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Education Reporter

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The Emergency Teacher. Christina Asquith, West Parley Press, 2005, 273 pp., $19.95

"If only these reporters could get past the school's public relations and tell us what's really happening!" If you've ever thought something similar, read The Emergency Teacher. Christina Asquith left her career as a Philadelphia Inquirer journalist to serve as an emergency teacher. The school system placed her in a bilingual 6th-grade class in a middle school ranked 42nd out of Philadelphia's 42. Asquith recounts the story of her year, in an inside look full of human interest and candid observations.

"I wanted to be a success story and to have a message that new, idealistic teachers could succeed in this environment." Asquith still believes that with training and support, emergency teachers could survive and prosper. Yet the problems she encountered went far beyond the mere shortage of teachers and proper training. "I felt that in the current school environment, anyone who wanted to improve the situation or make a difference was seen as a threat to an entrenched, corrupt, well-funded bureaucracy that was accountable to no one, and which would defend itself even to the extent of denying the problem."

Asquith tells us that for weeks, she spent every moment creating lesson plans from scratch, when administrative mismanagement left her without textbooks. She describes how both special education and bilingual education at her middle school were largely mythical, existing only on paper, while students with special needs languished. Although Asquith sees little evidence that bilingual education helps students, she decries the injustice of pretending students are receiving it when they are not. The story grows even more alarming as the year goes on, and the administration gradually loses control of the school. Students suffer as every day the situation spins farther into anarchy.

By the end of the year, the principal's mantra, "Failure is not an option," takes on an ominous double meaning. She demands that teachers advance students to the next grade, regardless of the skills they have (or have not) attained — all in order to create the appearance of improvement and success. Asquith's loyalty lies not with the teacher's unions or the system, but with the students and their families. With humor, honesty and insight, she brings us face to face with the systemic problems she discovered, and with the teachers and students who struggle to teach and learn in spite of those problems.

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