SCHOOL DOORS open again today for the 180-day year in Boston. My former colleagues go back to classrooms without enough desks, paper, and textbooks to accommodate all their students. Many will take money out of their salary to purchase these items. For many Boston families, paying for such simple supplies as pens, paper, notebooks, and binders can become a large burden. Some schools with outside funding, such as those paired with the Gates Foundation, are fortunate in their ability to afford extra materials and budgeting per student. Many schools survive on almost no material supplies whatsoever.
Last year I taught at Another Course to College, a pilot high school in Brighton and one of the better-equipped schools in the Boston system. Despite our amazing staff, wonderful students, and comparatively better stock of classroom materials, we still lacked some basic necessities. Our chemistry teacher did not have a working lab space, so he had to bring his students to a lab in another school once a week. Student desks could not always accommodate the size of some of our students, due to the increasing childhood obesity problem. My students would regularly show up to school without a pen or a notebook.
Material shortcomings are just the beginning of what many Boston public schools lack. While lab space and up-to-date textbooks are major shortages teachers have to overcome, a dearth of non-academic classes is also hindering teachers' ability to educate students. While many school systems have extended the school day, or are contemplating doing so, the focus is almost always academically based. Whatever happened to recess?
Students in Boston public have little opportunity to experience what many of us had as children: classes in art, gym, and music. These have been struck from the curriculum of many Boston middle and high schools, replaced by extended or additional academic classes. Life skills and vocational classes have been tossed out in the name of closing the achievement gap.
This also means teachers are responsible for more classes, or are working longer days, in an attempt to bring their students up to a state-determined standard. In my school last year, there was no gym teacher, so some teachers took it upon themselves to teach it anyway. With almost no athletic equipment available, they ended up using a nearby park.
Meanwhile, teachers are seeing less preparation time per class, as well as increased pressure for student performance on the state's MCAS tests. Teachers need a greater amount of time to interact with each other, and with their communities, in order to meet the ever-increasing demands on their time and on their students. Especially in inner-city schools, reaching out to the community and having interaction with other teachers can save a teacher from early burnout or isolation. In my experience, the MCAS test drives teachers away from one another and into a philosophy of "teaching to the test," which limits them both in the classroom and out of it.
Teachers need the ability to run their own classrooms. We expect so much from students these days, but we expect even more from teachers without giving them the resources to meet these demands. How can a teacher be expected to get a student through a year of history if the student has come to hate school, is uninspired, and is forced to spend hours on textbook exercises and state-mandated practice tests?
Last year my most successful lessons were the ones where students got personally involved, whether it was building a Native American longhouse out of pretzel sticks, or debating the leadership abilities of Thomas Jefferson. Students need stimulation outside of reading and writing, and teachers need the flexibility to lead their classrooms according to their students' abilities and interests. Then perhaps we can make school a place for both education and enjoyment.
Lily Rayman-Read is a graduate of the Harvard Teacher Education Program, and former student teacher at Another Course to College in Brighton.