“Why you talkin’ shit?”
That’s what one of my students said to me when I reprimanded him for throwing paper at another student. It’s not the worst thing ever said to me in school. It’s not even close. That would be, “Get your goddamned hands off me before I break your fucking glasses.” I had told that particular student to report to the office and he walked the other way. I had audaciously placed my hand on his arm to gently guide him in the right direction. Before I tell you what was done to these students, I want to you think carefully about what would have happened to you when you were in 8th grade if you had spoken to a teacher in that way. Do you have it in mind? Good. The paper thrower was suspended for one day. The would-be glasses breaker was sent to class (not mine) without punishment.
This isn’t a recent development. In my career I have seen things that would make the average person cry. Once, in my first three years of teaching, my colleagues and I were coming back to school from lunch. We were walking from our cars to the front door, when we found a student lying between cars, bleeding profusely from his mouth, his nose, his ears, and his eyes. He had been “beaten into” a gang. At that same school, I often encountered evidence that students had defecated in the stairwell. Students would have to walk through puddles of urine to get to class because someone had relieved themselves in the hallway. I remember a mother coming in to my classroom to find out where her daughter had been after school every day. When she found out that the daughter was taking an after school class to get an extra math credit, the mother punched her daughter in the face. Two students, both innocent bystanders, were shot at graduation because they happened to be seated between two thugs who started shooting at each other on sight. There was one time when an assistant principal’s voice came over the intercom, calling for a student who had been shot to death earlier in the school year to report to the main office. I sometimes joke that I called security once in 1989 to come get an unruly student who refused to leave the classroom. When I left that school in 1997, I was still waiting for the security guard to show up.
This is an example of what teachers face today. These are our clientele. Sure, we have good kids. Sure, we have students who are going to be doctors in our classes. Those kids do well under our tutelage. But some days, we face an uphill battle maintaining discipline and motivating students to take a more active part in their learning. How do you appeal to the hard core banger, the kid with 13’s drawn all over their notebooks? What’s that? You don’t know what that is? Google “Sur 13” and come on back. Aren’t you glad you looked? What can a teacher do to change that kid’s mind about the horrible situation that is his or her life? What can I, an individual who has clearly won the education game, offer this kid when ALL of his peers pressure him to not do well in school? Oh, yes, the pressure is there. It is a violation of protocol to do well—heck, to do anything in class. And yet, I keep hearing about how 51% of my evaluation is going to be based on my students’ test scores. If I lose my job over that, good luck finding someone who wants to replace me. This isn’t a picnic.
In 23 years, I have broken up at least 100 fights. I have been personally attacked and have had to defend myself. I have had my property destroyed, stolen, marked with graffiti, and my car has been vandalized in the school parking lot. Despite this, I have put thousands of dollars of my own money into my classroom, with the purchases of dry-erase boards, markers, computers, document cameras, VCRs, DVD players, LCD projectors, and last but not least, batteries for an insulin pump. No, I do not have diabetes. One of my students did and I didn’t want her to have to report to the nurse and miss class just because her pump needed a new battery, which happened frequently. I have given out my home phone number so that students could call for help if their parents were not able to help them. I have volunteered my time in innumerable committees, such as the school improvement team, the homework committee, the climate committee, the PL221 (look it up) committee. I have coached sports, sponsored events, hosted talent shows. You name it, and I’ve done it to help my students learn and to help my school improve. And I, by the way, am far from unique in my building.
I am sick and tired of the constant teacher bashing I see in the press and on television. You want to assign blame for the failure of students in today’s public schools? Look somewhere else. I’m not having any. Not today and not ever.