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What Should I Do? Confronting Dilemmas of Teaching in Urban Schools

reviewed by Christine Finnan - October 05, 2012

coverTitle: What Should I Do? Confronting Dilemmas of Teaching in Urban Schools
Author(s): Anna Ershler Richert
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807753254, Pages: 114, Year: 2012
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Anyone who teaches future and novice teachers will want to use Anna Ershler Richerts book What Should I Do? Confronting Dilemmas of Teaching in Urban Schools as a class resource because it provides vivid stories of real world dilemmas faced by teachers working in urban schools.  Richert, a professor in the School of Education at Mills College in Oakland, CA has collected a set of stories from her students that provide real accounts of dilemmas that have no clear or simple solutions. Through these stories we enter real classrooms and better understand how the context of urban schools and communities contributes to an interconnection between dilemmas associated with professional identity, students lives, and curriculum and assessment demands.

Richert draws upon Larry Cubans (2001) useful distinction between problems and dilemmas -- problems being solvable and dilemmas not. She goes further to characterize dilemmas as not only being without solution but fraught with competing values and aims (Burbules, 1997). The book provides a carefully selected set of stories that illustrate how these dilemmas play out in the real world of urban schools. Some of the stories also illustrate how what may seem like a solvable problem is actually a dilemma when encountered in the real world of urban schools. For example, it is not enough to give a child a coat if the childs mother refuses to let her wear it because going to school cold is the mothers punishment for being careless. A problem child without coat becomes a dilemma when the teacher has to grapple with the boundaries between parental rights, appropriate interventions, child wellbeing, and personal values.

Richert organizes the 22 stories in this book, or what she calls ethical cases, around Joseph Schwabs (1983) four teaching commonplaces the teacher, the student, the content, and the milieu (p.2). Using this frame, we meet real future and novice teachers -- some who provide dilemmas of professional identity, others who grapple with knowing and advocating for their students, still others who find it difficult to teach content as they would like in the urban context, and others who struggle to assess fairly and accurately. In each of the examples the reader sees situations that are real and compelling. I found myself adding dilemmas from my own and my students experiences what to do when a child, in the middle of talking about his grandfathers murder, uses a racist term; how to engage children when the school district requires teachers to use mind-numbing scripted curriculum; how to maintain a professional relationship with an assigned mentor even though she has nothing good to say about the children in the school. In this way the book is a teaching tool and catalyst for thought and reflection.  

Across all of the examples, the interplay of teacher, student, content, and context sometimes dances but more often spars, leaving these novice teachers to choose, not between whats right and whats wrong, but whats right and whats best (Ford, 2009, p. 204 cited in Richert, p. 100). They find that they rarely identify win-win solutions that are best for everyone. Instead, they learn that teaching is an uncertain act.  One of the strengths of this book is that, unlike the authors of so many of the X tips for the effective teacher genre of educational trade books, Richert does not sanitize the dilemmas of teaching. That said, she does not wallow in the intractability of dilemmas, but calls for teachers to take action and find compromises between ideals and conflicting realities. She provides these dilemma cases to encourage personal reflection, but also as a tool to learn from others practice.

The strength of this book lies more in the vividness and appropriateness of the stories told than in the conceptual framework used to present and analyze the stories. For this reason it should be used as a supplement to more theoretical texts. It provides the grit and reality often missing in other texts. It provides the stories that bring theory to life. For centuries humans have learned through story, to the point that scholars such as Connelly and Clandinin (1990) refer to humans as storytelling organisms who, individually and socially, lead storied lives (p. 2). We have long used stories or narratives as reliable vehicles for explanation (Bruner, 1991; Carr, 2008) and as Kieran Egan (1989) suggests, we teach best through stories and narrative. Why do stories work so well? We are familiar with the structure; we learn very early that stories have a beginning, middle and end. Stories tap into other senses, allowing us to hear, see, and feel the experience as it is described. They also allow room for context and complexity. Stories capture what it means to be human and to live in complex social situations in which endings are rarely tidy.

Good teachers are usually good storytellers or are good at finding stories that will make their students think. Richert provides a wealth of stories for those of us who rely on stories to present complex ideas. The dilemmas she presents provide real cases that are grounded in the reality of teaching in urban contexts. I envision using this book to provide examples of the kinds of dilemmas my students will face and to give them an opportunity to grapple with how they will respond to the dilemmas presented. Another strength of this book is that the dilemmas do not have predictable or clean endings. They remain dilemmas, so, as a teaching tool, they allow for discussion and conversation. They encourage students to consider that every action has reactions that are often unpredictable, especially within contexts that are still unfamiliar. They portray the real world of urban teaching.


Bruner, J. (1991).  The narrative construction of reality. Critical Inquiry, 18(1), 1-21.

Burbules, N. C. (1997). Teaching and the tragic sense of education. In N. C. Burbules and D. Hans (Eds.), Teaching and its predicaments (pp. 65-78). Boulder, CO: Westview Press

Carr, D. (2008). Narrative explanation and its malcontents. History and Theory, 47, 19-30.

Connely, F. M. and Clandinin, D. J. (1990). Stories of experience and narrative inquiry. Educational Researcher, 19(5), 2-14.

Cuban, L. (2001). How can I fix it? Finding solutions and managing dilemmas, an educators road map. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Egan, K. (1989) Teaching as story telling: An alternative approach to teaching and curriculum in the elementary school. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Ford, J. (2009). The hotel on the corner of bitter and sweet. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Schwab, J. (1983). The practical 4: Something for curriculum professors to do. Curriculum Inquiry, 13(3), 239-265.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 05, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16890, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 9:21:03 AM

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About the Author
  • Christine Finnan
    College of Charleston
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTINE FINNAN, Professor, holds a joint appointment in the Teacher Education Department and Sociology and Anthropology Department at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina. Dr Finnan is currently engaged in research focused on factors within schools that influence children's sense of accomplishment, belonging, and engagement. Her recent publications include "Accelerating Struggling Students' Learning Through Identity Redevelopment" published in 2011 in Middle School Journal and The Upper Elementary Years: Ensuring Success in Grades 3-6 published in 2009 by Corwin Press. She edited an issue of Phi Delta Kappan focused on the upper elementary years in 2009.
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