26 February 2016

Try Teaching the Defiant: Public School Teachers, Part of the Solution, Not Part of the Problem


I actually heard this directly today: teachers are at fault for how stupid many people are. It was said to me directly, by a teacher. The speaker teaches ESL to adults at the same school I do.(In terms of teaching this is a cushy job.) He was referencing public school teachers. I was one for 25 years. This sort of sentiment is always in the wind. Sometimes expressed, usually by conservatives and others who look for easy scapegoats. Because, you know, it’s way too hard to think through complex problems. How about the same logic for wars? The US lost in Vietnam, it was the soldiers fault. Right?

Most people have no clue what it's like to teach in a public school, particularly an urban one. You probably have about 130 students. If you’re lucky you have one class with just 20 students in it. More likely you have a class of 30. Maybe half your students just show up because they have to and all they’re interested in is a passing grade. Some don’t even care about the grade. Many of them are disruptive. You have to figure in discipline into your lessons and teaching methodologies as a whole.

Where I work now some teachers complain about those students who “aren’t serious.” Boo hoo. I always thought it was the role of the teacher to reach those who were less interested. To inspire. To create life long learners. Teaching people who want to learn is easy. Try teaching the defiant.

But someone who hasn’t been near a public school in 20 years says that teachers are generally poor. Over the course of my career I encountered a few bad teachers. They didn’t last. There is an extremely high attrition rate among teachers who are in the first few years. Many see they can’t hack it and go on to an easier softer profession. Others are weeded out in the evaluation process. Those who survive a few years are universally dedicated, hard-working people who are forever trying to grow as professionals. They take pride in their work but understand their fallibilities and limitations and are humble enough to hone their craft.

I’d speculate that very few of society’s idiots, morons, derelicts and Fox News commentators got that way because of bad teachers. It’s pretty hard for a teacher to make a mess of a person. At worst we fail to impact them. As a middle school teacher most young people came to me pretty well fully formed. There were some who were destined for the Ivy Leagues no matter what we did and others who were prison bound regardless of our efforts. Here’s the thing, with that later group, we tried like hell. We wanted to “save” students. After a few years we see that our success rate with troubled young people is going to be pretty low but we had at it nonetheless because it was the right thing to do — albeit the harder thing to do. It's nigh on impossible to find a lazy public school teacher.

Many of those more difficult students came with some serious issues. Maybe they were being raised by one parent. Maybe that parent was an addict. Maybe they were being raised by an exhausted grandmother or an abusive stepfather. Maybe the student had been sexually assaulted. Maybe a student was already using drugs. Many were angry or depressed or both. Many had serious anxiety. Many had parents who were not only difficult for them to deal with but were difficult for us as teachers to deal with. For every 130 students there would be seven or eight parents who were a pain in the ass. Trust me, that’s a lot. The pressure could be overwhelming at times for teachers.

Add to all this the real possibility that we had an incompetent administrator who made our lives even more difficult. A bad administrator does way more damage to a school than one lousy teacher. Or two. But you never hear society’s ills pinned on school principals. Nope, its those goddamned teachers who screw everything up.

Of course the job can be pretty peachy if you’re working in a high income area with manageable class sizes, all the supplies you need and students who are much more likely to come from supportive, stable home environments. It’s still a grind and you’ve still got challenges and you’re still underpaid but the headaches are fewer and farther between.

People who criticize teachers are usually like sports fans who’ve never played a sport criticizing athletes. They are more likely to mouth of and far less likely to know what the hell they’re talking about. Parents who complained about a teacher or a school were usually those who never visited the class or the school. It's easier that way. You can make shit up.

I’ve done some things in life I’m frankly ashamed of. I’ve done a lot more things I’m proud of. One of the things I’m proudest of is my service as a public school teacher. I wasn’t the best but I was dedicated and possessed of a passionate determination to better the minds and souls of my students. In this respect I am just one of many. To have worked with the teachers I did, who perform near miracles under extreme pressure on a daily basis is a source of immense gratification to me. That these fine souls are often blamed for our problems just pisses me off.

(Dedicated with kind thoughts to Jessie and Michael and the other fine teachers at Willard with whom I had the privilege of working.)

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