Archive of ‘Teacher Topics’ category

A Class of Contradictions

Every time I enter a high school, the smell hits me first. This essence of old, ratty books, smelly teenagers, caustic cleaning supplies, and frustration is pungent. I’m further assailed by the many different varieties of perfume—all cloying in their own way—and the artificial pheromone of cologne thick on guys. My eyes are assaulted by shorts and skirts that barely cover the butt cheeks and definitely would not have passed the “finger test” from my high school a little over ten years ago, tanks that show almost every inch of the skin, and pants lower on the legs after exposing colorful underwear. My ears hear curses that abound like kudzu in a Georgia forest, and I’m learning new ways to use words such as “dick,” “pussy,” and “asshole”. Girls have prayer in the middle of this chaos, and at the same time, other girls are singing in unison while two guys beat-box and rap. The sound is a cacophony of student hopes, dreams, and possibilities. The accumulation of this sense-strong setting is a teenage collage in the brightest color.

The smell is what always brings up memories, though, as I enter a high school. I once had colorful hair, pushed the limits of the dress code, and cursed like a drunken sailor (an act I still practice in Atlanta rush-hour traffic). The smell conjures the juxtaposing feelings of anxiety and stress with possibilities and hope. I was anxious about my body—were people looking at me or, worse yet, not looking at me?—and stressed over the minute details of my school work and tests—I had to get everything perfect or it seriously bummed me out. I was worried about lunchtime—would people sit at my table, would they make fun of my pristine table manners, and would I even have anything to add to the conversation? I was a painfully introverted student that preferred the company of a good book over that of most people. My talkative spirit had already been slapped down by a miserable crone of a teacher in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and ever since that fifth-grade year, I hadn’t recovered whatever piece of my spirit she had stolen. I was constantly working on finding that cheerful motor-mouth that I once was.

But I also remember that despite how much I wanted to leave the hallowed halls of my small-town high school (900 students in all), I was also filled with the possibilities of what could happen after high school. I could choose any career, go anywhere, be anyone. Most high school teachers were big on telling us that the possibilities were endless, keeping the fact that most of us were already on a lifetime track put in place by our surroundings and our biology. The candy-coated view the teachers and counselors gave to me was the one I held onto and why I tried so hard to excel in everything. I loved living in this world of hope and dreaming of possible futures. And teachers did get some of this right. I was able to dream bigger than I once thought I could, and the path I chose to walk brought me confidence, if not a wonderful career. I could have gone to almost any college, but I chose Georgia Southern University to stay close to a family that was about to rip apart. I’m glad for this choice. And while I know not every student had or has as many opportunities as I did, I know they still had opportunities and choices of their own to make. They still had possibilities for their futures of which they could dream.

Because of this view, I enjoy observing the students around me when I substitute and wondering what they will turn out like in their futures. I don’t see a class of hoodlums and punks despite the way they dress, talk, and act (because, if we’re honest, my generation was doing things that shocked the teachers around us). I observe something more than the low-riding pants, the skirts that barely cover the butt, the language that assaults my ears, and the smell of perfume mixed with angst. I can see a comic book/video game nerd that will find his place among a group of friends that enjoying going to Dragon*Con just as much as he does. I see a girl that will one day work in a Buckhead salon, making money off her talent to not only make people look beautiful but to make them feel beautiful. I see a future preacher who already has a flock of her own. I see a musical artist who can spin rhymes like Rumpelstiltskin spun gold and future singers bound for recording agencies. I see future mothers and fathers, students that will make great parents and teachers. I see electricians, plumbers, and mechanics who do the work because it pays well but also because they enjoy figuring out and fixing problems. I see teachers—elementary, middle, and high—and professors, students who are willing to put up with quite a lot for that rare glimpse of a child’s understanding (and, of course, the great holidays). All this I can imagine in just one classroom, and it makes the future look bright and those scary memories of my own disappear, making me appreciate the possibility now turned to reality in which I live.

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To Lose It or Not to Lose It – That Is the Question

I wrote this last December and think it is a topic that needs to be shared. Enjoy!

I overheard an interesting conversation today at work. Virginity—when is the right time to lose it? And the most interesting part, this conversation was happening between two adolescent males, either in the junior or senior class. The class was working on their worksheets, aka “busy work,” and I was reading my novel. The students were talking but also getting the work done. No problems there. It was a science class, so maybe these guys felt this was the appropriate place for this conversation.

What caught my attention initially (besides the fact that they’re talking about sex in front of the teacher’s desk) was that male #1 (let’s call him John) was talking about how he was going to lie to his parents about spending the night at a friend’s house. Male #2 (let’s call him Steve) told John that was a good idea. I mean, his first time should be really special, and booking a hotel room was the thing to do. John confessed that he didn’t know if he could actually go through with it, much less convince his girlfriend to go through with it. But on the other hand, he was so tired of waiting. What if he waited until he was, like, twenty-five (oh my!) and realized that he had missed out on all those years on something terrific? Or worse, what if he had been worrying for all those years about something that wasn’t even that great once he finally did it?

