America’s teachers are on the front lines of connecting young people to opportunity, in the form of learning, employment, and emotional and physical health.

But teachers too often are working within structural inequalities that impede many students from achieving their potential. These issues begin with pollution and the stresses of poverty, and extend to economic segregation and inadequate school funding.

We were seeking a direct view into how much such factors determine outcomes for America’s young people and the role that schools play in helping overcome them. We asked teachers in cities across the country to share the experience of how the neighborhood that children are born into affects their futures. Over 500 teachers wrote in.

All of the teachers we heard from went out of their way to praise the hard work and talents of their students. But each also discussed the challenges that students in low-income schools face that students in wealthy ZIP codes do not, including one tied tightly to place: high rates of asthma due to living in polluted areas.

In their own words, here are eight public school teachers on the question of how where students are born shapes their lives. All photos were taken by the subjects or people close to them. These accounts, drawn from interviews and submissions, have been edited and condensed.


  • Past and present racism still determine too much of my students’ futures. Race shapes the map of Atlanta. These school zone lines were drawn by race and are still drawn along neighborhood lines that are tracked by race. I teach in southwest Atlanta. Most of my students are black. Almost everybody receives free or reduced-price lunch. There’s a public high school two ZIP codes over in a whiter, richer part of town. It would be our rival high school if it existed in the same world as us at all. But it doesn’t
  • I am a fourth-year teacher at a non-charter public high school in Oakland Unified School District. It’s one of the oldest high schools in Oakland. We have 100 percent students of color, and 95 percent receive free or reduced lunch. During the fires in California, we were in classrooms full of smoke. Our building is old, it’s funky, the windows don’t seal. Because we’re in East Oakland, a lot of our kids have asthma. A lot of our teachers have asthma. So we’re all in there. We can’t breathe. You can see smoke in the hallway. We can’t dismiss the students without district approval. In other districts, the buildings are newer and that’s less of an issue. Middle-class students and white students tend to flock to one or two schools.
  • I’ve come to teaching in a roundabout way. I studied public policy and then went to work for the federal government. Eventually I decided to become a teacher. My initial goal was to work at a low-income public school in Seattle, and my first job was just that. After a year, I was let go, and I was picked up by a high-income public school. I’ve been teaching there for the past two years. It’s largely a different job. The way that I teach is different, the questions that I get are different. These two schools are 15 minutes apart.
  • My students do not normally advance beyond where they were born. The story of ZIP codes is a story of dreams stolen away from children. I’ve been teaching for about seven years. I grew up in Sacramento County, down the street from where I currently teach. I work at a low-income school. It’s a really diverse school. That’s something I really enjoy. I think there is a huge benefit to having great diversity. For the students, that helps them understand the world better from first-person experience. They meet so many students from other countries.
  • The ZIP code I teach in is 10453, in the Bronx. It’s one of the ZIP codes that has been really hard hit by Covid-19. Many of my students are considered essential workers. Whether it’s fast food, whether it’s Starbucks, many of my students work in retail service jobs, so they cannot stay home. When students have their bosses calling them in for eight-hour shifts, and if they don’t go in, they’re fired, remote learning is really hard for them. They are contributing as breadwinners to their households. Many of their parents work in hospitals and don’t really have the option of working from home either. Many of my students are struggling with Covid-19. I don’t think any of the students at my school have died, but some have become very, very sick. They’ve lost family members. As a teacher, it is really hard for me to keep on rolling when I realize that my students have so many other circumstances that they’re dealing with. I feel like a lot of suburban students and parents are not dealing with that. They’re dealing with the challenges of remote learning, but they’re not as much dealing with the challenges my students face.
  • I returned to work at the middle school I went to. I’m going into my fifth year teaching seventh-grade English and language arts at a charter school in Newark. In terms of demographics, I teach 100 percent students of color. Eighty-five percent of our students get free or reduced lunch. Those are pretty typical demographics for the inner city. There’s just a connection I have with kids teaching in a classroom where I also had seventh-grade classes. A lot of kids find it interesting that I went there. It’s another level of support and trust.
  • I have been teaching in Bridgeport for 13 years. There is a juxtaposition of wealth and poverty in my area. Our next-door neighbors are Fairfield and Westport. At my own kids’ schools in Fairfield, the auditorium was state of the art, and there was no limit to the number of instruments they had or special elective courses they could take and things like that. In Bridgeport, there are buildings that are falling apart. When I think of inequity of resources, I reflect on the fact that teachers are underpaid, and teachers in inner cities generally make $15,000 to $20,000 less per year than teachers in affluent suburbs. I think that’s wrong.
  • I live in 32259 and teach in the 32065 ZIP code of Florida. What a difference a ZIP code makes. The school district where I live has been ranked No. 1 for several years. Parents are involved in the academic and sports lives of their kids. They have the money for tutoring and special camps. The ZIP code where I work is much different. It’s like Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities.” What divides these two counties is a river. One thing that I have learned in my 29 years of teaching is that a majority of the parents are well intentioned. They want their kids to succeed. But socioeconomic factors prevail.

To read more into the stories, please visit: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/05/14/opinion/inequality-schools-teachers.html?referringSource=articleShare