Friday, April 2, 2010

School Dazed

A few years ago I was allowed to follow a dream and teach high school English in a public school in Appalachia. I was part of a program that exists in lots of places in the country now which encourages non-teachers to teach. I think this is an excellent example of thinking outside the box – get some people who really want to teach and who have real world experience in doing/using whatever it is they are going to teach. They get paired with an experienced mentor teacher and have support as they do their thing. I thought the idea was to bring some different perspective to the teaching career. As it turned out, the school didn’t really want that. They wanted someone to teach the same way things had always been taught.

In spite of many obstacles, my classroom was full of energy and activity, and ok . . . probably too much noise. Many of the students I was supposed help explore literature didn’t read beyond a second grade level. I tried all sorts of strange things because I didn’t know any better. I assigned homework, and the students thought I was crazy. They didn’t get homework from other teachers!

I got visits from irate parents who said “My child has never had a C before! You don’t know how to teach!” I feared they might be right because lots of these kids were just scraping by in my classes grade-wise, but for the most part they seemed to be having fun.

I got little lectures from the department head. Once or twice at full volume. My teaching style evidently was less than acceptable.

But guess what. At the end of the year when the students took their achievement tests that are supposed to measure their mastery of some basics such as word use, grammar, sentence structure, comprehension, blah, blah, my students broke the record for the school. We blew them out of the water.

I was pleased but not surprised and my students were proud. My department head was confounded and my principal, who had told me two days before the test results came back that my contract wouldn’t be renewed, was embarrassed. I was relieved that I had time to resign before they canned me.

I learned all sorts of things that year. I heard teachers talk about doing the minimum because they had tenure. Yes I did. I heard them talk about and to students in ways that were disrespectful, vulgar, and ignorant. Not all of the teachers, of course, were like that. Many were really good teachers who were there because they wanted to teach and deeply cared about the success of their students. But these good teachers weren’t the majority.

I learned about a group of students who are just expected to drop out. They can’t read and they don’t have proper clothing and well. . . . they are disposable. I learned that the worst thing that can happen to teacher is often tenure. I learned that if it’s between new books or a new football field, it’s going to be the football field every time.

And I learned that if what you are doing isn’t working, then ANYTHING you try has a better chance of working that the same old thing that doesn’t work.

My students learned that Shakespeare was pretty out there. They did family therapy sessions with Hamlet’s family. They translated bits of Romeo and Juliet into Appalachian. They learned to say “That Scottish play,” instead of “Macbeth.”

They wrote exceptional haiku on paper towels that had been water colored while wet, creating a dreamy, Asian look. They identified different styles of poetry in their music.
They read lots more of the Canterbury Tales than was assigned because I told them much of it was just too racy for them.

A couple of the disposable kids in my class wrote and illustrated a book about a super hero. It was better than lots of the stuff I see on store shelves. Much better.

I happen to think we can provide excellent education to our children. In fact, I think we’d ding dang better start soon.

For crying in a bucket, what’s up with tenure? What other job is there in which after you’ve been there for a while you can’t get fired? It’s insane. Reward good teachers and fire bad ones. How tough is that? It isn’t rocket surgery.

Figure out what the school’s primary purpose is. Put your time and money on the basics. I think athletics are important, but they aren’t the most important part of school. Chances are most kids are going to need communication, computer, and math skills more often after graduation than football or cheerleading skills.

Expand the school day. Do we really think that high school students can’t tolerate a day longer than 6.5 hours? Expand the school year.

Teach when you get a chance. By that I mean studying Shakespeare can be an opportunity to teach communication skills, geography, music, history and psychology as well as literature.

Get out of the classroom. Classrooms are probably the least natural place to learn things. Go to a restaurant and ask a chef how she uses math. Or have students explain the ripples in water when they drop a pebble in a pond. Take them to a tree and show them how to estimate the height by the shadow. Study an ant hill. Teach wonder. Without wonder we’re doomed.

Make sure kids can read and have basic skills before you pass them on to the next grade. Who wins when someone who can’t read graduates from high school? Every person who graduates from high school should either be ready for college or trade school or have already mastered a marketable trade.

If a kid causes trouble and keeps other kids from learning, kick him out. We need to make sure all students have the opportunity for an excellent education, but it’s not realistic to teach them that no matter what they do they’ll still be welcome. The real world isn’t like that at all and we are supposed to be getting them ready for that. We should all have the opportunity for an excellent education. What an individual does with that opportunity is up to the individual and her family.

Use uniforms. Schools that use uniforms report less distraction and conflict. As Forrest Gump would say, “Good. That’s one less thing.”

And don’t teach one thing in the classroom and another in the cafeteria. Don’t feed students junk. Get the soda and candy machines out of the schools. Don’t serve iced sweet rolls for breakfast and hotdogs and French fries for lunch and expect any of them to take nutrition or health seriously. And speaking of health – bring back P.E. Let’s educate the whole student.

We’re graduating too many illiterate, obese, lazy people from our high schools who have no marketable skills.

I think pulling in people from the business world to teach – even if it’s just for a year or two is a great idea. They don’t know the “rules of teaching” and that’s the whole idea! The “rules of teaching” often don’t work. Just give someone with energy and excitement to teach a classroom full of students and see what happens. The worst thing that could happen is that the kids don’t learn much that year in that class. This is not a big risk since that’s often happening anyway. And the best thing that could happen is that a love of mathematics or literature or biology gets into some students and grows like a perennial in their brains.


  1. You're on a roll this week, Fay, and just too damn logical. There's nothing I can add, other than young minds are suffering from atrophy.

    I do, however, have a story (I always have a story).

    Martha has a friend who "teaches" remedial reading in one of our high (low) schools. Teaches is in quotes because no one knows if she can teach: the school system has never given her any books for the remedial readers to read.

  2. That would be funny if it weren't so ding dang scary! what sort of books does she need? I might have a contact for her.

  3. YOU are right very right on.

  4. We have a saying at our school..."If you keep on doing what you have always done, then you will get from your kids what you have always gotten." Hopefully these kinds of schools that do not want people thinking outside the box are changing. I have seen some schools like this, but slowly but surely they are changing.

  5. I can name three teachers that had dramatic, positive influences on my life.

    That bad news.....there were only three.
    The good news.....three was enough.

  6. I can name more than three that had a positive influence on me. But that was a looooonnng time ago. The times they have a-changed.