Friday, February 01, 2008


I used to be a good teacher.

I work hard, don't get me wrong. I have done everything I am supposed to do and more. I give individual help when needed, I create programs to give after school help, I even give out my home phone number just in case students don't have anyone at home to help them. It's just that I don't get through to students anymore. I can't convince them any longer that education is the key to success and can make a difference in their lives, no matter how disadvantaged they think they are.

I have always tried to use myself as an example of what you can do with your life, no matter what your background is. I grew up poor, an abused child, and I still managed to graduate from high school with honors, get into college, finance a four-year education, and become a professional.

My story used to work. It used to inspire. Now, for some reason, many students accuse me of bragging. They do not believe that success can come to them. They think that I am somehow waving my success in front of their faces to show them what they can't have. The crazy thing is that these kids, generally poor, have every advantage when it comes to getting grants and scholarships. There is no reason they can't go to college and accomplish what I have except that they choose not to take an active role in their own education. It literally drives me crazy to watch them throw away their lives at age 14.

I'd like to blame rap music. I'd like to blame any scapegoat that sends the message that performing well in school is bad. Heck, I'd take the blame myself if I hadn't been busting my rear end for the past 20 years. Public education is under attack from all sides. No Child Left Behind is a thinly-veiled assault. The administration created mandates supposedly to enforce accountability for teachers, but underfunded it to the tune of $56 billion. That basically means that we can't even do what we were doing before because we have to take money away from the insufficient existing programs to increase spending on testing. That's the testing that shows that what we are doing is insufficient and needs to be changed. When you think about it, the basic assumption of the law already says this, doesn't it? So, on one hand the administration has created budget shortfalls in public education with one hand, and doles out money to support private school vouchers with the other. If they think private schools are the answer, more power to them. I'd like to see what these private schools would do with the student in this story from yesterday:

Every teacher, at some point, says that kids behave worse than they used to. My turn came yesterday when I politely asked a student to be quiet and he called me a "cocksucker." I told him quietly to go to the office and wrote him a disciplinary referral and went about my teaching, but it bothered me all day. I don't know about you, but when I was a kid, no student would have dared to do something like that at age 14. I can't even imagine what would have happened. I guarantee it would have been more severe than what's going to happen to this young man. This incident is symptomatic of the complete breakdown in discipline. Why is this happening? Because not only are test scores being tracked, but the number of suspensions is being scrutinized like never before. I wonder if this will still happen when the schools are privatized. I'm willing to bet that no private school teacher will have to suffer an insult like that more than once. I wish those teachers well, whoever they turn out to be.


Martin said...

Jim, wow - just wow. I can't imagine any student, especially a 14 year old, telling a teacher or any other adult something like that. That's horrible. Kids behave like that because of poor parenting. If I ever found out my son said something like to a teacher, or any one for that matter, he'd be grounded and have his games, TV, etc. taken away for months. That's just ridiculous.

Don't let this turn out a bad reflection on you. It isn't your fault at all.

Big D said...

First thing - I refuse to believe that you are suddenly a bad teacher. No, you don't say that with your words, but you hint at it. I understand the burn out and frustration, though.

My girlfriend's girls show symptoms of what you're talking about, here. That gives me a slight point to relate.

I wonder if your example means little to them, because "everyone" is doing it. Two generations ago in my family, no one went to college or a university. My grandfather, a first generation-born American, lied and joined the Army a year early to fight the Nazis. He came home and went righ to work. He instilled in my mother and her brother that college was important. He gave them that goal. Many of their peers went to college or university and became very successful individuals. My uncle went to 'Nam, came home, and eventually screwed up his life real bad. My mother was pregnant with me when she graduated.

My father, however, when to university (and taught Frank Miller while my father was student teaching!). His mother had taught him that college was very important and that he needed to be there. He never used his degree (to the best of my knowledge he alwasy worked retail sales). I have no doubt that many of the New Englanders he went to high school with, also went on to higher education.

Both my grandfather and mother, and my father and grandmother, made sure my little brother and I knew the importance of a higher education. I went for a year and then dropped out to chase a skirt. Not my brightest moment in life and something I wish I had never done, but that's another story. My brother went to Ball State for 5 years and is now a successful architect working for a small firm over in Elkhart.

And most of our friends went to college or university. In fact, many of them went on to study for Master's and Ph.D.s.

Now, if everyone's doing it, what's the point? What makes it so special? Up until now, you were probably teaching kids whose parents were barely older than we are, and were being taught that university is good. Great, even. Now, you're onto a new generation and going to college is just the next step in life to them. A step that doesn't make them any more special.

To our 'rents and grand'rents, it did make them special. More of my peers went on to a higher education level than any of my ancestors. I'm sure the same is true for you.

Now, kids want the instant millionaire status (a left over from the '90s tech/stock boom?), instant gratification via tv and the Intranet, and they want something more than "just" college.

So, if your example of yourself as a successful teach via a bad life turned great isn't working, I'd say the target the kids are looking for has changed, not the kids.

As for bad manners and bad language in the classroom, it's been coming towards us for years. Language on the street and on tv has become more and more casual. I hear kids say the word "suck" all the time. I would have been beaten for saying such a vulgar word in front of my mother. Heck, topics on the tv during Prime Time hours has even become more risque over time. Sure, most of the shows I like cross the line directly into adulthood and are not for kids. But, when Jannine says, "Not when they're around," I say, "Ok." I don't always think about what I'm watching, as I am not use to having the girls around.

No Child Left Behind leaves everyone behind. I'm not going there, outside to say, "It sucks."

I don't have an answer for you, dude. I wish I did, because then I'd have one for Jannine when her girls act out (and they've been acting way-out there lately). As far as I'm concerned, society has crippled you, the soon to be ex-President kicked you while you were down, and there ain't a single blessed person who's reaching out to help teachers in a good way.

I'm not sure I made a point with all of this, so I'll make one now and shut up. ;)

Keep teaching! We need people like yourself, who are passionate, strong, and care about their work doing what you do!

Michael O'Connell said...

Yeah. Lack of discipline is it. And that's at home. No child, raised right at home, is going to go to school and do/say things like that. Nothing you can do about it when the problem is out of your hands. I can't imagine how frustrating that must be.

If you ever get a chance to see the movie "Idiocracy"... Well, I'm not sure if you'll enjoy or not. It is a pretty dumb movie. But it makes a lot of really good points beneath all the goofiness. I just keep seeing America getting dumber. I'm seeing really really dumb people become parents. And a kid raised by morons has got a whole lot of strikes against him from the get-go. Some can overcome it. Some never do. They acquire something called "learned dumbness" and continue the legacy. Very sad.

Sounds to me, hard as it must be to see sometimes, that you're doing all you can. And if my vote counts, I think you're doing a damned good job. And for the sake of a lot of kids out there? I say keep doing it. Hopefully you won't have to wait until your "Mr. Holland's moment" to be able to see the results.

Thank you for reminding me, by the way, that I really need to get back in touch with some old teachers of mine. Ones who made a huge difference in my life and never knew it (and even I didn't realize it at the time). I think they'd still like to hear about that. Something to add to my to-do list...

Bree said...

Unfortunately, I imagine that kind of attitude happens all of the time. I would ground my child for eternity (and possibly strangle them) if they spoke to one of their teachers like that - but I care about my children - lots of parents these days don't.

Keep your chin up, keep teaching, and know that, to some student (even if it's only one every year or two) you are inspiring and they will always remember you.