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A New Year’s Note From The Bottom Twenty Percent

2011 was a wild year for New York City teachers. Cathie Black’s brief reign, the mayor’s aggressive layoff threats, attacks on tenure and seniority, and the the continued push to shut down public schools often left us stressed, confused, and paranoid. Given all this, as 2011 moved towards its conclusion, I felt like I’d grown a pretty thick skin. There was nothing anybody could say about teachers that would upset me.

In late November, however, Mayor Bloomberg proved me wrong. Speaking at a conference at MIT, Bloomberg said that if he could, he would get rid of half of New York City’s teachers. Why? For starters, we are apparently not that bright. Bloomberg explained, “We don’t hire the people who are at the top of their class anymore. … In America, [teachers] come from the bottom 20 percent and not of the best schools.”

I know this quote is old news, but the “bottom 20 percent” claim really stuck with me. I’m used to being attacked for my exorbitant salary, cushy benefits, and lavish lifestyle. I’m not used to being ridiculed because of my poor academic skills or below-average intelligence.

Like a lot of teachers, I’ve got a bit of a chip on my shoulder. When I heard Bloomberg’s comment, I got defensive. How dare he attack my credentials? What does he know about where I went to school, or what kind of grades I got? What does he know about anything?

Then I calmed down; I thought about what it would mean to be a part of this “bottom 20 percent.” I’m a special education teacher. Many of my students are in the bottom 20 percent of their high school classes. This isn’t a criticism; it’s an observation about how these students perform academically.

I like these students, this bottom 20 percent. First of all, they present us teachers with some interesting challenges. It’s easy to plan a lesson for the overachievers; it’s a lot harder to plan for students who struggle. How do I convince a student who suffers from both attention deficit disorder and acute depression that he should try reading a section of “Huckleberry Finn” in a Southern accent? How do I get a hyperactive student to sit still for a 100-minute history exam that consists of two essays on European imperialism in the 19th century? Figuring this stuff out is endlessly frustrating, but endlessly interesting.

Truthfully though, these academic challenges are not really why I like these bottom 20-percenters. I like them because they’re extremely likable. In general, these students are more emotionally mature and complex than their academically gifted counterparts. By the time they reach high school, they’ve experienced failure on many occasions. They don’t bully; they don’t make fun of their classmate for giving the wrong answer. Possibly as a defense mechanism, most of them develop a quirky, entertaining sense of humor. They’re used to being ignored, so they’re uncommonly patient. They know how to empathize and they appreciate small kindnesses that other students take for granted.

I don’t know what portion of this bottom 20 percent might go on to become teachers, but I hope some of them do. Patience and compassion are qualities that every teacher should possess, and these students possess them in abundance. More than that, as much as we try, many of us will never truly understand what it means to struggle with fundamental skills like reading and writing. A student who has struggled with these skills and found ways to succeed would be uniquely capable of both planning lessons for and empathizing with challenging students.

2011 was, among other things, the year of the bottom 99 percent. It was a year when those of us who don’t live fat and happy stopped feeling bad about it and went on the attack. Teachers played a part in this movement. Thousands of us joined with the Occupy Wall Street forces and proudly announced our place among the bottom 99 percent.

There wasn’t much good news for teachers in 2011, but this growing sense of solidarity was an exciting development. So, Mayor Bloomberg: keep the insults coming in 2012, please. I’ll take the bottom 20 over the top 1 percent any day.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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