"Fire is motion / Work is repetition / This is my document / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all we've done / We are all all defenses."

- Cap'N Jazz, "Oh Messy Life," Analphabetapolothology

Friday, March 18, 2011

bad teachers

i saw this conversation on my facebook feed the other day, when high school students around the country were planning walk-outs in support of teachers and workers in Wisconsin.

a little context first, before i completely tear this apart:
  1. Karen is one of my oldest friends. we've been friends since middle school (14 years!) and were best friends in middle school. then, starting in high school, we kinda drifted apart, and now we barely keep in touch. though in some respects i lament our weakened friendship (she was one of my closest confidants), in other respects i am grateful we grew apart, and can totally understand why and how it happened.
  2. Karen has always wanted, from as long ago as i can remember, to be an English teacher when she grew up. and now she is one. in our old school district. she, though, took the traditional student-teaching route (unlike my trial-by-fire, teaching in the trenches, going to night-school, TFA version) and has only recently started teaching her own students full-time in her own classroom (i think this is her second year of full-time teaching).
  3. i don't know any of these other people. but, i do know that they all live in Kentucky.

OK! begin rant:
this kind of mentality makes me SO ANGRY. first off, that a walkout in support of teachers would be considered an inconvenience and for that reason must be shut-down, demonized, and demeaned. and then, that others would be cheering on this authoritative disregard for students' voices and actions, as if teachers need to win some kind of battle against their students, as if succeeding in enforcing (and forcibly teaching) a deflationist, irrelevant, separatist curriculum is the best thing a teacher could do all day with their students. it's so teacher-centric and irrelevant and so MIND-NUMBINGLY BACKWARDS that it makes me want to raze a magnet school.

the mentality that guides these teachers' practice is one of simple-minded obeisance to "performance standards" and status quo and daily planners written in stone. these are terrible teachers. these are teachers who got into the profession to lord over children and manipulate them into performing daily meaningless rituals so they can feel better about themselves. these are the kinds of teachers who use "because i said so" as legitimate reasons to believe or do anything. these are teachers who see their students' natural curiosity as an annoyance to be quelled and stifled rather than nourished. these are the kinds of teachers i HATED in school and made me want to go into ed policy and teacher training.

it makes me so mad! it is a horrible time to be a teacher, what with all the public scrutiny that teachers have come under lately in light of the bill in Wisconsin, and with the cuts to government funding threatening to take away their jobs, their pensions, their benefits and their pay, and with increasing lack of appreciation for what teachers do, it's a wonder ANYONE still endeavors to undertake this difficult job. it is quite possibly the MOST difficult career AND the most necessary to our society. so, it greatly disheartens me, with all the sh*t that is already happening to the teachers from forces outside the profession, to see that some teachers would voluntarily (and self-congratulatorily!) demean and dismiss the importance of recent political activism. LADIES! if you're not going to join the revolution, at least stand aside and let it happen without you!

[ shakes head ]


Anonymous said...

Hey -
I feel like I have to respond to this; I occasionally read your blog and just noticed this post. I think that you misunderstood to some extent the situation in my classroom (although perhaps it was different in Susie's).
I did not shut my students down or tell them that they could not leave. I would not have written them up or taken any action had they left. I said that I was on the fence in my status, because I truly felt uncertain what I should say to them. This was mostly because the students in question had skipped my class for no particular reason before and I was not sure what their motives were. They actually did not know that the movement was about Wisconsin primarily. I didn't want them to do something drastic without conviction or without being informed. I pictured them regretting their decision later had they been caught. Had they been truly fired up about it, I like to think I would have reacted differently.

Here's the other side to the issue, though. My classroom management has been raked over the coals a lot over the past two years because it is too permissive. I tend to treat my students as equals and talk things out rather than use a disciplinary approach. I have been criticized by some parents for introducing controversial material into the classroom (I had to provide alternative reading when I taught Grapes of Wrath due to curse words in the book) that might undermine values. During my Antigone unit, we studied the protests in the Middle East and what level of law is necessary and when it is too much, as well as what "law" even means. I did not offer my opinion, just played devil's advocate and let them voice their ideas. In other words, these ideas that you value were part of my classroom. This may make me seem like a hypocrite on the day of the walk-out, but again, I don't know if the students in question really cared and I did not threaten them.

Here's the last thing. Due to my permissive attitude, I knew that my job was never something to count on, and this happened during a time that I was vulnerable and being closely observed. I was trying my best to balance my beliefs with what the school was demanding of me, and I felt like I could never please everybody (or anybody). I, selfishly and small-mindedly, I suppose, pictured my students walking into the hall, an administrator returning them, and a reprimand for me waiting in the principal's office. I did get one of those by the end of the year (long story), so this is realistic. In any case, yes, I compromised my personal values in hopes of keeping my job, and the resulting guilt is why I put what I did in my Facebook status. I was not proud of it, but I did want to know I was not the only one who was weak.

And you know how the story ends. I lost my job anyway, and I although I re-interviewed, somebody else got my job, probably in hopes that he would be more of a robot than I could ever be. I hope that you see that this was a more complex situation for me than your post suggests.

stephan!e lee said...

Karen -

wow. i'm so sorry. as i read your comments, i felt really bad, because you're absolutely right, i had no idea what your pedagogy was and i shouldn't have assumed. i know what those situations can be like, and i sympathize with you, and i wish more teachers like you/us could have kept y/our jobs, because it really takes more than a robot to make an impact with students. and from what you said in your comments, it seemed like you were conscious of that and making an effort in a difficult situation, and that's not something to be dismissed too lightly.

i had similar experiences my first year of teaching. i too took a permissive attitude towards my students, tried to treat them as people instead of vessels, and tried to incorporate a democratic decision-making process in the classroom. BIG mistake. the kids walked all over me, and i had to find a balance between what i saw as a pedagogy of compassion and trust, and an effective/efficient, realistic teaching practice. that balance is hard won, but it sounds like you made a commendable effort weighing the two and incorporating aspects of each into your classroom.

as for questioning the motives of your students, i understand that, and i too was unsure when i read your comment about your students' true interests in the issue. it seemed though, from what little was said, that the issue was dismissed as irrelevant to your classroom. and that's a criticism i have of most educators: a strict adherence to blanched curriculum without regard for politics or political awareness. it really is a shame that in most schools, teachers and students are discouraged from actually acting on anything they believe in, just to make the school day "easier."

i think what i was responding to was less your approach (i suspected at the time that you were debating your position and the repercussions for you AND your students) than the gun-ho fashion in which Susie seemed to shut down students in her response. the two together made me generalize to all the teachers in your school and made me extremely disappointed. this disappointment has a lot to do, as well, with my own distance from the classroom, my wish to have the power and responsibility that comes with that position, and my utter frustration and despair with the state of education and the teaching profession. i am very glad you addressed those assumptions, and clarified regarding the situation in your classroom. plus, i really enjoy talking to fellow educators about what happens in their classrooms and the struggles between moral conscience and administrative limitations.

as for the job, i'm really sorry to hear about the results. i too was laid off after two years, so i know what that's like too. i was slightly relieved at first, but honestly, i look back every day and think about the impact i could be making in a classroom and wish i had continued to look for teaching work instead of trying an office job. are you still considering teaching? i hope you go back, since it seems you have a lot to offer your students.