I have been a teacher for the past twenty odd years and I thought that I would never say this, but I am burnt out. If not burnt out, then certainly my flame is flickering in the winds of change.
The sad part is that when I entered this proud profession, I uncounted these warped and frustrated old educators. I listen to them railing against the onslaught of their young charges while shaking their fists and cursing the heavens for their cruel fate.
I promised myself that I would never become them. I would leave long before joining the ranks of the malcontents. I’m reminded of a conversation that I overheard in the main office during my first week on the job:
“Theses kids aren’t bad, John,” the veteran teacher alleged, sarcastically. “On the contrary, these young people are our future. One day this nation will be in their hands.”
The administrator gave the teacher a long skeptical look. “Well, when that day comes, I hope that I’m dead,” responded the vice principal before turning and walking away.
I am happy to say that I haven’t sunk to such depths, and most likely never will. However, my idealism has vanished, and my passion is fading fast.
I recognized my calling after viewing “To Sir, With Love” starring Sidney Pottier. In the film, Sidney played Sir, an unemployed civil engineer who took a substitute teaching position in the slums of London’s East End. To say that his students were hostile toward him would be like saying that Hitler disliked the Jews.
There was the usually age difference, but there was also a racial, class and cultural difference to overcome. Sir was educated and urbane, his social refinement and sophistication ostracizing him even more than his skin color.
But, in the end, he succeeded at winning them over, finally transforming this group of rowdy seniors into a gathering of young adults, fully aware of their unlimited potential. Sir’s very presence transformed their dingy, dirty little district into a somewhat clearer and brighter place. In the final scene (an English version of the American senior prom) he was honored with song and awarded a token of their gratitude. Swept with emotion, tears ran down my cheeks.
My own start was not that different. I had plans of becoming a city planner. After graduate school, I took the city planners test. My score was more that respectable. Nonetheless, I was informed that it would be a year before the city began calling up promising applicants. With my fellowship award money almost gone, I followed the advice of a teacher friend and applied for and received a sub license.
A star was born. I was a natural. Sir had nothing on me. While as a teacher I was technically flawed, lacking formal training, it may have worked to my favor. I employed the trial and error technique, keeping what worked and discarding all else. Other than insisting that they obey my every command without question, I had no hard, fast rules.
The classroom was my stage. It was there that I performed. I was entertaining, young, educated, and street. Perhaps, most importantly, I was strong enough (physically, mentally, and emotionally) to keep the peace. I never became the sled driver, instead; I opted to become the lead sled dog. So, while I was clearly in charge, I was one of them.
You can guess the rest of the story. When the city finally called me up for an interview, I declined and remained a teacher. After all, who wants to be just another grain of sand on the beach when one can be a star in the sky?
That was over twenty years ago. Since then I has changed from an optimistic young educator to an increasingly pessimistic middle-aged History teacher. Who or what is the blame for this. Is it the students, the school system, the community at large, or myself that is the cause? I have a hunch that it is all of the above.
I sensed that something had changed within me after viewing the movie “Lean on Me”, starring Morgan Freeman. He played Joe Clark, the controversial principal of East Side High located in New Jersey. Principal Clark cleaned out a cesspool of school by tossing out over 300 of the school’s truants, thugs, and drug crazed miscreants
His philosophy was simple. A certain percentage of students will succeed in spite of the school systems failures and ineptitudes. Another percentage will end up dead, in jail, or impoverished despite the school’s best efforts. So, the only ones that ready count, are those in the middle, those teetering on the fence.
With little or no deterrence, many of those on the fence will come down on the wrong side. However, eliminate the core of the trouble makers and most will come down on the right side. It’s as simple as that. The battle is for their soul.
While he got results, neither the community nor the state approved of his methods. As a result, he got canned. I mention him because I’m a Joe Clark disciple. Every garden needs a gardener to prune and clip and clear away the weeds. Without this careful maintenance, what’s beautiful becomes unsightly, and what’s filled of life and vitality become stagnant and dead.
Walk into any public secondary school and you’ll be alarmed by the violence, taken aback by the profanity, incensed by the insolence and dejected by the indifference.
But, disruptive students are nothing new. I myself was a card carrying member of the Vice Lords. However, back then, we thons in the school system’s side represented about ten percent of the class. By the time I became a teacher that percentage had grown to about one third. Now, disruptive behavior is whitened to include half of the class. Insubordination is now commonplace.
To make matters worse, along comes the federally funded “No Child Left Behind” program. Its objective is to bring national accountability to public education. Granted, school systems across the nation were failing miserably and in need of reform. Washington reasoned that if it were going to continue to foot the bill, it had a right to call the shots.
I have a ton issues with the NCLB, but the primary one is that it forces schools to play the numbers game. If Johnny doesn’t come to school, the school doesn’t get x amount of dollars. So, no matter what Johnny does, short of assault, murder, or rape, Johnny is allowed to stay.
Well, there are dozens of Johnnies in every school who warrant long-term vacations for the good of the school and to send an unmistakable message to other would-be Johnnies. Among other things, NCLB ties the hands of administrators and forces teaches to accept chronic disturbances as everyday occurrences.
Also, the “mainstreaming” of special needs students may be a great idea, but when the teacher is overburden with regular students, and is not give the assistant (teacher’s aides mandated by the law) the result is a farce. Many schools do not have the resources to comply with the law, so they simple ignore it.
As a result, a teacher may have a class of 28 students, which includes 6 special needs students who are reading 4 or 5 years behind the others. These special needs student are not able to keep pace without one-on-one instruction. In the end, it’s a farce that is costly to all involved and even criminal.
In regard to the community, school involvement in most inner city school is nearly nonexistent. There are a number of reasons which includes: single parent families, parent forced to work two jobs, elderly grandparent forced into parenting roles, etc. For the last 5 years I’ve seen less that 5 percent on parent/teacher night.
And, America spends an astronomical among of money on education, but the results are marginal at best. I look back over my twenty-five years with no regrets, reveling in the loads of wonderful moments.
I’m not sure what the future holds for me, but know that its time to call it quits. It’s time to walk away from the profession that loved for so long. I will take with me all the fond relationships forged in the fiery furnaces of the classroom, including students and peers. The salubrious faces, indelibly etched in my soul, will follow me all the days of my life. Walking away now is one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to do. But, if I don’t go now, I fear that I will come to loath the very students that I’ve come to love so mush.
In closing, each and every morning I prayed for God’s help in reaching those young minds. And, He was there with me every step of the way. There’s no doubt in my mind that He put me exactly where he wanted me to be. That being the case, if my leaving offends Him, I pray for His forgiveness. And, I ask that he direct me to my next big adventure.