Saturday, March 30, 2013
For three years I have taught what can only be described as juvenile delinquents. First, for two years at the continuation high school, where stories of substance abuse, physical and sexual violence, and mental illness were the norm. Then for the past year at a regular education high school, teaching the students whose grades were so poor that they were placed into lower-level science courses. These students weren't nearly as bad, with about 40% of them failing all their classes, another 40% in serious risk of failing, and a final 20% managing to quietly do their work and behave themselves.
Both administrators' main concern was my inability to adequately engage my students. At the continuation school, this was a joke. Teachers were evaluated on their ability to deliver direct instruction to a class of quiet, engaged, obedient learners - despite the reality of who the students really were and what they were capable of. (What they really needed was out of the question). I did my best to pretend to give the principal what he wanted, but ended up spending too much time talking to the students about their problems and trying to simply provide a safe, positive environment away from the chaos of their young lives outside school.
Expectations could be higher at the regular high school. These students were much higher functioning. There was a broader range of abilities. While many of the students could do little more than highly scaffolded, fill-in-the blanks worksheets, their emotional and behavioral problems getting in the way of higher-order participation and self-directed learning, many others were genuinely interested in the subject at hand. My job was to meet the needs of both these types of learners. On the one hand, I had to deliver quality, meaningful, engaging instruction while at the same time making the curriculum accessible to the majority of students for whom simple, repetitive tasks were all that was within reach of their emotional and hence cognitive zone of proximal development. It was a forgone conclusion among all the other teachers that, in regard to this specific student population, "they love worksheets".
The sad truth of this is that it reflects the institutional, structural bind the students and teachers are in. Of course the students don't "love" worksheets. But given the practical limitations of the classroom environment, this is how they can at least be successful, even while hating school and feeling trapped in its Kafkaesque, social Darwinist chains; unable to have developed the proper emotional and cognitive capacities for success, they are forced to bow their heads and plow ahead with little understanding of where they are headed, from lash to lash, all the while being reminded of the seemingly futile existence they and their peers share. For them, disobedience is an ongoing political act, the only dignified response they have to a system in which they feel unable to participate effectively. The bargain on offer is that if they simply stay within the lines of respectable behavior, they will earn their freedom. Because they are so poorly developed, and so fraught with emotional, behavioral and cognitive problems which the institution cannot hope to begin to address, school becomes not a place of inspiration but control.
So the dynamic is set: an authoritarian teacher keeps them in line while delivering unto them simplistic, rote behavioral tasks designed primarily to keep them quiet and obedient until graduation. The company line is that the students are choosing their lot in life. The poorly performing students have no one to blame but themselves. The teachers are expected to hold them to this, delivering consequences as needed. As a practical matter, this is what the students need to hear: they have choices, there are consequences for their actions, and they need to become aware of them.
But from a larger, sociological standpoint, the system is failing them miserably: socio-economics is responsible for their underdevelopment, public institutions have not been designed to properly intervene, and the simplistic model of authoritarian teacher keeping them in line while delivering a curriculum that can only be designed to fit into a narrow range of cognitive and behavioral limitations facilitates a model of education that ignores the development of the totality of a student in favor of scoring a few points on academic memorization and self-control for some, while killing inspiration and ignoring real student needs of most. One might call this "Miguel's Window": the explicit design of educational programs to make the most of a poorly-developed, poorly-resourced student population through the use of authoritarian, control-oriented instruction.
At the beginning of the year, when I had not yet realized the reality of the developmental lack in my student population, I had attempted to engage them with more student-centered, higher-order thinking curriculum. It immediately became obvious that the students wouldn't be able to handle such instruction: they were frequently off-task, using the independence as an excuse to not do their work. For them, schoolwork was something to avoid as much as possible in favor of socializing with their friends, destroying class materials, pranking each other and generally avoiding any and all academic pursuits. Rigor was impossible. Studying was out of the question, as homework assignments would simply be ignored. Keeping expectations high was resulting in failure rates of 80-90%. (At the semester, I was told at an evaluation that a 40% failure rate in my classes was unacceptable, primarily because they didn't have the staff for that many summer school classes. But, I was told, I needed to maintain high standards). Phone calls home with this population are nearly useless. So far this year, I've made at least a hundred calls, mostly unreturned messages, wrong numbers, or conversations with exasperated parents who tell me they don't know what to do with their child anymore.
