Mo Ibrahim: My Third Year of Teaching

By the start of my third year of teaching, in 2007, half of my New York City Teaching Fellows cohort had quit teaching. Some for health reasons, some due to differences with their school’s administration, and some due to the difficulty of teaching during the day and going to graduate school at night. Teaching poor students, writing fifteen-page papers on pedagogy and compiling lesson plans proved to be too much.

The day before classes began that year, the principal told me that our students needed to earn an economics credit to fulfill graduation requirements. He asked if I wanted to teach the class. I hadn’t taken economics since freshman year of college, but I reluctantly agreed. The principal said he had an economics curriculum in his office and he would return shortly with the material. He didn’t return and never gave me the material. . However, I was able to develop a curriculum on the fly. I had read Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and watched Gopnik’s Lighting Up New York documentary. I got the idea to make a curriculum based on Gopnik’s four theories of New York City crime reduction: Broken Window, Abortion, Child Boom and Korean Immigration. To supplement my curriculum I read Freakonomics and Park’s The Korean American Dream. I didn’t have to teach math anymore, because I was teaching economics, but I was still teaching English. My class focused on reading poetry and short stories and writing short essays.

By that time I had earned my Master’s degree from the City College of New York, and had learned two principles that proved helpful. During an evening class, an African-American female professor, who insisted we call her Doctor, advised us to use the don’t ask, apologize principle to get around policies with school administrators. For example, instead of asking if I could take my English class to read poetry in Central Park, I should take them knowing that I could simply apologize if I were reprimanded by an administrator. She also told us about a research study done by Lisa Delpit, an education researcher, who advised teachers not use please with inner-city male students. According to her study, when students in that demographic hear the word please they feel they have a choice. For example, a teacher should say, “Go back to your seat,” instead of “Go back to your seat, please.” In my experience, she was right. The command without please worked better.

I can’t recall using any other teaching techniques that I was exposed to during graduate school. There should have been more instruction on how to motivate students to study and how to get parents to make their children do their homework. Talking to my students, I learned that, when they get home, most of my female students took naps and most of my male students played video games. Very few of them did any homework, read or studied.

I didn’t give any homework or quizzes in my English class, which had about 20 students, because most of my students didn’t do any schoolwork at home. I had my English students do all of their writing assignments during class time. I didn’t give any homework in the economics classes as well, which had about 30 students, but I had felt compelled to give quizzes to assess how well the students understood my lessons. I knew that the majority of my students weren’t going to study at home, but I hoped that I had explained the material well enough that they would be able to do well on quizzes. I initially did a quiz review the day before the quiz, but that didn’t seem to help the dismal passing rates. I tried doing the quiz review immediately before the quiz, but that didn’t help. I eventually moved to telling my students exactly what was going to be on the quiz, but surprisingly even that didn’t help. When students don’t understand a lesson or do well academically, teachers are supposed to take responsibility, but that’s very difficult to do when most of the students are very apathetic.

9 Responses to “Mo Ibrahim: My Third Year of Teaching”

  1. dearieme Says:

    State education is a failed experiment.

  2. Gina Says:

    I have a friend who just quit teaching due to student apathy. It’s sad, because at one time she was so excited about teaching. She said she was out of ideas for how to make her students care. She was teaching at a small rural school where half the students ended up dropping out.

  3. Banh Li Says:

    dearieme: Data from some countries (e.g. Finland and Poland) do not support your claim.

  4. Al Says:

    A lot of people in low income areas have higher priorities than studying economics. Many of these young people live in a dangerous, overcrowded environment. And their parents and peer groups can’t or simply don’t place a high emphasis on academic learning.

    Given that reality, what kind of results can we reasonably expect teachers, schools or even government to deliver? (Even in solidly middle class schools, many students are apathetic when confronted with academic economics.)

    The older I get, the more difficulty I have in believing that we can just slap an “education system” on top of a free, loosely regulated, highly individualistic collection of people (i.e. America) and expect high quality results.

    For most of us, learning a complex academic subject requires patience, focus, time, and work. In our system, a lot of that is is solely under personal control.

    Sure, a government program in a free society can help with some of these things. But we don’t live in a totalitarian, Soviet-style system where we can force kids to spend ten hours a day reading a physics textbook and working out homework problems.

    We live in a free society. The school police are not allowed to come to my house and force me to read about the law of cosines.

    I have no doubt that we Americans — across the board — could excel at quantum mechanics, organic chemistry, and writing just-in-time compilers if we wanted to spend ten hours a day doing those things. But that’s not what we’re in to.

  5. Brock in HK Says:

    I think the dismal passing rate is a sign that the material was too sophisticated for the students level of ability, rather than their lack of desire to study. Strong evidence is that the review immediately prior to the quiz did not have an impact on their scores relative to other times of quiz prep. There is a body of research, especially as relates to Khan Academy, that indicates where people are learning most efficiently, and that is not the point where they are getting many to most of the answers wrong.

    Totally separate is how that came to be that the material was too sophisticated for this specific group of students.

  6. WW Says:

    Dearieme, why is this an example of failed state education? it seems to be apathetic students being the cause. why would non state education fix that?

  7. dearieme Says:

    “Data from some countries (e.g. Finland and Poland) do not support your claim.” Then it’s not a failed experiment in those countries. They’ll do very well to keep it that way.

    “why would non state education fix that?” Because doing away with a monopoly run on rigid doctrinal lines has every chance of leading to the sort of experimentation that will lead to improvements. In other words, much the usual reason for trying to abolish monopolies.

  8. Dragan Says:

    Thanks for the review, Mo. I have a question.

    “I can’t recall using any other teaching techniques that I was exposed to during graduate school.”

    Since you’re not using any techniques from your graduate school training — yet you are teaching — how/where did you pick up your teaching “know how”? Is it modeled on what you observed your own teachers do, or…?

  9. Terri Says:

    Thinking aloud: WHY are students apathetic? Why? How do we draw those kids in? How do we get them to learn the basics needed to just be motivated, dedicated citizens? Is there anything you see which helps? Smaller classes? More structured class? Less structured class? Presenting it as it will appear to them in real life? Anything?

    Loved the mention of the act now, ask forgiveness later. Not really great thought, but seems very applied and sometimes necessarily so. And I had not heard of the “please” one, but I will store that away for sure.

    Good post.