Several months ago, I worked simultaneously at two schools that were astoundingly different in attitude and feel. The first, a traditional school in Durham, was in breakdown. The second, a magnet school in Raleigh, functioned as perfectly as any public school I’ve ever seen. They made a fascinating contrast.

At the Durham school, all the teachers were in survival mode. Several years ago, during the Durham redistricting insanity, the school received an influx of children from the Durham projects, and many of the longtime teachers were unprepared for this shift. The populations of each classroom are now largely lower socioeconomic. Many children enter school undernurtured academically and emotionally; some kindergarten students tested at developmental levels as low as 2 years old. The teachers are overwhelmed, the principal seems at a loss, they have only one person on their substitute list and, in the two months I worked there, they didn’t find a sub for a first-grade classroom where the students ran wild. In spite of these difficult odds, the teachers are responsible for attaining the test results expected by the Durham system. Their 8-year-old school looks as if it’s been around for at least 20. Neither the school nor the teachers seem cared for.

Being there and witnessing the breakdown was painful. One day I came to the school early to prepare for my workshop, carrying 17 20-page handouts that needed to be reproduced. The secretary greeted me with “The copier’s broken. You’ll have to use the one that prints page by page.” To complete this task, I took up half the office space, covering the floor with disordered piles of copies, creating a comic chaos. In the hour and a half I spent copying, not one person offered to help–or even paused to laugh with me at the absurdity of my undertaking. This is a school too used to breakdowns.

Meanwhile, several teachers filed into the office to protest having to take my workshop and not having gotten the coverage promised in their classrooms. One was so angry she threatened to quit. They wanted me to know in no uncertain terms that I was walking into a hostile situation.

In contrast, the Raleigh school’s environment felt smooth and calm. Their population is largely middle or upper-middle-class students, although they have also reached out to children challenged in academics and advantage, and they have a high percentage of students with learning disabilities. The academically at-risk students receive focused individual attention and are making measurable progress. Their school looks cared for, though it’s not much newer than the Durham school. They aren’t all that concerned about testing.

The teachers are delighted to be there, and they work hard to maintain a code of excellence. They are creative, playful, relaxed and adored by their students. All three of the teachers I worked with remarked on the support of the principal, who backs them completely and constantly. He’s been known to remind in-your-face parents that they’ve chosen this magnet school and can choose to leave. He’s hosted children in his office for days when they couldn’t follow established classroom discipline. This principal actively recruits, having interviewed more than 400 teachers to put together his select staff. Now he has a long waiting list of teachers who are eager to join the faculty.

In the 10 years I’ve worked in North Carolina, his is the only school I’ve been in where the teachers feel respected as professionals. Though there are high expectations at the school, the staff doesn’t seem overwhelmed or rushed, and they are open and eager for opportunities to learn and grow.

It was obvious to me in both schools that the teachers’ primary concerns were for their students, but their issues were notably dissimilar. I was reminded of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a psychological model I studied in college. The particulars have faded, but I’ve retained a sense of Maslow’s theory: He believed you couldn’t reach higher aspirations until your basic needs were met. For example, emotional and spiritual growth would only become significant when essentials like food and shelter had been provided. These two schools showed me his theory in practice.

In Durham, I was struck by a remark from a teacher who told me he’d had difficulty teaching a game I modeled. “There’s no prize for winning,” he commented.

“The prize is meeting the goal,” I explained. “I think as teachers we should model intrinsic as well as extrinsic goals.”

He quickly woke me up to his teaching reality. “I agree with you in principle,” he told me patiently, “but I’m trying to show my kids that if they work hard, they can get things. Very few of my students see that modeled at home.”

In the Raleigh school, I worked with a teacher who was saddened at her children’s problems in accessing their imaginations. She’d made Pokémon a taboo subject, but her students still couldn’t seem to get out of the TV-computer mode that absorbs so much of their time at home. She’s had a hard time communicating to her busy, rather serious parents the importance of reading aloud with their children and nurturing a sense of wonder.

Teachers at both schools care about their students and are providing for their needs, but they are working at different ends of the spectrum. The Raleigh teacher has children who come to her prepared and enthusiastic about life and learning, so she works on introducing her students to their own creative possibilities. The Durham teacher works with children who often come to school with empty bellies, overtired bodies and drained psyches, but she is just as dedicated to helping her students realize their full potential.

Which teacher do you think will have the most success? EndBlock