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Reporter Reflects on Year as a Teacher

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Ive come to think that only a radical change can address the deep-seated problems in our poor, inner city schools, says Christina Asquith, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who spent a year teaching in a Philadelphia middle school. Asquith, who was hired as an emergency certificated teacher, recounts her struggles as a teacher -- and her insights -- in this Education World interview.

Christina Asquith
Christina Asquith

Christina Asquith, who left her job as an education reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer to teach in a Philadelphia middle school, recently completed a book about her experiences. She has also written a first-person account of the year she spent teaching called "A Real Education," which appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Asquith, who returned to journalism after a year, now is working with her sister on a book called The 10 Golden Rules to Surviving Your First Year Teaching. Asquith lives in New York City and can be reached at [email protected].

Education World:What if any training did you receive before becoming a middle school teacher? Are you still teaching? If so, where?

Christina Asquith: I was completely unprepared. I was an emergency certificated teacher and didnt have any experience or training in education. The school district required me to take night classes at a university towards my education degree, but classes didnt start until late September. By then, my classroom was in chaos. When I started teaching I didnt know what a lesson plan was. I had never written on a chalkboard. My school gave me only one morning of training in early September, and then showed me the classroom door. At first, I didnt have books, or anyone to turn to for help. My mentor was too busy with her own classroom to spend any real time with me. Employees at McDonalds are given more training than the school district gave myself and the other new teachers.

At night, I taught myself. I pored over The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong, and leaned on my sister, who is a teacher, for help. In my prep period, I observed other teachers. It took me until November to get my class under control, and until February to really start teaching.

EW: In your article A Real Education, you talk about the complacency toward the status quo in education that exists within school administrations and newsrooms. How would you suggest changing attitudes in both places?

Asquith: Complacency is a common symptom of most monopolies and the school system is a prime example. Because parents are forced to send their children and tax dollars to schools each year, there is little incentive or reward for anyone interested in making a difference. In fact, many veteran teachers at my school looked down at a new teacher trying to go the extra mile. A culture of cynicism had taken root because no one had the power to make a difference, and it held everyone down. Ive come to think that only a radical change -- not just more money -- can address the deep-seated problems in our poor, inner city schools. Along those lines, I support vouchers because they give power to the consumer; that is, the parent, not the school system.

News reporters do have the power to make a difference. Newspapers and magazines are still strong engines for investigative journalism and reporters [covering everything] from Afghanistan to Enron break incredible stories everyday. For some reason, U.S. schools have fallen off the editorial radar. I can only suspect its because editors are fatigued with the schools are failing story. Maybe they think that poverty and bad kids are the real problem. Thats dead wrong. I grew up in New York City and remember people felt crime and drugs were inextricable problems of the streets in the 1980s. Well, [former] Mayor Giuliani and the New York Police Department spun those old theories on their heads with creative ideas, good leadership, and energy. The same change is possible with schools. We really have to believe that.

EW: Based on your experience as a teacher, what type of training or knowledge would help education reporters focus on the serious issues affecting schools?

Asquith:With the [teacher] shortage, most reporters could teach for a year. But barring such a major change, reporters should just focus on the ABCs of good investigative journalism -- talk to teachers and students, raise questions, keep a fresh eye. It just takes one ambitious reporter to ask, for example, is the federally-funded, million-dollar school lunch program acceptable? In my school, there was not a fruit or vegetable in sight. Every day, children ate a hardened meat patty or fried chicken nuggets with air pockets, or a greasy slice of pizza with a sugary snack. Theres something wrong with that.

Ive also seen newspapers get more directly involved with their schools. The Baltimore Sunonce started a literacy program in which reporters volunteered at schools once a week teaching reading. Bringing reporters closer to the students and teachers helps them understand what really goes on in schools. Teachers also should take the time to talk with reporters and educate them on the issues.

EW: What are some of the characteristics of the effective teachers you met while teaching in Philadelphia? What type of support did they get from administrators?

Asquith:The most effective teacher was 23 years old. He was highly organized, and his lessons were fun and creative. He posted all his rules and was very demanding. He had a duck pond in his room, stars on the ceilings, and an entire computer lab donated from his alma mater, Villanova University. He was a natural talent, and the students loved him. He did not, however, get along with most of the other teachers. He was against the union, and although he was friendly, he chose not to spend much time socializing. I think he isolated himself because he didnt want to let the little things slide like most of the rest of the teachers. For example, in the last week of school, when most teachers just played movies in class, he gave his students an exam in every subject. His standards were much higher than what was expected. The administration supported him. He stayed at the school for four years. During this time, he watched three principals come and go. Each one approved all his requests for supplies and money, but they didnt challenge him or teach him anything. He was never rewarded. I think he just got bored.

EW: What type of feedback to your article and book have you been getting from education and journalistic circles?

Asquith: Ive received hundreds of e-mails, more than for any other article Ive written. It made me realize that there is an appetite for education stories. Journalists have told me they are frustrated because they want to cover the schools more effectively, but are spread too thin or dont know how to break through the [schools] public relations departments. They also dont get enough backing from their editors, who view schools as a soft beat. Teachers have thanked me for writing about how tough the first year really is. To my surprise, right-wing groups have embraced the article. I saw several pro-privatization, pro-Republican groups post it on their Websites. I certainly never intended for it to support a conservative agenda. But they used it as evidence for the need for radical reform.

EW:How should newspaper editors address criticism from educators that certain investigative stories "bash" schools and only make educators' jobs harder?

Asquith: Editors should treat it as they treat criticism from any other area -- with a degree of skepticism. Rather than back down, they could engage in a frank public discussion about changes needed in schools. Newspapers can invite school officials in for roundtable discussions with reporters. They can offer to print question-and-answer [interviews] with school people on the editorial pages. They can host public forums in the way they host political debates. They can encourage school officials to write op-ed pieces.

The objective should be to hold school officials accountable. I agree that in some cases newspapers can be too critical. In the Pennsylvania suburban districts I wrote about for the Inquirer, I felt sorry for the superintendent, who seemed to be so micromanaged by the community and constantly under the spotlight that he eventually left. Reporters do have a responsibility to give a balanced impression of the positives and the negatives in a school. For example, despite my schools ills, there was a large number of amazing teachers, and I acknowledge them.

But in a school system thats failing and dangerous, an accurate portrayal is going to be mostly critical. Newspaper reporters do try to seek out the positive. A typical story around graduation time is a profile of the one inner city girl who beat the odds to go to an Ivy League college. Thats nice, but remember than 100 of her classmates are on the street without an education. Thats a more important story. The criticism does seem harsh -- but were dealing with a real emergency here and masking the problem with more positive and uplifting stories is doing a disservice to the students. To ignore the problems of our schools is as bad as being part of them. Negative publicity may hurt administrators, but for students and parents trapped in a failing system, its better than no publicity.

This e-interview with Christina Asquith is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.