You Can’t Save Them All: The Moral Economy of Teachers’ Work in an Inner-City High School
Charles Aiden Downey

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



University of Alberta, Canada

Primary Discipline

This project emerges from three years of ethnographic fieldwork with the twelve teachers who staffed the vocational program of an inner-city public high school to address three central questions: How do teachers understand and experience the “failure” label slapped perennially on their school? How do teachers solve the practical and moral dilemmas their work presents to them? How do teachers sustain themselves in the face of the many threats to their teaching identities? The project asserts that stories play a central role in how teachers understand their students, the moral dilemmas an under-resourced high school presents to them and, ultimately, themselves as teachers. It fundamentally challenges prevailing conceptions of inner-city teachers as either heroes or villains with an account of teachers living between these two caricatures, offering a much more nuanced picture of the conflicting institutional, social and cultural worlds teachers confront in an inner-city high school. With the support of the Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship I will interview the teachers five years after completing my initial fieldwork to provide another chapter to many stories that unfolded over the course of my time there, fueling a reanalysis of my initial data. The result will be a readable book that offers a sobering picture of the lives of teachers in an inner-city high school– the necessary and often overlooked starting point for genuine school reform.
About Charles Aiden Downey

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