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

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

  1. I worked in a school like yours (with the exception of “highly racial diversity”). And it made ALL the difference in my teaching as it was the first school I started teaching at.
    The lessons learned are similar and so I feel this post deeply resonates with me.
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. This was so beautifully written and thought-provoking. I agree that I enjoy the “pressure” of thriving in a challenging environment. It would be nice for my school to have more money, but I am proud of the achievements we make without it.

  3. As a relief/substitute teacher, here in Perth, Western Australia, I’ve worked in some pretty tough schools.

    Yet, my experiences in these schools have shaped me as a new educator, equipping me with the skills, the mindset, and the empathy which I take with me into my teaching career.

    In these schools, I learnt that teaching comes down to positive relationships. As teachers, we can either make our classrooms safe, happy environments for our students; or we can reinforce the negativity and disadvantage they bring from home.

    We are the difference, and this is why I am grateful that life gave me the opportunity to work in these “failing”, tough environments – they’ve helped make me a better teacher.

  4. Tyler, I think you speak perfectly to my own experiences as well. I’ve had to learn a lot of these same lessons. However, I think this is true for any school. Each school is its own set of challenges and you build strengths to fit that. Being in a failing school certainly gives us unique strengths, but not any more unique than if we taught in a middle class school or at Exeter.

    I’ve never had to learn to handle racial and class tensions because, although people might call our schools “diverse” it’s really not. Everyone is poor and everyone is, in my case, Hispanic. I’ve never had to handle parental politics. I don’t struggle with issues of tech integration because we don’t have any tech. I’ve never had to mentor an Intel sci fair finalist. I don’t get 20 phone calls and emails the minute grades are posted.

    To address the specific things you’ve learned, I’d go farther and say every teacher can learn these exact same things in their own environment. Certainly not every teacher in a failing school learns the same lessons as you have, but I’m going to assume you’d have learned the same things about respect and choice in a high SES school.

    tl:dr – I agree that these are valuable lessons, but I don’t think you need to teach at a failing school to learn them.

  5. @Cristina – These are lessons that can never be unlearned and will stay with us forever. We are changed by the experience and better for it.

  6. @Miss K – Thanks for the kind words. I agree, we have to cherish the victories we attain in spite of our limited resources. Those victories may not be reflected in test scores but they are significant nonetheless!

  7. @Michael – The 3 “Ls” of real estate are Location, Location, Location.

    The 3 “Rs” of working in a high poverty school are relationships, Relationships, Relationships!

  8. @Jason Buell – You are absolutely right that every school situation is unique with it’s own lessons to teach to those of us who strive for growth.

    I also fully agree that other schools have challenges that I do not have to deal with in my context. The “challenges” that come with working in a school in an affluent community are very real for teachers (helicopter parents, community politics, college prep pressures).

    There are also many lessons that I could learn from a large urban school that would be very different than those that I have learned in a small rural school.


    However, I disagree that the lessons that I describe can be truly learned in a high SES school. I can almost guarantee that, if I taught in a school in an affluent area, I would not truly understand the battle currently being waged in education.

    I might support NCLB out of a misguided sense that it can help failing schools.

    I might be for teacher merit pay based on test scores because it would directly benefit me.

    I would not feel the critical importance of relationships so deeply as I now do; not because I didn’t care about students before, but rather because I wouldn’t see the link between relationships and attendance.

    I don’t think I’d have been so open to a new world of pedagogy if I worked in a high-SES school. The parental and systemic pressures would have likely caused me to be a lecture, homework, test, repeat style of teacher. I would have likely continued to rely on grades as a motivator and believe in them as an indicator of rigor.

    Many of the lessons I say I have learned in my time at White Swan are things I already “knew” from my pre-service training.

    The difference is that I now “feel” these lessons to my core. I have learned these lessons on a tacit level that is hard to elaborate but very real. I have lived them.

  9. @Tyler – well said, but I still respectfully disagree. The biggest crusader I personally know is David Cohen. http://accomplishedcaliforniateachers.wordpress.com/ His school is next to Stanford and is as affluent as they come. Nobody I know does more to defend teachers.

    I don’t think you value relationships because of its value with attendance. It’s because they’re kids, and all kids (and all people) deserve strong and meaningful relationships. You might have found a different justification, but you’d have developed that same deeply felt passion with kids who were forced to come to school. I’m sure any good educator you know who teaches at a high SES school has developed true relationships with students. And some educators will never, regardless of the SES of their school.

