Ex-Teacher Finds Roxbury Schools Frustrating; Says Students See No Relation Between Classes and Life
For a year and a half Carter Lowe taught mathematics at Timilty Junior High School in Roxbury. As one of the few Negroes employed in the Boston school system, he had an unusually close acquaintance with the problems of aggregation in the city schools. Last Friday Lowe resigned his job.
Giving up teaching was difficult for Lowe, despite his students' unwillingness to learn. He has always felt a strong sense of duty to the children of Roxbury, and he carried this earnestness beyond the classroom. Every day at 2:30, when school ended, Lowe went to the Roxbury Boys Club, where he served as a counsellor and monitor on a part-time basis. Usually he stayed at the Club until 6 p.m., although twice he worked there through midnight. This extracurricular association with the Club enabled Lowe to quit teaching without breaking off his work with children. Yesterday he became a full-time employee of the Boys Club, with increased opportunities for guidance counselling.
Lowe is confident that he will be more useful as a counsellor than he was a teacher. At Timilty Junior High he felt that he spent too much time futilely battering against obstacles which he could not overcome.
One source of resistance came from below, in the united hostility of poor youngsters toward the alien intellectualism of mathematics; another kind, the inertia of the school system, sets a ceiling to a teacher's effectiveness from above. On one hand Lowe lamented the unresponsiveness of ninth graders still bafflled by fractions, while on the other he complained about outmoded books and instruction techniques.
At the Boy's Club Lowe can look forward to working closely and informally with children under a sympathetic administration. There he will be able to measure in his charges the positive "behavior change" that he equates with learning. The Club not only entertains its members, but educates them by improving conduct and attitudes. And for Lowe, it has another important advantage. "I can accomplish more at the Boy's Club," says Lowe, "because it is smaller and because I can be heard." As a means for conscientious community service, the Roxbury Club offers a realistic purpose that he could not find in the school system.
Lowe's comments on the failings of the Boston schools are forthright and articulate, and he states them with intense energy. Yet he is not a firebrand, nor even a political activist. While valuing the services of Negro organizations like the NAACP, Lowe was rather skeptical about the tactical worth of Mel King's candidacy for the School Committee. He insists on concrete methods and concrete results; politics encourages ideology and acute racial self-consciousness, both of which he dislikes. Lowe heartily resents all kinds of discriminatory abuses, but he is reluctant to to call segregation the chief problem facing Boston Negroes, or Louise Day Hicks their archenemy. Thus his approval of projects like the school boycott is essentially passive.
Lowe believes that the "ghetto system" has created chronic conditions which will not be relieved even by integration. "The problem is not so much segregation," but habits of mind that discourage Negroes from trying to improve themselves. Lowe himself ignored advice that he give up plans to attend college, and went on to earn a Masters in Education. He frankly admits that Negro students do not perform as well as white students. Negro enrollments would tend to "debilitate" presently all white schools. Under these circumstances, Lowe does not regard civil rights as the only worthwhile goal to be achieved for the Negro. He prefers to devote his own attention to specific psychological or socio-economic disabilities that handicap Negroes in Boston.
Most principals and teachers do the best they can, Lowe believes, given the policies enforced by the city administration. But the school faculties in Roxbury try to keep out of the nonacademic lives of their students. They stay aloof from the children, attempting to isolate hours spent in class from hours spent at home and on the streets. Lowe is convinced that this cannot be done. To communicate with a child, an instructor must know and make allowances for his background. Today, however, "teachers do not understand the problems of their students because they are not part of the environment. After school they crawl into their cubbyholes--teaching is just a job." Although de facto segregation does not especially concern Lowe, a strong faculty commitment to helping students is obviously inhibited at schools like Timilty Junior High, where there are only six Negroes in a faculty of 40 teachers, with a student body that is 80 percent Negro. The children learn very little, in academic subjects or conduct; attending classes is a pointless nuisance, and less healthy parts of their environments are left the dominant influences in their lives. "Education as it is received now in Roxbury is meaningless. The child sees no relationship between what he is doing in the school and what he will be doing when he finishes school. The school has been a failure to him."
Lowe places the blame for this failure with the city authorities. The education of Negro children in Roxbury is retarded by "an unwillingness of the school administration to admit that differences exist between the culturally deprived or ghetto areas and more affluent society." The critical recognition of these differences must come from the school administration as a statement of policy, and it must lead to a broad revision of educational techniques. The needed changes are too large to be effected by individual teachers or even by whole faculties.
To make sure that teaching personnel are "definitely involved in the areas in which they work," Lowe suggests that teachers receive special training of the kind given to social workers. He feels that more effort should be made to recruit teachers familiar with conditions like those in Roxbury. Instead of filling Roxbury with inexperienced personnel and long-term substitutes, says Lowe, the administration should assign its most seasoned teachers to the school districts with the most problems. Now, he complains, experienced instructors are too eager "to get out of the area, to get something easier." Lowe's most radical recommendation is that teachers be periodically rotated among different culturally-defined areas, to spread teaching talent and experience more evenly over the city. Low also advocates more conventional education reforms, smaller classes, modern methods like machine-teaching, more specialized individual care, and elimination of automatic promotions.
Underlying many of these ideas is the observation that home situations in depressed neighborhoods often prevent meaningful learning. What Lowe wants to do, both in the schools and at the Boys' Club, is to counter the ill-effects of apathetic or drunken parents and squalid living conditions at home. If for no other reason, Lowe wants to maximize education simply to district children from corrupting home environments. Lowe feels that if classes were more interesting and useful to students, and teachers more interested and receptive. Roxbury could become a good place to love in less than a generation. And he does not propose his ideas for Roxbury Negroes alone, but for all depressed ethnic groups in the city.
Carter Lowe may go back to the schools, perhaps on a part-time basis next year. "More than likely I will," says Lowe, "because I like teaching." But he would rather not return to Roxbury. Teaching there has only frustrated his ambition to help people.
...There is a terrible loneliness that comes to men when they realize their feebleness before a brutally uninterested universe. In his own life-work, say as a teacher, a person may be making some one class-room serviceable to a few children. But he will feel, as the more imaginative teachers do, that his work is like that of Sisyphus, he no sooner achieves a thing than it is undone. How can he educate a child for a few hours a day, when the home, the streets, the newspapers, the movies, the shops, are all busy miseducating? Wherever there is a constructive man at work you are likely to find this same complaint, that he is working alone. --Walter Lippmann