Myth of hero teacher who swoops in and saves children from poverty, racism and violence

Ed Boland’s gritty new memoir about teaching in a tough New York City school will not put him on a pedestal alongside classroom legends Jaime Escalante (“Stand and Deliver”), Erin Gruwell (“Freedom Writers”), or LouAnne Johnson (“Dangerous Minds”).

Because Boland’s book, “The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School,” is not about a teacher who defies the odds and inspires scholarship amid hardship. The book, which came out yesterday, is a far more common story, the well-intended, bright novice teacher driven from the classroom because of unrelenting challenges. Within five years of starting, 68 percent of teachers in high poverty New York City schools flee their jobs.

Former teacher Ed Boland writes about his year in a tough New York City school.

Ex teacher Ed Boland is now a senior administrator at an educational access program, which places gifted students of color at leading private schools.

“If I wasn’t tough or committed enough, I have a lot of company,” explained Boland, 51, who gave up his 20-year career as an education nonprofit executive and much higher salary to earn a master’s degree in education in 2006 and teach at a small Lower East Side of Manhattan school. Despite experience teaching English in China and predictions by his professors and student-teaching mentors that he would be a classroom star, he lasted a year before returning to the nonprofit.

It proved to be a year in which the best practices of education ran headlong into the raw realities of gangs, homelessness, violence, teen pregnancy and drugs.

“The hero teacher myth helps us sleep a night — we think if we just get good and dedicated teachers, they are really going to turn it all around. So much of the rhetoric in schools is that we can do this, but the responsibility has to be on a broader realm than just principals and teachers,” he said in a telephone interview from New York.

The fantasy that teachers can piece together even the most broken of children prevents us from attacking the real root of school failure, childhood poverty, said Boland, a former admissions officer at his alma mater, Fordham, and later at Yale. He makes the point in his book by sharing the fractured lives of his students.

Nee-cole is tutored by her homeless and eccentric mother on the subway. Yvette creates a barricade of desks around her to isolate from her classmates and their taunts about her prostitution past. The father of class bully Jesus Alvarez pledges to punish his son’s transgressions but Boland witnesses him egging on his son in a street fight. Freddy cajoles Boland into letting him out of class to take his brother’s once-a-week call from prison; later Boland learns Freddy is making calls for his brother’s drug ring. Byron, a Jamaican native, is so ahead of his peers that he bombards Boland with questions like, “Why is Sweden so well suited to socialism?” As brilliant as he is, Byron ends up selling meat pies in Florida because he is undocumented.

Boland’s book is sparking debate and discussion in the media. After the New York Post featured it, a teacher still in the classroom wrote a rebuttal, saying,

It seemed as if Mr. Boland watched “Dangerous Minds” for the first time and decided to play hero to needy kids with no real classroom-management strategies at his disposal. Upon the completion of his tenure as a teacher, it seems as if he intended to release this memoir as an obvious money grab, then sit around with his buddies and tell them stories about how he (as Matt Damon so eloquently put it in “Good Will Hunting”) “went slummin’, too, once.”

If Mr. Boland truly wanted to change the lives of his students, why throw in the towel after one year and proceed to write a book about it?

Boland decided to quit when he saw the colleague he admired most, a wunderkind from Harvard, break down after her class averaged 54 on the state world history exam. This was the veteran teacher whose dedication, creativity and resourcefulness had motivated Boland to hang in there. And now she was defeated by the poverty, broken families and violence that marked her students’ daily lives. All but two of the 32 teachers at his high school eventually left the school or the profession.

He hesitates when asked what equips some teachers to survive such harrowing circumstances. “I call it the special sauce of teaching,” he said. “There was the math teacher down the hall, a 5-foot blond who managed to control kids in a very clear way. It is not just one secret sauce — it can be a pedagogy of love where the teacher oozes such affection for the kids they will do anything for her. It can be the clear disciplinarian.”

Had he stayed longer, Boland agrees he may have come up with his own sauce recipe. “I kept hearing different advice from different people and kept going from desperate move to desperate move.”