    This though I definitely disagree with. I think you’re painting too broad a stroke. You can say the same thing about low SES schools. We’ve got intense pressure to teach to the test and get those scores up. Scripted curriculums don’t exist in high SES schools. John Burk, Frank Noschese, Kelly O’Shea all teach wealthy kids and push pedagogy and grading as far as anyone I know. You have been given freedom to change things, but that’s not due to your school’s low SES. That’s because your school values you and respects your teaching. This can and does happen at low and high SES schools.

    In the end, I think you’re selling yourself short. I believe you’d feel the same passion and push the same limits regardless of the demographics of your school.

  10. @Jason – I see what you are saying. I agree that there are examples of great teacher out there who are pushing the pedagogical envelope in a variety of schools, regardless of SES.

    I’m certainly not downgrading the great work that those people are doing. In fact, I’m impressed by their entrepreneurial spirit in a totally different context – one that doesn’t necessarily force us to ditch the status quo.

    Of course I would value relationships regardless. I’m just not sure I would see how critical those relationships can be for keeping kids in school and on track to graduation.

    I feel that the “selective pressure” of teaching in a low-SES school has forced me to evolve or die the slow death of the worksheet warriors and the packet masters.

    You may be right, I may be selling myself short. I’m sure I would have learned many of the same lessons no matter where I worked. I’m just not sure if I would have learned them the same way.

    Thanks again for adding a divergent perspective to the conversation. You’ve pushed my thinking in a different direction and I truly value that.

  11. I was assigned to read you blog for my EDM310 assignment. I graduated from a school similar to this one. I graduated from Escambia County High School in Atmore, AL in 2007. The four years i attend I had two different priniciples and within two years after I left they had 2 to 3 more principles. We never could keep a teacher for long they were either fired for not doing their jobs or quit because students did not care. We did have several good teachers to stay and I was grateful for that. One of our problems was we weren’t taught about anything besides the Alabama High School Graduation Exam and when i attended Jefferson Davis Community College one of my professor would go on and on about it. We have buildings that need to be repaired due to storms and age. There was an experimental solar power wing that was built, but did not work. Now that building has classrooms with thin walls and no doors and this is a huge problem. We need more teach and principles like you who care and see that changes do need to be done. Teachers like you keep schools like ours running and give some of us a future to look forward to and I want to thank you for that.

  12. Hi Tyler,

    I teach in a school very much dominated by the worksheet warriors and pay masters. I won’t call it all bad. The students believe strongly in education as a great leveller and are very motivated. Attendance is high and kids want to do well.

    Teachers do get more bonuses when their kids do well in state exams, and if you are not careful, you can be duped that you are doing well when they get high scores,but deep down we know they may not be great learners.

    I have thought of aspiring to be a policy maker but after a while realize I want to do that w the classes I teach. Right now I want to push for scientific reasoning in my classes while still maintaining my test scores. Time will tell if I succeed.

  13. Hello again!

    Sorry about that. Anyway, I am a student at the University of South Alabama. I am also in EDM 310. This class has really broadened my opinions and knowledge about teaching. Your school reminds me of one of my latest blog assignments. We had to blog about technology and its importance in the classroom. I talked about my high school, EHS, quite a bit. EHS was literally blown away by an EF4 tornado. Because of this, my school had very little resources. The teachers pulled through and gave me an amazing education that I would not have learned in a regular school. Sometimes it takes an extraordinary situation to bring out your best.


  14. I think your teaching situation is amazing. I congratulate you on being strong enough to handle a school that has limited resources and is considered “failing”. I believe that the best teachers come from schools that are considered “failing” because you truly have to use your skills, and not just resources. You, as a teacher, are the REAL resource. You are an inspiration to all aspiring teachers. I truly appreciate your blog and hopefully you will visit mine. Bretta Wright EDM 310 Class Blog

  15. Mary,

    No problem! Thanks for your comments. Students certainly deserve our best, regardless of the situation. That being said, the situation often influences our ability to do our job as well as we’d like!

  16. Brett,

    I don’t know that it is amazing – or necessarily unique. That being said, I hoped to share my feelings about the issue of labeling schools as “failing” while also highlighting the fact that a teacher can learn a lot from working in challenging circumstances.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>