Saturday, March 14, 2009

Disorder in merged D.C. schools: teachers alleging attacks by youth find themselves scrutinized

Disorder in merged D.C. schools: teachers alleging attacks by youth find themselves scrutinized

*Place cursor over title above. The original story is hyperlinked.

This is the saddest story I've ever read about teachers trying to earn a living in a school full of hostile students who need disciplinary action and academic attention.

The first paragraph uses an anecdotal lead to capture the audience by presenting an action-oriented scene: Woodson high school teacher William Pow writes on the blackboard. As people read that first part of the sentence they may ask, "What is he writing?" or "Why is this action so important?" and then BAM. The audience reads that the teacher turned around and saw a textbook hurtling toward his head. More action. And then the stark reality that a student tried to injure a teacher. Hostility. This is an outstanding way to introduce the content of the story: a series of first-hand accounts teachers give about their experiences working in a classroom where students at any moment may walk up to a teacher and strangle the instructor or shove her into a desk - simply because that kid is having a bad day.

The writer makes it clear why students would engage in malicious behavior by allowing the teachers to be the observers. The instructors come up with fair reasons why students act the way they do. They think that because Woodson High is under reconstruction and all the high school students are temporarily stuck in crowded classrooms at Ronald H. Brown Middle School in Northeast Washington, it's easy for the kids to boil up in anger. Ok, so the teachers emphathize with the students. But they are less than understanding when teachers have to go to the hospital to treat concussions. In the teachers' point of view students are not the scapegoats but are the sources of staff members quitting their jobs at Woodson.

This story allows a myriad of sources to speak. The main focus of the story is the teachers' experiences in the classroom, but this piece maintains its objectivity because the writer gives Woodson's Principal Darrin Slade and a history teacher Brandi Drummonds the chance to come to the students' defense. Slade gives the rationale that teachers who report receiving abuse from students may be covering up the fact that their jobs are on the line. And actually one of the teachers who talked about his abuses was on a 90-day plan, which requires teachers to work through the shortcomings of the students or face termination. Drummonds said she never experienced kids throwing textbooks at her because she strived to create a controlled and active classroom environment, which she said was key to keeping the students engaged. This gives the readers an idea of a teacher who is composed and authoritative. Also, Drummond humanizes the students at Woodson and proves that although they act out of control, they are just as easily influenced to behave by positive actions that teachers take.

The story takes an interesting spin. It highlights a conflict and human interest by focusing on the hidden abuses teachers face from D.C. students in the classroom setting. This is an atypical or odd piece about education - not the run-of-the-mill "teachers to help students increase ACT scores by 2012" type of story. And the fact that some teachers are defenseless and unable to provide credibility to back their accounts makes it appear as though Woodson staff members are stuck in between a rock and a hard place. Normally teachers remain silent about their abuses because they are afraid of losing their jobs.

This multi-dimensional piece gives a chance for more than one voice to speak. It also allows for some sources to remain anonymous. A number of teachers willingly talked about their abuses, but they wanted to remain anonymous. Now my question is: Does that make these sources any less credible even if they want to keep their identites concealed so they don't risk getting fired? After all, anonymity facilitates information gathering for the journalists. Any journalist could say in their story that they spoke with "so-and-so" who wished to remain anonymous. What if that "so-and-so" never existed? Isn't there always that area of doubt when people read about an anonymous source? Do you believe what that anonymous sources says?

Doesn't that also mean these sources placed an incredible load on the Washington Post education beat reporter's shoulders - trusting that their names will never appear in print? Imagine what it took for the writer to win over that trust - a lot of professionalism and guts to ask uncomfortable questions.


  1. This story did a fantastic job of drawing in the reader in the first paragraph and continue to hold their attention throughout. I agree that this article is very sad. I was appalled at the treatment that some of the teachers received and touched by their attempted empathy with the students. It is not a typical education article, but the facts in this article are the real things that readers need to hear about. They are the trials and oppositions that real teachers face in their real workplace. I think this just goes to show how teachers as a whole are taken for granted and easily looked past.

  2. I think that the anonymity factor does little to discredit these sources. Teaching is a tough job and these days, it comes with much more than the occasional class clown. Teachers are still learning how to control their classes and the publicizing of their inability wouldn't help. I'm not saying that they're hiding their ineptitude at teaching a class but instead perhaps they are embarrassed of the depths their classroom has sunk to.
    It some stories, the names of the sources are what's important. If the VP gives a quote about the goings-on of the President, it would have little credit if it were anonymous.
    However, in the case of this story, it's not the names of the teachers that are describing their classrooms but instead what they represent.

  3. The story shows us a school and its teachers and lets us draw our own conclusions. I could "see" these classrooms.

  4. Great find, really interesting story... it really made me want to keep reading and pay close attention to learn more. Also, I agree with you- fantastic lead.

    Good point about letting so many sources speak. It's not a clear-cut issue and it's not presented as such.