'Mr. P' Learns His Lesson

The writer's experience teaching in the South Bronx ended bitterlybut it led him to his true calling

My second career was unraveling in front of me. It was in June, at the end of a long, difficult year teaching 34 fifth-graders at a struggling South Bronx elementary school. I sat in my principal's office, seething as the mother of a student turned a routine disciplinary meeting into a referendum on my teaching and classroom management. "You don't care about my son! This is just a job to you," she yelled at me. Then, the unkindest cut of all: "You're just in this for the money!"

Five years earlier, at age 39, I had taken an 80% pay cut, leaving my job as BusinessWeek's communications director to join the NYC Teaching Fellows, a program aimed at filling some of New York's hardest-to-staff schools with earnest, mid-career switchers like me. I had never really thought about teaching as a second career. But a series of unrelated events had nudged me down the path. As a longtime board member of East Side House Settlement, a nonprofit social-services agency in the South Bronx, I had seen how education could transform lives. I had written several books for kids about the Internet and technology. And like many New Yorkers, I'd spent a lot of time thinking about ways to give back in the months following September 11.

Still, I wasn't considering chucking my PalmPilot for lesson plans until I was seduced by a series of subway ads. "You remember your first grade teacher's name," the one for Teaching Fellows read. "Who will remember yours?" My bank account fattened by the dot-com boom, I figured I could afford a few years in the blackboard jungle. After getting the blessing of my wife, who was about to become the main breadwinner, I leaped.

After training to become legally certified to teach—six weeks of training on the basics of lesson planning and classroom management—I took the helm of a fifth-grade summer-school class. A month after the class ended, I was placed at P.S. 277. I had few romantic notions about teaching. Still, the reality was daunting. Not one in five of my school's students could read at grade level, so I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. I established myself as a no-nonsense, high-expectations teacher. My class was structured; rules and consequences enforced. "I don't make any excuses," I told my students often, "and I don't take any." I gave lots of homework and pushed my students hard. "Mr. P. don't play" was the word in my class. Parents loved me.

Although I had budgeted for two years in the South Bronx, the chalk dust got into my blood. Yet somehow, in year five, I hit a wall. Over the course of the school year, several students were transferred out of my room—one whose parents complained I gave too much homework, another whose father didn't like that I enforced the school's uniform policy. Then came the confrontation in the principal's office. Frustrated and increasingly bitter, I realized I was becoming exactly the kind of teacher I had signed up to replace. I had no desire to go back to corporate life, but this couldn't go on. I simply no longer felt effective.

I was especially frustrated for my highest-achieving students. I have nothing but admiration for high-minded education reformers, teachers, and administrators who want to make sure every child goes to a great school. But one of the unintended consequences of the accountability movement in schools is that virtually all of a teacher's time and attention goes to the lowest-performing students. We lie to ourselves that we're educating high-performing kids because they test at or above grade level on dumbed-down state tests. In reality we're neglecting our brightest low-income kids virtually as a matter of policy, all but guaranteeing their future struggles in college and the workplace.

Not ready to give up on giving back, I came up with a plan: I would merge the public-relations work that had sustained me for years with my passion for urban education. There were plenty of education nonprofits, charitable foundations, and think tanks working to end the achievement gap. Surely one of them could use a little media savvy.

For the first time in 20 years, I hit the bricks.

Job-hunting and networking were like dating, a mix of exhilaration and humiliation. Organizations I wanted to work for didn't want me. The ones that wanted me weren't a fit. September was coming. I wasn't quite panicking, but I could feel the nervous energy emanating from my wife, who had patiently indulged my second career. Not only hadn't I saved a nickel as a teacher, but my daughter's private-school tuition exceeded the take-home pay from my $43,000 annual salary. Unemployment was not an option.

In August the phone rang. It was the mother of one of my former students. Two years earlier I had encouraged Angela Davila to have her daughter Amber apply to Prep for Prep, a New York nonprofit founded in 1978 that seeks out the highest-achieving kids in schools like mine, gives them 14 months of "academic boot camp," then helps place them in the some of the country's best private schools. Amber had made it into Prep, and now Angela was calling with the news that she had won a full scholarship to Manhattan's Trevor Day School. As if she could read my mind, she was telling me to not give up, to remember that I could make a difference. I realized I had dramatically changed the life of at least one terrific kid. It was the single greatest moment in my professional life.

The call hit me like a hammer: I needed to go into the business of creating more Ambers. The second act of my second career began to emerge almost unbidden. I stopped looking for a job and started focusing on the high-achieving, low-income children I felt I had failed as a teacher.

An idea I had put away to launch an after-school program for bright, inner-city kids someday suddenly moved to the front burner. If the job I wanted didn't exist, I would create it. Another sign from the gods: The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation issued a report called Achievement Trap affirming that as a nation we are doing a poor job with our most promising low-income kids. A book proposal and op-eds about the issue began to emerge on my laptop as if by their own volition. I was on fire. Who needed a job? I had a mission.

A few weeks later, an automated alert I had set up months earlier on idealist.org, a Web site for job-seekers in the nonprofit world, sent a job notice to my inbox. Prep for Prep, the organization that had accepted Amber—the very organization on which I had started to model my nascent after-school program—was looking to hire its first communications director. I've never sold myself harder in my life.

Prep offered me the job and is letting me be both an employee and a client, tapping into its Smart Connections consulting arm to try to get my after-school program off the ground. The book project bubbles along as well. My feelings of frustration have been replaced by a sense that if teaching was a false start, education was not. I have found a niche and a need.

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