The following ideas and anecdotes took shape from my own experiences at three high schools (inner-city and rural), as well as from interviews with many other high school teachers.
Fifteen-year-old Alex, covertly listening to his CD player and drinking what appears to be Coke®, saunters down the hallway toward my third period English class. He slides the bottle into his oversized pants pocket and tugs on the earphone wire just as we make eye contact.
“I’m late cuz my last class was all the way across campus,” he says.
I tell him to go on into the room and get out his folder.
“I gotta go to the bathroom first,” he says.
This is our ritual.
“I’ll let you go to the bathroom if you’ll promise to come after school to get caught up on your work,” I say.
Everyday for three weeks, I have reminded Alex that he needs to come in after school to get caught up on the work he missed while he was in jail. In the teachers’ lounge, we wonder if jail is an excused absence.
* * *
We wonder a lot of things in the teachers’ lounge.
We wonder why two students in the shop class were expelled for only a day and a half for “accidentally” hitting a teacher with a two-by-four when the teacher was trying to break up their fight.
We wonder why we have to sell candy in our classrooms to make money for our school when students are not allowed to have food in the classrooms.
We wonder why gangster boys wear the waists of their pants down below their bottoms when doing so just makes it harder for them to run from the cops.
We wonder what we’re supposed to do if there’s ever a catastrophe in our classrooms because we don’t have emergency call buttons or phones.
We wonder why we only have 25 desks in our rooms when all of our third period classes have more than 30 students.
We wonder why we can't hold kids accountable for bringing a pencil and a piece of paper to class, and why we have to beg them to open the book, and why we get in trouble when they decide to go to sleep in class after they've stayed up all night texting their friends and playing video games.
When we’re especially frustrated and downtrodden, we wonder not only why but how the teacher can be expected to call parents whenever a student misbehaves, get students to come to tutorials and detention, be on duty in the hallway between classes while students are free to steal things in our unattended classrooms, be sensitive to the needs and feelings of all students when few students bother to be sensitive to ours, modify all lessons for at least five different student types in every class, prove that we have covered all the required material, defend ourselves against accusations of prejudice and unfairness, report suspicious activity or possible abuse, break up fights, and grade papers, and make copies, and research ways to improve the classroom experience, and decorate the classroom, and attend departmental and committee meetings, and sponsor student organizations, and support students’ extracurricular activities, and distribute important school information, and keep students awake, oh—and entertain students so they will enjoy class.
* * *
It’s not that we have a problem teaching. Most of us love our jobs—for a variety of unlikely reasons. For one thing, we believe we are doing more good for the world, and for the United States of America, as teachers than we could do in any other field. Thomas Jefferson said in a letter to James Madison, “Above all things, I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good senses we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.” Democracy cannot succeed in an uneducated society.
Great teachers will tell you that their primary motivation is the thrill of "watching the light come on in a student's eyes." (A cliche becomes a cliche for a reason.) These teachers could be doing so many other things with their lives, but they choose to teach for purely intrinsic reasons. They are nurturers. People who get involved in teaching for any other reason are hurting not only their students, but themselves. The idea that "those who can, do, and those who can't, teach" . . . clearly originated because of one of those misguided teachers, who thankfully are a small minority. I challenge any CEO and any politician to teach high school for one day.
Imagine a world where teachers could concentrate on the actual teaching, instead of on paperwork, on the hoops looming before them in their efforts to get things done, and on their entertainment quotient. It would be eerily similar to the world of 30 years ago, back when all the teachers had a paddle in their desks and parents were automatically on the teacher's side instead of that of their own kid.
Teachers all over the country know what the problem really is: The students are allowed to be in control. On the flipside of that is the fact that teachers have all of the responsibility and none of the authority. Someone has to take responsibility for a broken system, for a child who is hard to reach, and for every social/family/physical problem kids carry into school every day. Teachers try to tackle all these issues even though they are knowingly putting themselves at risk. If a student or parent complains, it is the teacher on the hotseat alone. Every single decision she made can be called into question despite the conditions under which she was acting and reacting. Every word she said can be taken out of context.
Inside her own classroom, however, great teachers usually triumph. Once a teacher establishes a rapport with each student in an individual class, that class will perform for that teacher. However, just beneath the surface, even in the best of classes, is the prevailing attitude that fairness is not only a right, but is someone else’s responsibility. Perhaps the students believe that the world owes them something just because they happen to be alive and, when faced with “unfairness,” one can simply sue somebody or come out fighting in some other way. In the teenage mind, it’s fun to fight “the enemy,” even if that enemy is one they have had to manufacture in the school system. Once a teacher has connected with her own students, she is safe . . . until she walks out into the hallway and encounters other people's students.
Teachers often won’t stand up for themselves because they are afraid. The bureaucracy of administrators seems to rise above them endlessly. At any point along the gossip route from one end of the school to the other, a teacher can be accused of “not being a team player.” Her requests for materials, faculty development, or choice of classes can be ignored. The squeaky wheel may get addressed faster, but it also develops a reputation for being squeaky.
I don’t know this for sure, but I think administrators are afraid, too. They’re afraid of the school board, which has every administrator hanging by a thin thread of job insecurity. They’re afraid of the students’ parents, who storm into the administrators’ offices with threats and accusations and lawsuits. Administrators need to be invisible, so they have to sweep problems under the rug. Attention is rarely a good thing, especially if the media gets involved. End-of-the-year reports on student behavior have a direct effect on the future of the school's administrators.
And I know for a fact that many parents are afraid of their kids, who storm around in a fashion very similar to their parents’. Kids KNOW that all they have to do is yell "abuse" to send their parents into a tailspin and get what they want.
I believe I am speaking for teachers everywhere (and certainly some parents) when I say, I have a dream today.
With the sincerity of Martin Luther King, I say to you today, my friends, that inspite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in not only my desire to improve the world for my own children and to make democracy possible by offering up a generation capable of making educated decisions, but also my selfish desire to rediscover the joy in teaching.
I have a dream that one day even the inner-city schools, often thick jungles of gangster recruiting, will be transformed into oases of passionate learning, thoughtful opinions, and respect for the older generation.
I don't want to try to turn back the clock 30 years because those years weren't perfect either, but I would like to see a change in the status of teachers. One idea is to legally define teachers as "public servants," thereby affording the same rights as, for instance, police officers. Threats to teachers should carry some weight in the legal system. Another idea might be to find a way to further encourage administrators and school districts to tell the truth about student behavior and dropout rates. Maybe teachers should have a separate reporting system, one that is outside the school district and encourages them to talk honestly about the problems they are facing.
I have a dream no student will ever again say, “You work for me because my parents pay taxes.”
Thomas Jefferson said, “I look to the diffusion of light and education as the resource most to be relied on for ameliorating the condition, promoting the virtue, and advancing the happiness of man.” Despite all the heartache that comes with teaching these days, the teacher in me can't help but say . . . What a joy it will be to introduce my student Alex to Mr. Jefferson and Mr. King and to all the other great thinkers and writers who walked on this same Earth and breathed this same air before Alex and his buddies ever thought about sauntering down a hallway late to class on a bright September morning.