to pay. From this I have learned just how very important public schools are to our nation and to our democracy. 


Many of my students would rather be anywhere but school. From this I have learned the incredible importance of building relationships with students. I have also learned how critical student engagement really is to learning.


Many of my students are jaded and downtrodden as learners. They have been repeatedly slapped in the face by a system that is failing them while simultaneously making them feel like they are stupid. From this I have learned that students need the opportunity to explore their interests and passions.


Many of my students feel completely powerless in their home lives. They have precious few resources and limited choices in their lives. Many are in survival mode every day once they leave school. From this I have learned that my students need and deserve to have a real voice in our classroom. I have learned to afford them genuine choices and control over as many aspects of our classroom as possible (bathroom and water breaks, for example).


My students have limited background knowledge. They haven’t traveled, they haven’t experienced a wide variety of things. My students haven’t been taught about the world around them throughout childhood. From this I have learned that I cannot assume anything when it comes to student background knowledge. I have learned that my experiences and personal connections have little meaning to students. I have learned that I must help to provide as much background knowledge as possible at the beginning of every project or unit of study.


Because our professional development has been, at best, underwhelming, I’ve had to seek out opportunities to learn and grow on my own. I’ve participated in a variety of grant-funded programs through the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement). I obtained National Board Certification. I dove into Twitter, blogging, online professional development and more. I’ve read widely of books and magazines dedicated to education. I’ve started to work on my master’s. From this I have learned to chart the course of my own professional development and to continue to be a lifelong learner.


My students are predominately ethnically, culturally, and socio-economically different from myself. 90% of my students are racial minorities. 90% of them qualify for free and reduced lunches. From this I have learned to have high expectations of all students while treating them all with respect. I have also learned to use a wide variety of teaching styles and methods because lecture and drill do not work for my students.


If I were to have worked in a “high quality” school in a suburban area, I would not be half the teacher I am today. I have been forced to critically examine every single instructional decision and pedagogical move I make. I have had to grow, improve, diversify and evolve as a teacher in order to meet the unique challenges I have faced.


Every teacher should be so blessed to have the opportunity to teach in a school like mine. All of our schools and teachers would be better for it.


Photo used under CC license courtesy of Hans Gerwitz