While his experiences shook Boland’s assumptions about effective teaching, he gained an understanding of effective discipline; it must be consistent from the first day, he said. Disruptive kids ought to be removed from the classroom, but worked with rather than warehoused. He believes “second chance” schools — alternative programs that provide personalized instruction along with intense counseling — hold promise.

Boland stresses his book is not a how-to for new teachers since he never figured out how to himself. “Anyone who reads this book would be the sadder but wiser. I wish someone had told me it was going to be tough and celebrate every victory you have because so much of what is in front of you is outside your control. “

Reader Comments 0

33 comments
Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

What?!   You mean that LaShanaqueshia and Trayvontarious didn't sit in rapt attention as you regaled them with tales of black invention myths?  LOL

According to some, the school in question was the Henry Street School for International Studies,  a 87% hispanic/black school.  Yep, who didn't see that one coming?....

Of course, Boland did make a couple of astute observations:  (1) effective discipline must be consistent from the first day and (2) disruptive kids ought to be removed from the classroom.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

This all reminds me strongly of the Teach For America program, with its bright, idealistic teachers from excellent educational backgrounds who swoop into a depressed school system to pour their energies into teaching its borderline students...and typically leave after 2-3 years.

Starik
Starik

@OriginalProf The TFA teachers should be teaching the best students, not be limited to teaching the worst. We need to improve the teaching in the schools at all levels.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

"And now she (experienced teacher) was defeated by the poverty, broken families and violence that marked her students’ daily lives."

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Again, I would ask readers to lend their support of the Democratic Caucus Educational Plan in Georgia's legislature which is described as a community-based school model.  The educational advancement of students, especially of those students who live in this type of dysfunctional environment, must be approached by targeting improvement throughout the entire community, not simply by targeting instructional goals within the walls of the school building.  This means incorporating additional medical personnel, social workers, tutors, psychological counselors within the communities to function as satellites to the school's programs. Economic development of the community should also be a goal.  Legislators, you must invest resources in these communities to make significant differences in the schools which are part of these communities.

Carlos_Castillo
Carlos_Castillo

And into similar school environments in Georgia marches the state to pay teachers more if their "students" do better in standardized tests.


The most probable unintended consequence to this will be faculties united to get classroom troublemakers out of their schools -- 2/3rds of whom will be male.  The results for those left in school will improve, but will those tossed out become feral and cost society more in the longer run?


Probably, it would be better to go directly to ramping up resources available to schools in tough, poor areas, now.


And we ought to be thinking about what to do with "underperforming"  parents.

JeffCriswell
JeffCriswell

Ha, I did several weeks as a substitute teacher in an urban setting and there is no way I'd ever go back. Kids were utterly disrespectful to me, kids fought each other in the class, just chaotic in a way that you'd have to witness to understand. Those schools are, from what I can tell, beyond repair. If you want to see tomorrow's inmates, or welfare recipients, go to one of these schools today. For whatever reason, many of these kids simply don't care, unaware that the bill will come due for their indifference. 

Beach Bound2020
Beach Bound2020

I'm not certain LuAnne Johnson is a hero teacher. She did amazing work, but I believe she left the profession after two years. Books like Boland's etc. always leave me torn.  I credit these educators for being brave enough to tell the truth. I get angry at them for their possible use of hyperbole, which could actually be just perception as they are so new to the profession, and I wonder why they do not donate the money from their books back to the schools that so desperately need them? Kudos to Ron Clark who did just that!


But feelings aside, what this book does potentially do is paint a picture of the bitter reality of many public schools and foretell a situation of dire need of dedicated educators who have support systems in place to assist them in tackling the academic needs of America's most vulnerable children.  This has not yet happened in so many places and I fear that this book will hardly be the clarion call for things to change.  Just so sad...

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@Beach Bound2020 Erin Gruwell, the Freedom Writer teacher, also left the classroom after four years to become a Distinguished Teacher in Residence at California State University, Long Beach.

