Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Moment I Started Hating Teaching

I had a rough week this week.

The administration has decided that we will teach according to an entirely new model, a different philosophy from the last two "all-in" philosophies we have had, and they gave us two days to set that up in the classroom. As you may imagine, this abrupt change is quite a disruptive force in the middle of the second quarter. As you may also imagine, changing your whole philosophy of education because someone has informed you that your philosophy changed is a bit disconcerting. And this week was when the change was to be implemented. I also got a new co-teacher this week. Integrating all these changes required A LOT of extra work and planning from me. I was up until 12:30 every night trying to pull it together for the next day, every day. By Thursday morning I was screaming at the alarm clock about the ridiculous requirement that I do this 18 hour day AGAIN. So, for most of the week I hated the administration's imperiousness, and I hated myself for my weakness in complying with yet another unreasonable request.

And then I had a parent conference on Thursday that went very well, actually, but included a grandmother whose grandchild calls her what my nieces and nephews used to call my mom. I have never before this heard of anyone whose grandchildren call her this nickname, other than my mom. So, ouch. For a moment I hated Fate's cruelty.

I was also informed that one of my students' fathers has demanded that his son be pulled from my class because I obviously don't like the child. This because I refused to let him leave the classroom until he had done enough work to indicate that he needed a break. This is what we do with children who have breaks built into their schedule, and this child does not have that accomodation. However, he does fail my assignments on a regular basis by simply refusing to do them, so I must be out to get him. The colleague who inherited the child informed me tersely that my race is the problem here, and I have much to learn about the culture. This same colleague does not allow any child to leave her classroom at any time, regardless of their 504 and IEP accomodations. She has also considered the whiteness of another colleague problematic when she wanted to visit a museum before lunch rather than after on a field trip. But, you know, however well I intellectually know that the problem here is hers, assigning me a category as less effective or ignorant based on my race and not on my actions was hurtful. For a while I hated the defensiveness of the father and the racism of my colleague. The kid I remain neutral on, since he hasn't really done much of anything good or bad to create a strong opinion.

The "coach" who was assigned to our school (the only middle school in our district to make significant gains every year for the past five years) after her previous school failed and was taken over, dropped into my class today. The extra test-prep class, which my principal has decided should be available until the state tests, is being organized. The coach has a vision. After so degrading and demoralizing our department with constant hectoring about all the things we do inadequately, after decimating the morale of my colleagues, and after talking our pedagogical skill down in public meetings at which representatives from many more schools than ours were present, after convincing administration to turn our core classes into glorified Kaplan courses, and making it clear to me that the only way to save my reputation was to step down from leadership so my name does not appear on the gross educational misfeasance and malfeasance she is perpetrating on my department, she has a vision. And so our latter-day prophet of education felt the need to share her vision with me. That vision for the test-prep workshop ironically does not include test prep, but is rather a nebulous, unstructured literature appreciation course for boys. There will also be a T-shirt designing contest, so they can have something "cool" to wear on meeting days. Because homemade t-shirts are cool to twelve year-old boys. And, since they are boys, we must have multi-media projects, because boys dig the technology. Except our boys dig sports and fashion and fear technology, but why rely on knowledge of your kids when there are stereotypes you can play to instead? I hated her ignorance and arrogance.

Then Friday, I was working with the children on editing the personal narratives I have assigned them. I told them, if they were stuck, to write about a moment or a person who changed their life. Rookie mistake. I read about rapes, parental abuse and neglect, police brutality, crushing poverty, and homes so dysfunctional that the children wish they could stay at school until bedtime. By the time there were two hours left in the day, I was having a very hard time refraining from the tears I knew would make the children who trusted me enough to tell me these secrets self-conscious. For those two hours, I hated the world. Intensely.