On this blog I've mentioned the notion of "Rambo Escalante", the illusive master teacher who is able to overcome his student's disadvantages and inspire them to greatness. Administrators regularly argue that the teacher is indeed the number one factor in a child's education, despite the fact that either the evidence proves them wrong, or that in thousands of schools across the country, where socio-economics is by far the biggest determinant of student success, most teachers are not doing their job.
So, maybe I could have been that teacher. Maybe my lessons could have been so exciting and engaging that behavior wouldn't be an issue and my students would all be successful. Or maybe I could have been at the very least the teacher who keeps his students so frightened and buckled-under that all do their work and are engaged in every single lesson. (In one critical comment on my final evaluation, one student was observed drawing a picture of a boat instead of writing down my notes, and I didn't catch it. Shame on me.)
I accept full responsibility for not having the best classroom management. My students frequently took out their phones, had side conversations, through things, drew on their desks, cursed, or didn't take their notes. I did my best to correct them. I picked my battles. I wrote "incident reports", I wrote referrals, I made calls home. I tried to catch them all, but there were so many, and I would get tired. I would get angry and yell at them when they wouldn't listen. I would sometimes smack my hand on the table to communicate my frustrated irritation and seriousness. The worksheets are so depressing. The constant reminders to behave were depressing. The resentment my students felt towards me, towards the school, towards their friends, towards life - it was all so hard to take day in and day out. It was so hard to know that I was merely acting as a conduit through which socio-economic inequality was being perpetuated through benign neglect and practical moral compromise. The worst students had the worst lives, were the poorest, the darkest, while the best students had the best lives, were the least poor, were the whitest.
This will have been my seventh year in education. What began as naive optimism eventually decayed into disappointment, anxiety, confusion, fear, anger and depression. I loved my kindergarten students - who couldn't. With them, at least, I felt I was doing good. But even that job became impossible when I was asked to teach a combination class of kindergarten students who didn't know what letters were and first graders who were ready to take of reading and writing. At one point I was designing 16 rotating "centers" a day - reading in the morning and math in the afternoon, so that I could juggle 4 different direct instruction lessons and maintain some semblance of classroom order. (Imagine teaching a group of 7 students on the carpet to write paragraphs while overseeing the rotation of thirteen five-year olds through four different academic subjects via independent learning stations, then switching grades.) After that, the years deteriorated into the charade of teaching the process of protein transcription to emotionally disturbed high-schoolers.
So, the news I got this week was somewhat of a relief. I mostly agreed with the administrator who told me that my classroom management wasn't good enough. I could not be the teacher he wanted me to be. But the truth is, I do not want to be that teacher. I hope he is able to find someone who is willing and able to do it. But me? I'm done playing that game. I refuse to sacrifice any more of my time and emotional well-being - on which I have a dependent family - in the service of a system that is actively harming students by pretending to offer them what they need. It may need to tell itself it is because there is no alternative. But unfortunately, the process of telling the story binds it to a model that does not work, and keeps it from exploring or championing alternatives.
At this point, I don't feel qualified to say what those alternatives might look like. If we had the funding, a good start might be to take the disadvantaged, under-developed kids and give them more of a special-education model, segregating them into small intervention groups in which their needs can be met on an individual basis, without the absurd expectation that they will all prosper in mainstream classrooms. But I'm still to close to the system to see around it right now. I need to back away and get some perspective.
I don't know what my future will look like. It may or may not involve education. If it does, it will be with very young children, where I can still effect change within the system. I'd like to work with poor families, providing real support and effective intervention. I might explore special education,where there might at least be more realistic models for supporting a students needs. But wherever I end up, I need to be me. I'm not a stiff, strict man who tucks his shirt in tightly and issues rigid orders, and I'm not a man who takes orders I feel are impractical, misguided or would otherwise have me ply my skills to ineffective ends.
I went into education because I believed I could make a difference, that I could find a place in a system that seemed so central to our democratic values of giving every child a reasonably equal shot at life. I've come to see the futility of this vision, that my commitment, creativity and capacity to empathize with children was simply no match for the vast number of forces arrayed against them from birth, and the severe limitation of public schooling to effect real change in their lives. In the end, the best I was expected to offer them was soul-crushing, mindless routines designed for control, inspired by fear and domination. The only light being let in was through "Miguel's Window", and it was a cold, cruel light. For me to continue to shine, I'll have to look elsewhere.