“To Hell with Good Intentions”

I have often found that when people discuss becoming a teacher, they almost inevitably explain their career choice as being about “making a difference.” Lofty goals of empowering students or enduring memories of impactful teachers who motivated and inspired launch many young graduates, myself included, into the field of education. When I first applied to this grad program in April, I described in my statement of purpose a student who inspired me to urgently seek further training as an educator.

This student, “Marco,” was born to a father who immigrated without documentation and to a mother raised locally in a county where over one in four residents live at or below the poverty line and where 87% of his peers are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Marco spent a significant portion of his elementary grade years squeaking by academically, babysitting for his brothers and sisters at night and falling further and further behind in literacy and math skills at school. During his sixth grade year, Marco was suspended nine times for a total of 24 days out of the classroom, not counting the days he stayed home for family reasons. By the time Marco stepped into my classroom, he was reading at a fourth grade level and his math scores indicated that obtaining proficient in a year would “exceed expectations.” Far more troubling, Marco was already burdened with the mindsets that students like him can’t learn, that his worth and potential were fixed at birth, and that his place in the world was set in stone.

Marco made it clear to me that despite the exhaustion and anxiety I may feel as a teacher, “making a difference” is more than an ideal; transformational change is concrete, it is necessary, and far from the comfort that tomorrow is a second chance, it is fiercely urgent.

Over the course of the academic year that followed, all the elements of the teacher’s dream seemed to come true; we built a relationship, experienced setbacks and breakthroughs, worked hard, established goals, had inspiring talks, made massive gains, and brought his final scores within reach of proficiency. It was a lovely story that made for a great statement of purpose and fit very well within the narrative of Teach for America’s mission. But somewhere between motivation and practice, something was missing. The house of cards collapsed when I received a phone call several months ago from one of his teachers, a former colleague, as I made my way home from class in Chapel Hill. Marco had lost his position within the STEM portion of the middle school, had failed half the courses he had taken that year, and was on track to repeat the grade due to academics and absenteeism.

Suddenly, all the techniques and trainings, the practices drilled toward the goal of standardized success, were all thrown into sharp relief: education was still failing Marco. For all the “growth” we had made, Marco clearly has very little agency within his education and has seemingly withdrawn altogether. If I were to be honest with myself, I would admit I had sensed this coming. I had hunches that my motivations were authentic, but to quote Ivan Illich, “to hell with good intentions.” My practices served to perpetuate a broken concept of education, built primarily to maintain the status quo. Marco’s situation, in concert with the situations of countless students across this nation, begs the questions: what about my philosophy and practice as an educator are meaningful, and what needs to be cast aside in order to directly challenge the status quo, born of the industrial revolution era to prop up and maintain social positioning and stratification? How does a teacher give life and meaning to literacy?

I have a few hunches, and over a series of blogs, I plan to flesh those out.  Clearly, I have a lot of work to do on myself – with literacy, with awareness, with philosophy, with action.


Ivan Illich, “To Hell With Good Intentions


2 thoughts on ““To Hell with Good Intentions”

  1. rachaelhyaduck September 21, 2016 / 10:27 pm

    This post went straight to my heart. I am an undergraduate student from CMU who is going and I have both heard about and have had the opportunity to work with students with similar backgrounds to your student Marco. You discussed how your educational strategies “served to perpetuate a broken concept of education” being that students like Marco will never learn and how you made all of this progress only for it to all disappear as Mare moved forward in his education. I feel this comes down to teacher attitudes and preconceived notions about students with similar backgrounds to Marco. When teachers have preconceived notions about students with a ‘troubled’ background, they may not be inclined to help that student more because they know that he/she might give them attitude or he/she might not even show up to class. So the idea would be that if the student is not going to try then why should I? This is the downfall of our educational system. There will always be teachers who go above and beyond to help those students who are really struggling and there will be those teachers who only help those who show a true effort. The sad part it, the students who are struggling the most will never get to realize their true potential if they never had a teacher who really cared and understood their situation.


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