Advice for a potential Philadelphia schoolteacher

Tazhe Cooper, 20, outside Horace Howard Furness High in South Philadelphia, where he graduated in 2009. (Clem Murray / Staff Photographer)
Tazhe Cooper, 20, outside Horace Howard Furness High in South Philadelphia, where he graduated in 2009. (Clem Murray / Staff Photographer) (Tazhe Cooper, 20,)
Posted: April 09, 2012

Covering the Philadelphia School District can be a disheartening job.

I grew up in this city and am a product of its public schools. In four years on the beat, I've found and written about a lot of amazing things going on in city classrooms. But much of my time has also been writing about violence, budget cuts, and layoffs, and that's been difficult at times.

But Tazhe Cooper got under my skin.

Cooper, 20, has always wanted to be a Philadelphia public schoolteacher. As a senior at Furness High in South Philadelphia, he won a scholarship that provided help with his college tuition at West Chester University in exchange for a promise to spend three years teaching in the district.

He's been monitoring what's been going on in the district - the massive money problems, the shaky morale, the program losses and day-to-day impact of the cuts. A few weeks ago, Cooper e-mailed me to say he was having serious qualms about his career choice.

When he graduated, in 2009, the district was spending a lot of money on new programs and other initiatives, which current leaders now say was "bad fiscal management." But Cooper wonders whether it's gone past the point of no return.

"It saddens my heart that I don't want to teach in Philadelphia," he wrote.

I couldn't stop thinking about his dilemma, and figured he should hear from teachers and others. So I wrote about Cooper in "Philly School Files," my blog about district issues. I asked people to weigh in, to give him advice. I figured I'd hear from a dozen or so folks.

But I'm up to 100 responses now, and I'm still getting comments, via e-mail, phone call, and Twitter.

Many of them - particularly the comments on the blog post - sound an alarm.

"This story is as strong an indictment on urban education as one will ever see," one person wrote.

"Yes, Tazhe Cooper, do the smart thing and keep away from this miserable school system," another said.

But the surprising and heartening thing has been the many people who have rushed in to say: Tazhe, please come teach in Philadelphia. Here's my phone number. Visit my classroom. You can do great things. You must do great things.

Tune out the naysayers

Mr. Cooper, come to Phila!! We NEED you! These children need you more than you know! Tune out the nay-sayers and teach w/passion!

Come & be the example that many of our young men need! Let's do this!! I look forward to hving you as a colleague!!

Steve Flemming

Philadelphia School District teacher, via Twitter

'I could not handle it'

From one jaded young teacher to another:

I am not a teacher because I could not handle it. I am ashamed to admit it, but that is the truth.

Teaching in Philly or Delco or any impoverished community is not a job; it is a lifestyle. You must have a singular, unwavering focus on improving the lives of your students. You are surrounded by violence and negativity, bombarded from every direction by challenges and roadblocks. Your passion must be insurmountable. Your optimism must be unwavering. Your nerves and your temper must be forged from steel.

My advice to Tazhe would be to go in there and do your damnedest.

Three years will be plenty of time to decide whether or not you can do it. (Only took me three months!) If you're really a teacher, none of the horrible, unsolvable problems listed above will be able to stop you from succeeding. And if you're not ready or you can't handle it, you'll know. But please don't give up, because they really need us out there.

Peter N. Hanson

East Greenville

Much has changed

If I could talk to Tazhe, I would tell him that he's right to be scared and disheartened, but I would also tell him that he should have hope.

Since he has graduated, a lot has changed in the district. We have a better, more responsive SRC that is finally listening to parents and teachers. We are decentralizing, which will be a great help to all of the schools. The landscape is changing in Philadelphia.

Are there bad things happening in Philadelphia? Of course, but we have to hold out hope that good things will overcome all of it . . . I could go on forever, but the bottom line is that although I completely understand where Tazhe is coming from, he needs to find that fire deep inside that he has for teaching. He needs to use all of it up on Philadelphia, where he is so sorely needed. Students are dying for a teacher like him. Someone who comes from their background, who shares the same views, who has been in their shoes a time or two. He is the change that Philadelphia needs.

Christa Parlacoski

Philadelphia School District teacher

Firsthand experience

Tazhe is a product of the Philadelphia School District and if all great people choose to leave because it's too hard, we will never have great people stay, people who really care and know firsthand why they must stay and why the stakes are so high.

I have also struggled many times with leaving education altogether - the pay is low, I could be making more in the private sector, this work is hard, I don't see change happening. The list continues with the many reasons why I think of leaving. But, ultimately, those students are too much like myself. Too much from where I'm from. And too much in need of someone who knows firsthand what their educational experience is like.

Angela Maldonado

Manager, Teacher Leadership Development, Teach for America Greater Philadelphia

It takes a special person

If teaching in the inner city was easy, then it wouldn't take such a special person to be an educator there. I am in my 12th year teaching in the city of Camden. I believe I have one of the best jobs in the world because of the difference I try to make every day. I am overloaded with paperwork, I am paid less than many other teachers in the suburbs, and I am asked to be part teacher, part counselor, part parent all at once and still I wouldn't trade it for anything else in the world. Tell Tazhe to give his district a chance. He will probably be overwhelmed and overworked, but it will allow him to impact the lives of so many deserving children. I can't think of many jobs more important than that of inner-city educator.

Nicholas J. Holmes

Camden School District teacher

Schools as sacred places

It's only natural for some education majors, like other pre-professionals, to discover in college that they're not sure about joining the profession they loved at 17, especially when the news about it concerns fiscal fallout. Tazhe does still have his three-year commitment to fulfill. The Philadelphia School District, despite planning strategically to do better with less, has still made teaching and learning harder than it should be in too many schools. But no matter what, when the new school year begins, Tazhe's students will be waiting; so will the seven principals being honored this week by the Lindback Awards; so will other award-winning teachers and principals, and thousands of teachers, aides, specialists, and counselors who do good work every single day.

We cannot deny the difficulties that stress this complex system of relationships. There are serious challenges, but also real rewards. There is learning on both sides, and rigor, discovery, affection. . .. To improve at any time, however, we must encourage, rather than discourage, new talent - more passionate teachers, more make-it-happen principals, and more folks from around the country who relish the task of making urban education an anchor and magnet in our community.

"Schools really are sacred places." If Tazhe were to talk to Sue Kettel of the Stanton School community, she'd say that, guaranteed. That's not just because teachers can create literate and nimble workers, encourage resiliency, and train citizens for democracy. Schools are sacred because they hold what is most miraculous among us - our children.

Lorene Cary

School Reform Commission

A promise still to keep

Cooper is gratified by all the advice.

"I didn't know people really cared," he said.

He's soaking up every word, the good and the bad. Mindful of the promise he made when he accepted the district scholarship, he's prepared to honor his three-year commitment to teach in Philadelphia after graduating from college in 2013.

Beyond that? Leaving to teach in another city is a possibility. So is leaving the education profession.

"But," Cooper said, "I don't want to give up on Philadelphia."


Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com, or @newskag on Twitter. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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