SPRINGFIELD, Mass–At Springfield’s High School of Commerce, two teachers are strikingly similar to one another.
Both men are new hires teaching U.S. History in classrooms located along the same brightly lit hallway. Born in 1992, by 1999 the pair moved with their family from Chicago to Massachusetts. After graduating from Westfield State University they found work in the public school system side-by-side.
The pair are brothers. More than that, they are identical twins.
In addition to their shared genetics, John and Patrick Bartel share a commitment to teaching and share a philosophy about the role of education in young people’s lives. John began teaching at Commerce August 2015. His brother Patrick was hired two months later to relieve some of the stress of overcrowded classrooms.
“I try to facilitate discussion. I try to get students to talk as much as humanly possible, mainly because I’m interested in what they have to say. I’m interested in their opinions,” said Patrick.
Patrick begins each class with ten minutes of lecture, whether that be on social changes of the 1960s or on the brothers’ favorite period in history, World War I. Most of class time is given to student-led discussions.
“I couldn’t teach if I didn’t care about the students,” said Patrick who says he fell into teaching by chasing a passion for history.
John agreed and continued to say that his goal as a teacher is to give students the tools they need to become productive adults.
“I don’t believe in the midterms and I don’t believe in the finals,” said John. “I’m a firm believer in teaching [students] skills. I want them to go out to the work force and go off to college with skills. Skills and accountability.”
Patrick is also a firm believer in holding students accountable. He says education is a two-way street and while he will meet students halfway it is up to the learner to follow through on their responsibility to complete assignments.
“I don’t like to chase people down for work,” said Patrick. “I’m about accountability. I give them tools to succeed, but it is up to them to succeed.”
“I’ll give you help all along the way. If you come to me for help I’ll help you do [the work],” said John. “But at the end of the day, it’s up to you to do it.”
The Bartel twins’ words echo each other as their teaching style simultaneously echoes the message of educator and philosopher Paulo Friere. Friere states that education is more than training a student to be dexterous and competent, education must aim to create an autonomous individual.
Battling the Cycle of Underperformance
While both teachers envision a future of teaching at Commerce, they are worried of the looming threat of the school being classified as a Level 5 “underperforming” institution by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The high school sits at level 4 school due to chronic underperformance on Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) standardized tests. Level 5 means state intervention.
“There are students here who truly do want to succeed in an environment where it can be difficult to succeed,” said John.
If he were in charge, John says he would begin by changing the high school’s attendance policy, which he believes allows students to fall too far behind in their education.
“[Students] are allowed 14 absences over the course of a year. In one class. I think that’s ridiculous. If we make it 7, what is our attendance going to look like? Our attendance would look terrible. I think at first there would be a huge slump but after time it would level out,” said John.
Patrick says he tries to be a support system to his students as they navigate their high school education and beyond.
“A lot of these students, if they go to college, will be first generation college students. I think it is easy to fall into the mindset that, none of my family has gone to college, none of my friends are going, so I can’t go,” said Patrick. “They don’t have a support system.”
While the twins say they do not chase students to turn in their assignments they will intervene to redirect a student headed down the path of dropping out.
“Don’t be part of a statistic that you don’t want to be a part of. That’s a line I don’t like to pull but I do occasionally,” said Patrick. He said he hopes his intervention shocks students to the reality of how dropping out negatively affects career and life goals.
Both educators worry what Trump’s administration means for historically underrepresented students in underfunded school systems who are uncertain about their future. United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos plans to elevate for-profit schools at the expense of public education and push creationist, evangelical agenda according to statements made in 2001.
America’s history carries a tradition of systemically oppressing underrepresented groups of people. When addressing these topics with the underfunded students at the High School of Commerce, Patrick lays the truth bare.
“There are too many moments in history where governments try to forget the past. I try to be as honest as I can. I don’t think it’s a bad idea to let people know about the truly horrible things this country has done from genocide of Native Americans to internment of Japanese Americans during the second World War,” said Patrick.
This tradition of oppression reaches to the High School of Commerce where the primarily students of color have been on the receiving end of racism and insufficient funding for their education.
“I don’t know if there is a way to break out of this cycle of violence we’ve been seeing so much of. I think a lot of it stems from fear, ignorance, that people don’t know much about something that that scares them. I think in general if we can get people more accepting about learning and of discovering cultures entirely different from their own that will end a lot of the fear,” said Patrick.
Patrick says he is critical of the President’s administration while outside the classroom but does not want to ostracize students with opposing political stances.
“Honesty—speaking truth to power—is a revolutionary stance in this political climate”, he said.
Education is the specifically human act of intervening with the world, according to Freire. This progressive approach to learning brings forth radical change in society as individuals use the platform gained by their education to make their voices heard.
John points to examples of Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter as examples of individuals who used their platformed gained by education and experience to drive change.
“Dissent is the greatest form of patriotism. That’s what you saw at Standing Rock and that’s what you see with Black Lives Matter. All those people, whether they’re right or wrong, that’s what moves our country forward. Being angry. People being dissatisfied. If you aren’t enraged, you aren’t paying attention, because there’s a lot to be enraged about,” said John.
Amid turbulence in the government, community and in their students’ lives, the Bartel twins will continue to teach history and help students find their place in this nation’s history at Springfield’s High School of Commerce for time to come.