Steve admitted those were all good questions. This Casanova could say from experience (if this was a nature show, he would have puffed his chest out a bit) that John would not be disappointed. In all of Steve’s vast experience, it was all good. They then went on to talk about other male-related stuff, and I found interest in my book once more.

The thing that struck me about this conversation was that we (and I mean the collective, societal “we”) hardly ever think about what the males are actually thinking and/or feeling when it comes to losing their v-cards. We’re all so focused on the females, the damsels, the maidens, the ones who must be protected at all cost. We see the female perspective on television and in movies, yet where is the male’s perspective on losing one’s cherry? Surely they’re not all sex-crazed maniacs that will stop at nothing to get in the pure, white undies of the females? So why don’t we see their perspectives? I know shows like Freaks and Geeks tried to illuminate the situation for us with Sam and his friends, but these are few and far between. Let’s have some gender equality in that. And let’s applaud this teenage boy for thinking about his options rather than jumping feet first into a situation that will be life-changing.

**On a side note to this piece, a documentary entitled The Mask You Live In is coming out this year, and it focuses on American masculinity. This is made by filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who also made Miss Representation. Too often we expect boys and men to swallow their emotions and “be a man.” But what does that truly mean? And what is the cost of this continuous need to prove masculinity? It’s one of the documentaries I’m looking forward to this year, and you can read more about it here.

To Teach or Not To Teach

I recently read an article on the Washington Post website that a teacher friend of mine posted on Facebook. It made me ill, it brought tears to my eyes, it brought bad memories of a past experience, but mostly, it had me scared for my future children. Although a longer piece, I encourage you to read the article because it captures what teachers go through day in and day out, at least the teachers that give a damn. As you know from my About page, I am a substitute teacher and I have my Masters in English Education. I love subbing because I avoid most of the horrible issues brought up in this article, but I hear about them every single day I’m in the school. And I’ve experienced them firsthand.

To sum up, the article makes a few major points.

1) Teachers are told that no student is allowed to fail regardless of whether students hand in work or not. Failure is not an option, so students are just given grades at this point through no fault of the teacher.

2) Teachers are overworked. You think they’re lucky getting all that unpaid time off? Think again. Teachers put in around 80 hours a week but don’t get compensated for this extra time. Those planning periods they have don’t actually go to planning lessons. They exist for meetings, PLUs, conferences, etc.

3) Teachers get blamed by parents when their children are not making the grades the parents expect. If Johnny doesn’t turn in an assignment, it’s the teacher’s fault. Not Johnny’s fault. However, Johnny still gets a grade for the missing assignment. See #1.

4) Instead of teaching meaningful things that harken to learning about humanity, such as Shakespeare, Chaucer, Twain, Poe, and Dickens, teachers are now expected to teach meaningless things geared solely to passing tests and gauging shallow objectives.

Again, I encourage you to read the article.

ImageAll of these things rang true in my short two-year teaching experience. I even gave up a teaching position, went back to being a teller in bank for a while, and then came back to substitute teaching because of a few of these issues. In a previous position a few years ago, my classes were taken away in March, I was given new students who had not completed a single assignment all year long, and I was told to help them pass by May. If these students so much as completed one activity and passed the End of Course Test (EOCT) in Ninth-Grade Literature and Composition, then they passed for both the Fall and Spring Semester. That’s all they had to do to pass. All that other work the other students completed, they didn’t have to do. All that curriculum planning I meticulously worked on throughout the year didn’t apply to these students. It was like winning the lottery for the lazy and unmotivated. I couldn’t have my name associated with that so I quit. I was also having stress-related health issues and was working 60- to 80-hour work weeks without being compensated beyond my 40 hours.

Reading this Washington Post article brought up the memory of all this, but again, this wasn’t the worst part of reading the article. It was the thought of my future kids. If the students who really deserve F’s are given C’s (because D’s don’t actually exist in most schools anymore at least around where I live), then what does that do to the students who actually deserve C’s? Do those students who deserve a C then automatically get a B, and those students who deserve a B then get an A? And worse still, those students who should get an A, are then told they’re perfect? Giving students false grades is skewing the bell curve for all the students. This doesn’t just hurt the lazy students who aren’t handing anything in; this isn’t just teaching hard work doesn’t matter, which is bad enough as it is. It is also giving false hope to those students who are receiving high grades who might not actually be earning quite as high of a grade as they should get. If you’re giving students who deserve to fail a passing grade, then you’re bumping all the other grades up as well. However, this may be hurting the other students rather than helping them. If they’ve been told all through grade school that their work is A-level work based on this skewed grading system, they’re in for a rude awakening in college when their professors tell them their work is B, maybe C, work. This “new” system is not adequately preparing any student for the great beyond from high school.

