Palitz: An irresponsible argument

As an English teacher at Wilbur Cross High School and a 2010 graduate of the Yale Masters’ in Urban Education Studies program, I am deeply disturbed by Nate Zelinsky’s criticism of New Haven Promise and its associated sentiments (“An empty promise,” Nov. 10). The stereotypes and clichéd critiques of teachers that Zelinsky offers are unfounded. They do serious damage to the public education system by diminishing the respect given to teachers and discouraging smart, hardworking people, like Yale students, from entering the profession.

When I entered New Haven public schools as a student teacher last year, I am ashamed to admit that I expected to find the kind of teachers Zelinsky describes. What I have found is just the opposite.

I am lucky to work each day with such intelligent, dedicated and supportive colleagues. They take pride in their work, have high expectations for students and themselves, and put in many more hours than their salaries justify. I challenge Zelinsky to shadow any teacher at Wilbur Cross for one week or even one day, and stand by his statement that teachers “do not commit the necessary time and effort needed to do their job well.” I don’t know how early I would have to arrive to be the first teacher in the building — many teachers are there well before 7:00 a.m. And most teachers, including myself, work late into the evening on lesson plans and grades. Wilbur Cross teachers are constantly developing new ways to teach, challenge and inspire their students.

So if teachers aren’t the problem, it must be parents, right? This was my second shameful misconception. Urban parents typically don’t care about their kids’ educations, and do not provide the kind of support students need to be successful, right? This year I have made over 120 phone calls home to parents and have learned how wrong this stereotype is. My students’ parents care deeply about their children’s education. Many have come in to meet with me before work or on their lunch break in order to discuss a child’s progress. Others call or e-mail me to make sure that their children are on track. They are invested in their children’s success and are eager for help. However, my students’ parents do not have power — this city does not hear their voices.

Before I started teaching, I was much more sure of what needed to be done to “fix” urban schools. Now when friends and family ask me, “What’s the most needed reform in urban schools?” I stumble to answer. I cannot put my finger on “the problem” because there is no one singular problem responsible for the widespread low achievement in urban public schools. This problem is far more complex than most people realize, and it certainly won’t be remedied by bashing teachers.

Teaching is a craft that takes time to learn. Great teachers are not born, but developed over time. Programs like Teach for America, though well-meaning, ensure that our nation’s urban students will be taught by a rotating staff of idealistic but inexperienced teachers. Parents in suburban communities would never allow their children to be taught by untrained teachers.

Yale and New Haven need to work together to solve this. Working together does not end with Yale throwing money at a problem. Our public schools are not Yale’s charity case. Yale and New Haven need to genuinely collaborate to desegregate neighborhoods, desegregate schools, and take co-ownership over the economic and social problems the city faces.

So I ask you, Mr. Zelinsky, are you ready to start building a better New Haven?

Akimi Palitz is a 2010 graduate of Yale’s Masters’ in Urban Education Studies program and an English teacher at Wilbur Cross High School.

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