I notified a friend, who wrangled up enough coworkers for happy hour so I wouldn't have to ask the man at the ABC for his finest gallon of vodka and a straw to get over this week. I went home to pick up the cell phone I neglected to pack Friday morning. Service was not available because I had been neglecting to pay the bill due to the furloughs this year cutting my funds so that they are just high enough, after student loans, to prevent putting me into overdraft every other month if I am very careful with my money. I was not careful In November. I paid the bill (payday), fed the cat, and went to meet my friends at an establishment with entirely too much Republican and Church propaganda on the walls, but waitstaff with exotic accents. So, there's that. Plus, the place had Guinness on tap, and some fine, hearty peasant food that reminded me of a time before student loans and teaching, when I could afford to travel. (Peasant food is always the best tasting in every country, though often not recommended by modern nutritionists.) I simultaneously hated the graduate school that paid English grads at 1/9th the rate of every other discipline because they subscribed to the same school of thought as Fanny Price's aunts regarding the training of those who will be mistreated later in life, Ratzinger, the profligacy of the last Superintendent of Schools in my district, Reaganomics, Congress, and myself for allowing this string of indignities to get me down rather than piss me off.

Then, while we were out as colleagues, talking about our lives and our jobs, and our futures, a friend who still goes to some meetings this coach of doom attends to talk about how she is the superman that our school has been waiting for (because our teachers are so ignorant in the art of teaching) texted me to notify me, laughingly, about the newest statements being made by my coach about my department. It seems that someone at the most recent meeting made a comment about the exceptionally broad knowledge-base of the teachers in our school. This person was thinking particularly of another department, not English, but our coach interjected with a correction just the same. It seems that our department is deplorably ignorant about language and literature, and requires as a whole constant, exhausting instruction in the very basics of our specialty area. This from a woman I had to correct three times before she reluctantly conceded that Dickenson's "I'm Nobody! Who Are You?" might not be a poem about poor self-esteem and wishing people would notice one. This woman whose readings of literature are frequently so off-base as to be laughable, and whose accompanying arrogance would be laughable if our administration were more willing to deny her requests, finds me and my colleagues plain stupid. And for the rest of the night I hated her, and the fact that my friend requires my discretion to prevent blowback from coming at her for her betrayal of the goings on in the meeting.

Then, this weekend, I started thinking about all the skills I will teach this week, in exactly the prescribed way, because I have no right to intellect or creativity or autonomy of any kind in my school. I started to rebel a bit inside, and then thought about the fact that I do not have a go to hell fund that allows me to quit my job. Plus, the kids need a teacher. When I started the year with them, I made a commitment to teach them for a year, provided there were no dire circumstances pulling me away. But then I thought about the education I am providing. The narrow focus on literacy and convergent thinking I am forced by my school and current legislation to keep does not prepare my students in the way I wanted to prepare them for citizenship of a town, state and country. It doesn't make them able to excel in anything other than following orders. It doesn't make them critical thinkers who will hold their government to high standards. I am becoming the teacher I was warned against becoming, a teacher who covers material and prepares kids for tests, but doesn't educate them.

Now, let's imagine that I can get reformers and saviors and politicians and other ignoramuses out of my room for a few minutes, and I 'go rogue' and actually teach something useful to kids who are dying to learn. Will it be enough to make them educated people? If we all do that, will our kids have enough sense, ten years from now, to come back and demand to know why we taught them testing skills but not thinking skills? If they do, what will I tell them? Will they be educated enough by those secreted dribs and drabs of critical thinking training by then to know that my Nuremberg defense is an unacceptable answer? Since I know that now, and I know I am cravenly saving my job by electing not to heed my calling, what exactly am I doing?

And it is with those thoughts ricocheted around my head that I realize that I have begun to hate teaching. Really hate it. I hate it so much that I can't even hear the politicos of both sides calling me, by turns, fascist and communist over my own seething rage at myself and my country. I hate it so much that even my students, whom I love, just add to my pain because I know what I - coerced by No Child Left Behind - am doing to them. I hate it so much that I am blogging about my hate for myself and my professional compromises rather than writing lesson plans I know won't help my kids in any meaningful way.


Dr. Virago said...

HeoCwaeth - I've had this post marked "keep unread" in my RSS feed since you posted it because I kept trying to think of something profound or comforting to say. But I can't, in part because I know everything that you're dealing with is rampant in public education and there are so many other gifted teachers who feel the way you do, and I feel so powerless in the face of these systemic problems and idiocies.

So all I can offer is a heartfelt (but lame) "I hear you."

Heo said...

Dr. V, I think you found the profound and comforting thing to say!