Furthermore, this system shits on hard work. Sorry for the language, but like the language, it is deplorable. Studies have been shown that it’s important to tell your children, especially your girls, that when they do something well, instead of “you’re so smart,” you say “you’re such a hard worker.” This encourages them to work hard on everything they do rather than giving up if something is difficult, thinking they’re just not smart enough. However, if they constantly see in their schools that regardless of hard work, they can still pass the course, what kind of a message does that send? Teachers should be teaching hard work along with their subject area, but their hands are now tied. Parents should be teaching hard work, but they now blame the teachers if hard work is not done, in fact if no work is done.

Where does it end? And how do I teach my future children to be hard-working, self-sufficient people in this educational environment gone mad?

There is no easy solution for fixing the educational nightmare we face in our country. The documentaries, such as Waiting for Superman, try to pinpoint what should be done, but no method can fix every little issue. Furthermore, it looks as if more and more teachers are leaving the profession for others either on their own accord or because they are forced to due to budget cuts or the like. The educational world is losing good teachers because the headaches and heartbreaks that come with teaching just aren’t worth the return. For those thinking about getting into teaching, think long and hard about this professional field. It is not for the weak of heart. I have seen many great teachers have to leave because they just couldn’t take it. However, I also know quite a few awesome teachers still shaping young minds and trying to work within the system. For those teachers who still teach, I applaud you.

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Judgment

I introduced my husband to the movie The Breakfast Club on Christmas Eve (we were a little overplayed on all the Christmas movies). I found that while I still LOVE the movie as much as I did when I watched it repeatedly while in high school and as a preteen, I am now perplexed by the character of Richard Vernon more so than the teenage characters. I’m sure this has something to do with my working in the school system. I found myself growing more and more agitated with him because of his narrow views of each child and in particular his treatment of John Bender. I know I disliked him as a teenager, but I loathe him even more now as a person who works in education.

For those of you not familiar with The Breakfast Club or Richard Vernon, here’s a quick rundown of his character. He’s put in charge of Saturday detention and of the five students who show up to serve it. As their punishment, they are to do nothing except write an essay telling him who they think they are. Vernon has already stereotyped them—as they all have already done to themselves and each other—as an athlete, a princess, a basket case, a brain, and a criminal. Throughout the film, Vernon continuously mocks and bullies the students but none so much as John Bender, the stereotyped criminal. Many revelations are made throughout the film that make this worth watching, including one or two made by or to Vernon.

I would think that the screenwriters were trying to exaggerate Vernon’s character in the movie, but it’s sad to say that I’ve run across some people working in education like this. I wrote the following during the past year of my substitute teaching. No particulars as to where I was, who was involved, or even when it was.

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Last class of the day. Out of breath, slightly sweaty, and a bit pissed that they scheduled my classes on opposite ends of the high school campus. All I can think is I won’t be prepared. I’ll have no idea what I’m walking into as the substitute. Try not to panic. My day planner drops, and papers fly. Shit! Yet another reason why I should have gotten rid of that dinosaur. Thank goodness for the kind student who helps me pick up everything. Jiminy Crickets, you’d think I was in a high school drama. Ugh!

Walk in and there’s another sub already there. Must be an inclusion class and both teachers have substitutes today. He’s an older gentleman who has already ascertained his dominance in the classroom. Think cat spraying all around the teacher’s desk but with all his personal belongings. He won’t even let me see the lesson plans, stating he can handle it. I can just help him pass out papers if the need arises. (Guess I’ll play secretary.)

Class commences. Right off the bat the class is difficult to control even with “the strong arm of the law.” These kids are good; they know the drill. We really can’t do squat. However, most of the class finishes their work within the first thirty minutes of class. Guess, all that peacocking by the students was just for show since they still did their work. It gets loud, though, since everyone is talking and on their electronic devices listening to music and watching movies. I look at him to see what he’s going to do since I don’t want to step on his toes. He shrugs his shoulders at me. Eventually it starts to get to him, though, and Mr. Hard Ass asks for order. Guess that’s an order these kids aren’t going to fill. Another forty-five minutes to go. Joy!

Surprisingly, this was a pretty decent day as a substitute. UNTIL.

“Wow, what a bunch of nothings these kids are going to be,” the other sub says loud enough to me right before the bell rings. I know some of the kids had to hear him say it.

My look must say “incredulous deer in headlights.”

I audibly say, “What?”

And he responds, “I mean, I know we can’t all be winners, but I can’t believe we got a class full of bottom-dwellers.”

The bell rings. Everyone leaves, including Mr. Asshole. I’m still standing in the same spot with a million things I want to say but can’t.

Were we just in the same class—the class where all the students finished their work? Yeah, they were loud. It was also the last period of the day, and they had two subs. Give them a break. It wasn’t like we were exactly being staunch enforcers of every rule. Was he saying that because most the class was African American and Hispanic and below the poverty line? Am I bad for even thinking that? And what had these students done that warranted such an aggressive judgment? Who was he to pass such judgment after only spending one class period with them? I don’t believe any student is a lost cause, and I don’t believe in feeding negativity to students. In fact, positive reinforcement tends to work best.

Sometimes the only people we need to consult before passing judgment is a mirror, for myself included. Hear that, self?