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Urban Teaching: The Essentials

reviewed by Arthur Costigan & Margaret S. Crocco - April 27, 2006

coverTitle: Urban Teaching: The Essentials
Author(s): Lois Weiner
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807746436, Pages: 103, Year: 2006
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Let’s go back in time to 1964 to Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, the same area featured in West Side Story.  There, a run down, overcrowded building, the original DeWitt Clinton High School, contained teachers struggling under an uncaring administration to educate large numbers of alienated students. When one teacher moved away from force feeding the “high culture” of academe towards understanding and caring for her students, some “small victories” were achieved.  The story related here, is, of course, that of Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase.

Have things changed since 1964?  The answer is, as expected: yes and no.  DeWitt Clinton High is now a restored college campus and Hell’s Kitchen, a gentrified neighborhood.  Yet urban schools are even more likely today than in 1964 to serve students who are poor, immigrant, and of color, whose families frequently are—often for good reason—wary of schooling.  The dropout rate in New York City, like that in other urban areas, remains scandalously high, by our estimation about 50 %.  City schools continue to be generally overcrowded, dilapidated, and served by under-prepared teachers who struggle to reach students from radically different backgrounds than their own.  Within a few years of beginning to teach, far too many of them leave urban areas for the wealthier suburbs, or abandon teaching altogether.

Kaufman’s Ms. Barrett lacked many of the resources new teachers bring into the classroom today.  In the 1960s, teacher “training” offered a behaviorist “how to” set of recipes for all places, times, and students. Rarely did teacher preparation acknowledge the culture, class, or “situatedness” of teachers, students, and their communities.  Today’s new teacher is more likely to be prepared—not “trained”—in schools of education that demand attention to the impact of social location on teaching and learning.  State requirements and national accreditation agencies promote courses on diversity and “culturally relevant pedagogy.”  Despite these changes, however, the well-documented problems of urban education are as distressing now as they were in 1964.

Into the complex world of urban education comes Lois Weiner’s timely revised classic, Urban Teaching: The Essentials.  Based on her earlier scholarly work, Preparing Teachers for Urban Schools: Lessons From Thirty Years of School Reform (1993), Weiner writes directly from the heart to those who will teach, or are teaching, in urban schools.  Weiner’s authority comes not only from her position as an urban teacher educator, but from her eight years teaching in what were arguably two of the most challenging schools in New York City.  Grounded in current research but eschewing references for sake of readability, she addresses the challenges unique to urban teachers.  Urban teachers, like teachers elsewhere, are primarily female, suburban, and middle class in origin. They often experience an existential shock when faced with schools and students who challenge their firmly held beliefs about teaching and learning.  Their ability or inability to graft a “teaching life” onto their autobiographically rooted “lived life” may be the chief reason they remain in urban schools, depart for better funded schools or districts, or quit the profession altogether.

Throughout the book, Weiner uses a warm and personal voice to address the discontinuities new teachers confront as they begin teaching in urban schools.  First is the sheer difference of urban schools, announced immediately by their often crude and impersonal hiring processes, and reinforced by their serious lack of resources, inadequate space, and depersonalized working environments.  Weiner is not shy in addressing straight on the hostility that often exists between administration and teachers; the benefits and drawbacks of unionization; and the necessity to work with colleagues who are alienated, disengaged, or burned out.  Although we admire Weiner’s courage in taking on these “elephants in the schoolroom”—in particular the culture of student alienation, hostility, and violence found in some urban schools—the real strength of the book lies in its emphasis on building proper relationships with students. Likewise, Weiner stresses the notion that the best teachers see themselves as learners who reflect on their own work regularly rather than as technicians who merely implement a set of decontextualized teacher practices.  We have found in our research that these two issues—relationships with students and reflective practice— are absolutely essential for success among new urban teachers and heavily influence their ability to persist in urban teaching.  In discussing these issues, Weiner is not shy in taking on the proliferation of alternative routes to certification which not only exist in almost every state in the union but have become a normative means of supplying teachers to high priority schools (see pp. 30–33).  Weiner presents her readers with the dangers related to “‘quickie’ certification programs” (p. 31), which do not adequately prepare teachers for the challenges of urban schooling.

All of this is wonderful material for new teachers.  Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book is its willingness to deal with a frequently ignored issue—teachers’ moral and political obligations.  Our research has shown that the culture of accountability in today’s schools has had negative effects on new teachers, especially in urban schools.  NCLB has encouraged adoption of mandated curriculum and scripted “teacher proof” curricula in language arts, a focus on formulaic test preparation in math, abandonment of art, music, and physical education, and the “squeezing out” of social studies and science. The new teachers we have interviewed tell us that the “teach for the test” culture of urban schools has taken much of the creativity out of their teaching and decreased their opportunities for forging a practice built on knowledge of their students.

Weiner’s Urban teaching will be an invaluable resource for urban teachers. Its chief strength lies not only in its frank appraisal of the difficulties new teachers face, but in pointing the way towards embracing the moral and political dimensions of teaching for social justice in urban schools. In an era of test- and accountability-driven curricula, loss of professional autonomy, and high levels of urban teacher attrition, Weiner’s book is a powerful tool that will help new teachers to understand, survive, and perhaps even thrive in city schools.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 27, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12499, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 6:47:38 PM

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About the Author
  • Arthur Costigan
    Queens College, CUNY
    E-mail Author
    ARTHUR T. COSTIGAN is a 13 year veteran of New York City’s public schools, ten of which were spent in two “high priority” schools. He is now co-director of English Education programs at Queens College, CUNY.
  • Margaret Crocco
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    MARGARET S. CROCCO is coordinator of the Social Studies Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Together they are co-authors of Learning to Teach in an Age of Accountability, 2004, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Their recent commentary on teaching in New York City can be found in Margaret Smith Crocco and Arthur T. Costigan (2006), “High Stakes Teaching: What’s at Stake for Teachers (and Students) in the Age of Accountability,” The New Educator, 2(1), 1–13.
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