Teaching in Underprivileged Schools

Photo courtesy of SXC

Photo courtesy of SXC

Haris Durrani ’11
Opinions Editor

Photo courtesy of SXC

The children were fighting again.

Social Studies teacher Daniel Heaphy and a fellow middle school teacher each wrapped a student in their arms and pulled back. The student in Heaphy’s grasp used a free hand to push a desk frantically toward his opponent.

Soon the two boys stopped squirming.

“Unfortunately, I wasn’t doing much teaching. [There was] a lot of focus on management,” Heaphy recalled. “They have so much on their plate.”

He mentioned family, drug, and violence problems which plague children in underprivileged areas.

His first year, the Hartford Middle School had no copy machine until January.

Still Heaphy smiled as he remembered his time there. He said he learned kids “are a lot more similar than different.”

On a field trip, students saw a teenager with spiked hair and spiked bracelets.

“Mr. Heaphy, why is his hair so high?” they asked.

Heaphy grinned as he remembered explaining the teen was “just a skater kid.”

But because of the difficulties of managing the middle schoolers, every achievement was a triumph.

“When you had a small teaching victory it was: ‘YES!’ ” Heaphy said. “There were lots of little teaching victories.”

While Heaphy liked the “Robin Hood feeling” of teaching in an underprivileged area, he moved to Staples this year because he “got burned” by the stress.

However, Heaphy is not the only teacher at Staples who has taught in a less privileged school.

Megan Scheck, another teacher new to Staples, taught English for nine years in an underprivileged high school in Washington State, and one year in an inner city high school in Connecticut.

When Scheck entered the Washington State school, there were bullet holes in the walls and “tumbleweeds” of garbage in the hallways. Teachers had to buy supplies, and the availability of school books was low. 30 percent of her students would not turn in their homework, and 40 percent of her freshmen failed class.

She said the experience “gave me a totally different appreciation for how hard it is to get what you want in life.”

After seeing students entering the workforce right after high school or writing college essays in homeless shelters, Scheck realized how hard they must fight to achieve their goals.

“I lost my sense of entitlement,” she said.

Scheck described teaching at Staples as “a very strange experience.” Although she grew up in a “town like Westport,” she said she went through college and work in a much different racial backdrop.

“Every day here is like a surprise,” Scheck said. “Staples is overwhelmingly homogeneous… I’m not a minority. I’m not used to being the only white person in the room.”

Caroline James, a Staples math teacher, also taught in an inner city Bridgeport middle school.

Since it was her first year teaching, the stressful environment made her question whether she wanted to continue the profession.

Getting photocopies was a daily hassle.

Frequently a student would not be in class because he or she was arrested the night before—but the number of students always rose to the maximum class size of 30.

Only four parents showed up for Back to School Night.

Many students had been held back. “ ‘Student X’ HAS to pass this year,” James would be told at teacher meetings.

“It was very sad,” she said.

And the fights. James escorted students to the cafeteria and even bathrooms. They’d regularly exit bathrooms with bloody noses.

On James’ last day, a student smashed her car window.

Once, a knifing occurred under the nose of an inattentive substitute while James was absent.

“I was terrified,” James said.

Moving to Staples was a relief. Administrators dealt quickly with every minor discipline issue, and James received strong support from her colleagues—something she had not received in Bridgeport.

“The best day was so different from Staples,” James said. “The best day at Bridgeport was no fights and photocopies [made].”