Friday, June 09, 2006

Who Was Your Favorite Teacher?

Recently I’ve read a couple of blogs concerning memories of the over-30 set of their teachers. The disdain and malice folks have concerning at least one of the many teachers they had throughout their school years has left me feeling stunned. Frankly, I am amazed that these writers were so impacted by a person they saw probably less than an hour a day for a time span of a little less than ten months. Based on the support of school teachers by the public I would have assumed almost every teacher's impact to be minimal at best.

I was a public school teacher in an inner city school for 22 years. Until I started my own program designed to prepare select students for college entrance, I don’t think I impacted my students much at all. Then for the last eight years I taught I had a special program to get students prepared to actually be competitive in a regular college environment.

I started the program for two reasons. First, I was worn down from always having the most problematic students in the school. Because I was a really good disciplinarian, I got the kids with the worst learning problems and consequently the behavior to match. A good teacher will tell you that it takes great skill to handle these kids, but intellectually stimulating it is not. We were always playing catch up, trying to create experiences that were positive but also extremely structured. Teaching kids to correctly spell the word "Wednesday" year after year eventually becomes intellectually stultifying.

Also, I knew that our better students were being continually cheated by earning inflated grades. An "A" in the high school I worked at did not bear even a remote resemblance to an "A" in a suburban setting. The top ten percent of our students went to college and routinely flunked out. They had no idea how to actively study, they had no background in great literature and art, and they spoke and wrote sub-standard English.

To many of the kids who went through my program during those last eight years of my teaching career I probably made a huge difference. For the majority of my career, though, I was just another cog in their failing system.

Possibly because I taught for so long I am able to realize that teaching is just like any profession. It attracts both the well-meaning and bright as well as the incompetent and mean. Maybe teaching gets more of the bad, though. We routinely pay teachers such a sub-standard wage that only the most altruistic and dedicated even consider teaching in the first place. The Ivy League graduates rarely commit to teaching in a public high school becuase the pay, the respect, and the working conditions are terrible. I’m continually surprised when adults knock the teachers they had, instead of wondering in amazement just how they lucked into having any decent teachers at all.

If a city wants a great football team, they invest millions. If parents or a community want good teachers the same principle applies. If you have a really great teacher, you have to think exactly what luxuries that teacher gives up to remain in such a poor paying, low esteemed position. Honestly, the major wage earner of a family can NOT afford to be a teacher.

Is it really reasonable for a teacher to make a huge difference in someone’s life when that teacher looks out at upwards of 150 faces a day? Is it acceptable to be forced into grading 150 essays each week and give each one individual attention? Is it possible to pick out that one miserable face during a 50 minute period when that face is buried in a sea of 30 others? If you ever had a teacher who managed to do that for you, consider that the top salary of that teacher was never over $50,000 a year – and was probably around $35,000.

I was expected to be in my classroom at 7 a.m. five days a week. My lunch break was often taken up by cafeteria duty, hall patrol, or counseling. When school ended at 3 p.m. I was expected to spend several hours grading papers and several hours more creating lesson plans. Frequently I had three to five different classes a day with special preparation needed for each. Also I was expected to contact parents who were usually angry when I finally reached them. At least once a week I was expected to sponsor a club or class event after school.

The district wanted me to know the individual needs and learning styles of each of my 150 students. They also expected that I would correctly discipline that child when necessary. Discipline was not confined just to my classroom; I was expected to monitor the halls and the grounds of the building. Moreover, even when a child came to me three to seven years below grade level, I was expected to get that child on-grade level for standardized tests. All of this earned me a top salary of $32,000 a year.

In 1990 I quit teaching. I loved the classroom but the system had become ungodly. The pay was horrible, the respect was nil, and my district decided, under court order, to turn every single school into a magnet school. Students who couldn’t read at third grade level or spell "Wednesday" would now be going to a full emersion French magnet or entering the Greek magnet which had a swimming pool the coaches could walk under to watch kids swim.

The magnet school system was lauded across the country until it failed 10 years later and suddenly parents wanted the "neighborhood schools" back. Meanwhile my district spent upwards of two billion (yes BILLION) dollars creating these magnet schools. Teachers, of course, never reaped the benefits but the construction companies in our city which built the new schools got rich.

I had had enough. Frankly, I wanted to see what it was like to actually be able to go to the bathroom when I needed to and not when I had a break scheduled by a computer (or an administrator) who didn’t care that I was teaching from 7:35 until 1:20 without one. I wanted to know what a living wage actually looked like. And I wanted some respect for the job I was doing.

I don’t actually remember my own teachers very well. Of course I’m 60 years old so my schooling was a long, long time ago. Some teachers were really good, I’m sure and I liked them and their classes. Some were just so-so and some were probably really awful. It is true that in the eighth grade my grandmother had to take me in hand because I didn’t know my multiplication tables and consequently couldn’t do long division. I’d managed to hide that fact from third grade on so clearly somebody slipped up.

But the hard truth is I don’t remember the names or faces of many of my teachers. I remember much more clearly my peers, the kids I went to school with. I remember the snubs of the snobs and the friendship of the losers who made up my little clique. The teachers were just bystanders for the most part. I learned some stuff and I forgot a whole lot more. I found I didn’t like eighteenth century American authors no matter how well they were taught and I loved the nineteenth century British authors no matter how poorly they were introduced to me. I learned that math and science were not my fields of interest.

Some teachers didn’t see me or my talent which I was sure at that time I must possess. My music teacher ignored me. So did the journalism teacher. Some saw talent I never knew I had, like the football coach who also taught English. I don’t remember many of the names of either the good ones or the bad ones.

Honestly, I don’t think it’s fair for us to curse the rotten teachers until we fix the system that denies the best and brightest, the ones who could be great teachers, the ability to earn the kind of living they deserve and to gain the respect they should receive. We are the villains because we don’t care enough to make teaching a valued, honored position in our communities. If we ever had a teacher we remember fondly we were really, really lucky. That teacher survived in a world of indifference, especially given the current environment of our public school system.

We shouldn’t be throwing stones; we should be looking at an extreme makeover of the system. The next time you want to rant about a poor teacher, remember that as a society we pay for what we get.


abigailroad said...

That is an amazing entry. It really got me thinking about my own teachers. The school system is a bit different here in Canada, but basically, the teachers job is still the same. The teachers that I hated back in high school, I now respect in some way, as it was them treating me like crap that made me stronger and more vocal. The teachers that I loved, were teachers who took time out of their busy day to give me crap, and a damn good reason for it...and they made me stronger as well. Because I'm from a small town, I will most likely never be able to forget most teachers (everyone knows everyone, lol)...but no matter what you think, I bet you did make an impact on your students. maybe not all of them, and maybe not in ways you think you did...but every teacher does, whether they think so or not.

Bev Sykes said...

I did a "teacher" entry a couple of years ago:

I think it's a shame that teachers don't always know the huge impact they can have in a student's life. (The impacts my teachers made were all positive and, as an adult, I was able to find some of them to let them know the difference they made in my life.)

I know teaching can often be a thankless task. I'm glad there are dedicated people like yourself out there.