Teaches Ninth-Graders : Education Professor Tests Mettle in Inner-City School
The ninth-graders in Mimi Warshaw’s fourth-period class at Markham Junior High School in Watts took no time at all to respond to a potentially tricky question:
Do teachers have a tough job?
“Noooooooo,” 18 voices rang out in unison before dissolving into giggles.
If you asked Warshaw, however, the answer would be a resounding yes--though for reasons her wards were not aware of.
Warshaw, 53, had not taught in a public school for 13 years before she joined Markham’s faculty last September.
She was associate dean of the School of Education at California State University, Dominguez Hills, for three years. Before that, she trained teachers in her position as a professor of teaching methods. And before that, she taught school in San Marino and Hermosa Beach--a long way from the realities of an inner-city school like Markham.
Last spring she decided she was not cut out to be an administrator and wanted to go back to teaching teachers again. To prepare for the change, she came up with a novel plan: She would take a one-year assignment in a public school and find out if her theories about teaching held up.
“And I decided that if I was going to do this, I might as well do it right and teach in the inner city,” she said, noting that many of the university’s teacher candidates go on to jobs in hard-to-staff inner-city schools.
She offered her services to Markham, a low-achieving, predominantly black school in one of the poorest communities in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Her boss, School of Education Dean George Walker, thought it was a “marvelous idea.” So did Associate Supt. Sidney Thompson, who approved the plan and arranged for a teacher from Fleming Junior High School in Lomita to take over Warshaw’s duties at the university.
Nine months later, Warshaw said she is wiser, more tolerant and exhausted.
“University teaching is a piece of cake compared to what the inner-city teacher goes through,” she said. “It humbles you to do this, and that’s been very good.”
Although it was not a consideration at the time, Warshaw’s stint at Markham has given her a leg up on her colleagues. This fall, the state Department of Education will enact a new regulation requiring all professors of teaching methodology to practice what they preach and teach in a public school periodically.
Specifically, it will require that once every three years, methodology professors will devote the amount of time they would spend preparing for and teaching one university course to “direct instructional interaction” in a public school.
‘Back Into the Reality’
“The idea is to get them back into the reality of children and the classroom,” said John Masla of the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing, the regulatory agency responsible for writing the new regulation. It was proposed two years ago in the education reform plan of Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig.
Although there is no research showing that the experience will directly benefit the professors’ teacher trainees, Masla said, “It’s common sense that something will be gained if the professor goes back (to the classroom) to see what’s what.”
According to Warshaw, the advantages are undeniable.
“The complaint has always been that we’re in an ivory tower and out of touch, that we only deal with ideals and forget about realities,” the university professor said.
“Well, this experience really brought it home to me. I struggled. I really struggled (at Markham). With all my experience, I was exhausted. It’s a strain to find out what works and what you need to do . . . just overwhelming. I had forgotten about all that.”
Warshaw taught elementary and junior high school for eight years in the 1960s. For the most part, her students were white and came from middle- to upper-class backgrounds.
Poor Scores on Tests
In contrast, many of Markham’s 1,025 students are drawn from four housing projects in Watts, and about 18% are absent on any given day. Teachers and administrators have to deal with many problems associated with poverty, such as the low-achievement levels reflected by the school’s poor scores on standardized tests.
“There are more demands in an inner-city school,” Markham Principal Beverly J. Martin said. That is why he was surprised that Warshaw chose Markham instead of a school in a middle-class area that might offer an easier assignment.
“Middle-class homes provide more assistance to students,” Martin said. Middle-class children “get additional enrichment experiences, such as travel, exposure to different kinds of people, going to the library. This is generally not true in the inner-city school. The teacher in the inner city has to spend more time providing those things. So, it is more demanding.”
“Most of us think we are going to go into a school and deal with kids who are like us,” she said. “But there is a problem with the middle-class teacher--which most of us are--going in with middle-class expectations.” She quickly discovered that Markham students were different in a number of ways.
“Like that,” Warshaw said, pointing out a couple of kids who were outside grabbing at each other at the end of a recess and others who were slamming shut classroom windows. “These kids are noisier, they’re boisterous and they’re aggressive--all these things we middle-class people are not used to. It’s easy to interpret them as being terribly hostile.”
She recalled being stunned during her first month on the job by the reaction she got when she asked a student to sit down and be quiet.
“The kid turned around and said, ‘Nobody tells me what to do.’ As the teacher, you think, ‘Hey, I’m supposed to tell you what to do.’ It took me awhile to learn that they didn’t really mean it. It’s part of a macho, confrontational behavior a lot of them have that to them is just ordinary but to others is just shocking. That was a revelation.”
Until she learned that, Warshaw said, she let a few situations get out of hand.
‘It’s a Tough Job’
“I found myself behaving horribly. (Later) I thought, ‘What am I doing? I’m a university professor. I’m supposed to be the epitome of reason.’ It’s a tough job.”
In other ways, she found her students refreshing.
“They enjoy helping each other and don’t have the competitive behavior middle-class children tend to have. And they’re very open. The other day a kid said, ‘This class is really boring.’ Middle-class kids tend to be much more covert.”
She said her experiences with parents also changed some perceptions.
For instance, when she was advised to call the parent of a child who was having a problem, “I thought, ‘Sure.’ I thought (these parents) didn’t care,” she said. “But they care a lot. They want to know and are very concerned. That was a real surprise.”
Warshaw plans to spend the next several months evaluating her experiences and may write a book about them. But, she said, she knows of one thing she definitely will do differently when she returns to university teaching next spring: She will stress flexibility.
“We put a lot of emphasis on planning. We always say plan, have continuity, tie into what happened yesterday. But the reality,” she said, “is you’re doing a lot of re-teaching, repeating and a lot of quickly doing something you didn’t think you would have to do. Or, there’s an assembly or a third of your class is absent, and there go the plans.” Teaching, she added, “takes a lot more flexibility than what we lead people to believe.”
Principal Martin said he thought Warshaw’s stint at Markham was successful. “Markham got a good teacher and good instruction,” he said. “I would rate her an A-minus.”
“I think I did a good, adequate job,” Warshaw said. But asked if she would consider doing it for another year, she answered as swiftly as her students had when asked if teaching was a tough job: “No, I wouldn’t do it again. I am very happy to go back to university teaching. It’s been an exhausting year.”