It’s a winter morning at a Chicago public high school, and one algebra teacher, a tense, middle-aged woman, is ready to boil over. Circulating through the room and glancing at each desktop, she sees that only five students have completed the worksheets she sent home with them yesterday.

She says nothing to the students with missing homework. But to one of the few who attempted the worksheet, she snaps: “You know I don’t accept work like this. How long have we been together?” The girl had neglected to copy the problems onto a separate piece of paper and show her work. When the teacher moves away, the girl quietly rips her homework in half, crumples it and drops it on the floor.

To a boy who forgot his pencil: “You can tell your mother she wasted her time coming down here to talk to me. You have no interest in anything to do with school. You can’t even remember to bring a pencil.”

Several students in the back of the room are talking. She tells them that if they don’t want to learn, they can fall asleep—just keep quiet. As for those who won’t do their homework, the school should just give them their walking papers, she says. “You couldn’t care less. You flunked.”

The semester is ending, and the teacher is frustrated. More than half her students are likely to fail.

If the unmotivated students would leave and get a job, they might learn to value education, she thinks. Her own immigrant parents gave her a clear choice: “Go to school, or you work in the ‘steam farm,’” as they called the sweltering back room of the family business. “It was simple,” she says.

Her own husband dropped out of school, but after three years of tedious factory work, got a GED and went to college. Now he’s a Chicago public school teacher.

In truth, she says she can’t even get her own teenage son to do his homework. Sometimes she wonders, What kind of teacher am I if I can’t motivate my own son? At open house, the teacher makes a point of shaking hands of parents of successful students. “I’m jealous. I wish that parents who have a way of motivating kids would tell the rest of us how they do it.”

The teacher feels she’s doing the best she can. Every day, she assigns homework. Every night, she grades the few papers she receives, and returns them the next morning. She arrives early to teach in a before-school tutoring program that is open to all students but that few attend.

“My success rate is abysmal,” she confesses. She worries about what the future holds for her failing students. “These four years are going to affect the rest of their life.”

Elizabeth Duffrin

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