I’ve read a lot of proposals in my time for new schools, new programs, new institutions. They contain many statements about the nature of the new entity that have to be seen as aspirational. In the fortunate instances when these proposals actually come to life, we can sometimes trace the way these aspirations mutate because the circumstances into which they are born are in constant flux. I want to look at the evolution of two cornerstone aspirations that were part of the design for The Urban Teacher Education Program at the University of Chicago (UTEP): that the program would prepare teachers to work in urban schools and that its graduates would see themselves as career classroom teachers, not short termers.
In his book City Schools and The American Dream, Dr. Pedro Noguera points out that in education the word “urban” is code for Black and Brown children and communities. That was the implicit message in naming our program The Urban Teacher Education Program. In fact, initially our definition focused even more narrowly on Black children and predominantly Black schools. Our sponsoring institution, the University of Chicago, is located in a predominantly Black area of this deeply segregated city, and its support for our program was in no small measure an attempt to recognize its need to be of service to the community in which it is embedded. From the beginning our hope was that our graduates would take positions in Black schools, preferably those in Southside communities in close proximity to the University. That outcome would feel like the fulfillment of our mission. Whenever a graduate took a job outside that narrowly defined orbit, I was disappointed.
In UTEP’s early years, we were in approximate range of our target, but as the years went on and new cohorts cycled through the program that picture began to change for a variety of reasons. First, the Black population began to shrink, leading to the infamous closing of 50 schools, almost all of them serving Black communities, during Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration. Since UTEP’s inception more than 20% of Chicago’s Black community has evaporated. There simply were fewer jobs in Black schools. Then there was a period of belt-tightening in CPS which resulted in a hiring freeze. Jobs were harder to come by, so graduates began to range around more widely for positions. The growth in the system was concentrated in the Hispanic community and an increasing number of students landed in schools in communities like Pilsen and Little Village. The truth is that we were slow to shift away from the focus on Black students and communities, so our students were stepping into a new world without sufficient knowledge of bilingual education or Hispanic culture. The word was that these schools were “easier” to work in – milder classroom management issues and fewer identity clashes – leaving me with feeling our alums were opting for less challenging situations. Once again, I’m embarrassed to confess that I was disappointed.
Chicago’s North Side is generally thought of as the city’s more affluent, whiter area. But it has also drawn many immigrant groups to its schools. It was also a draw for our students, many of whom moved north themselves after graduation to distance themselves from their student identities rooted in the South Side. A number of them found work in these “immigrant” schools serving children from an incredible array of countries in African, Asia and the Middle East. This seemed even further from our original vision of “urban” teaching. Visiting these schools and talking with our graduates teaching in them was a revelation. The free and reduced lunch statistics in many of these schools tracked closely with predominantly Black South Side schools, generally in the 90%+ range. Another redefining of the term “urban” was in order. What could be more urban than the influx of immigrant populations, struggling to get a foothold in a place that seemed to offer more hope for advancement than their home countries; schools were a critical piece of that puzzle.
Another focus of the UTEP program was the preparation of teachers who would be life-long fixtures in their classrooms, while also assuming critical roles of leadership in their schools. This goal differed from that of Teach for America (TFA). Occasionally, TFA’s recruits continued on in the classroom but most left after two years, as was their intention all along, for other professional careers. As it turns out, although a large percentage of our graduates continue in the classroom, those who don’t tend to remain in fields close to education as coaches, school administrators, employees of education-related non-profits academic fields relating to teacher education.
Like TFA, our program attracted ambitious and intellectually able candidates. The unfortunate thing about urban schools is that few have environments which are intellectually stimulating, and which foster intellectual growth. Some teachers compensate for that lack by finding outside groups or organizations in special areas like writing or math that provide the nourishment lacking in their own buildings. Others connect with the politics of education through union activities or other activist organizations. Still others enroll in courses or professional development activities that fit into their continuing classroom responsibilities.
However, for some of our alums, none of these options suffice and they leave the classroom to pursue one of the options I mentioned earlier. In recent months I’ve had the honor of attending remotely the dissertation defenses of three graduates of the program. Every one of them is continuing to work in an education-related field like teacher education. There was a time when I saw every departure from the classroom as a defection but I’m much more inclined now to see anyone whose work is contributing to the betterment of students and teachers as continuing to enact the original vision of the program.
Life is messy and complicated, not easily contained in a statement of a program’s aspirations that has not been tested by time. People get married, they move, their interests evolve, they outgrow their situations, and I, in turn, have had to grow and broaden my definitions of the success of our original plans for our program. I honor the people who continue their work in the classroom, as well as those who are making their contributions in other ways. What they have learned as teachers will surely leave a mark on the quality of their next moves. At the risk of sounding like the principal at a graduation ceremony, I truly mean: All of you – keep doing what you’re doing. Wherever you are, you’re making a difference.