 Gruwell later went on to start the Freedom Writers Foundation. Apparently, these teachers get a lot of offers to do other things.

Beach Bound2020
Beach Bound2020

@Wascatlady I have read most of Ms. Johnson's books and I respect her, but she only taught in a traditional school for a few years. She is a prolific writer and no doubt a talent in education, but she spent little time in the trenches of the daily grind so many educators of children of poverty do.

Legong
Legong

Is Boland really unaware that inner-city charter schools run by organizations such as KIPP do have success?

Or is he perhaps only out to sell a book that repeats the same myths and canards the teachers' unions continually flog?

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@Legong Actually, he is well aware of KIPP through his nearly 30 years with Project Advance, the nonprofit that finds promising poor minority students in New York and puts them through a 14-month academic boot camp to prepare them to enroll at top private and prep schools and then Ivy League colleges. More Project Advance students have gone on to earn degrees from Harvard than any other university.


This is what Boland said about KIPP to me:


"Hats off to KIPP. They are taking kids who normally have an 8 or 9 percent chance of getting into college and earning a degree and have raised it  to 45 percent. That is a phenomenal outcome. KIPP has non-union teachers; they attract a dedicated group of teachers willing to work longer days and a longer year. They are unified in their mission and have strict discipline standards. They are doing so many things right. Still, at end of the day and, as successful as they are, half of the kids are not getting a four-year degree, which is the ticket to the American economy and the American dream."

Starik
Starik

There's a culture of poverty, increasingly isolated from the mainstream.  We coddle these people, pretending that they are fit to raise children... they are not.  We can't fix this, or won't, because of the "right" of parents, or parent, to raise little street monsters.

teddymonds
teddymonds

@Starik what? First you say there is a culture of poverty isolated from the mainstream. And I agree with that.

But you lost me when you say they are "coddled." I don't know how close you've gotten to any poor people lately, but they aren't coddled. Far from it.

Obviously, the problem includes broken families. 

Starik
Starik

@Wascatlady @teddymonds @Starik We have to exercise "tough love" with these families. Help them if we can, but take their kids away if we can't.  We have whole neighborhoods full of gangs, kids running wild, addicted or alcoholic mammas work as hard as they can to make babies. Black, white and Hispanic. A few Asians. 


True story, I swear: Big Mamma slams the Juvenile Court door open, stomps out of the building, and yells "They take my kids, so I'll go have five more!"

Starik
Starik

@Wascatlady @Starik This is the 21st century, and government and NGOs should be able to build effective, humane, under control orphanages to take these kids in.

Starik
Starik

@Wascatlady @Starik @teddymonds Unfortunately there's the deep-seated belief that children belong to their parent(s) to raise as they see fit - and they do. The criminal justice system typically begins around age 14, when they start becoming less cute and are unleashed on the community at large.

Starik
Starik

@AvgGeorgian @Starik @Wascatlady It would be expensive, but as long as reproduction is seen as a natural right bad parents will be turning their kids into replicas of themselves, or worse.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

I think it could be a useful read for "reality deniers," those whose experience in school was either 30 or more years ago, or, if recent, in a high SES school (unlike the majority of schools in Georgia).


Even those with the highest of ideals and motives must have other things in order to make a difference for students in the most difficult situations.  A colleague of mine called those other things "IT."


And, yeah, many of the problems are mostly due to their families and the choices their families made, but it is what it is: reality.

JustThinking07
JustThinking07

I do not plan to purchase this book. After spending 35 years in the classroom teaching students - I do not feel the need to become sadder and wiser. Mr. Boland does not realize that Teaching is an Art - but first it is a craft. Mr. Boland did not bother to stay in the profession long enough to hone his craft. Enjoy the profits from your little social experiment. Our children need people who are committed.

teddymonds
teddymonds

@JustThinking07 agreed. one year of teaching, no matter where you do it, is only enough to capture a snapshot of experience.

Jordan Kohanim
Jordan Kohanim

Fantastic article! I look forward to purchasing this book.