In which we think things we probably shouldn’t think and say things we probably shouldn’t say …
An educator friend of mine supposed recently, “when humanity -one hundred years from now – looks back on what we do in American education, they will think it was barbaric …” I laughed a little at this idea and remembered when I last sat in uncomfortable chair-desk when my body wasn’t as well-packed with middle aged weight. And then I reflected again at a more recent experience of substitute teaching in a local high school.
It was awful.
(I shouldn’t say this.)
I’m trying to land a “real” teaching position and putting something like the following up in a public space could compromise my chances of scoring that highly coveted position (due to scarcity). But, I’ve been abused enough by the education system and now armed with my high school diploma and 300+ credits of higher education, mostly upper-division (400 + level) courses I feel ready to be a citizen of this country. I’m like that guy in Office Space who is suddenly relaxed about going to work, because he just doesn’t care to compromise his integrity any longer and can’t be bullied anymore by false authority.
I was at a school, one which would be called “State-of-the-Art” regarding the quality of athletics, programs, and the gorgeous building itself. I went in optimistic. I left with my heart in my hands.
This, due to the scarcity of sub jobs where I live, isn’t an optimal financial strategy (I work maybe once a week) but a really good one when I measure my physical and mental health next to other experiences I have substitute teaching. “Just say ‘no’ to stress” be my motto now; my health depends on it. And by “stress,” I don’t mean the normal amount (which is more than enough) I have at any given school (with any given set of poorly-crafted lesson plans and groups of lively and wonderful kiddos who sometimes test my limits or with other educators with too little time and too much to do to be bothered with any below-the-surface understanding the the kids who compelled them in the beginning to serve with an objective to change the world for the better), I mean the kind of stress which drives dictatorships and authoritarian government structures into a tension with willpower to explode and exterminate, which in turn leave the citizens in a state of constant fear and on the brink of retaliation.
Because that is what the kids did with me. Don’t these soon-to-be-adults know that they are getting a free education?
The last of four classes I had repeated the pattern from the three preceding it. After being in their assigned seats (according to a picture chart available for me) they matriculated to where their friends were seated after my explicit instruction to stay in their seats and work with their table partners or people behind and in front of them. I believe in cooperative learning- especially for such banal material like vocabulary – but experience has taught me that if one works with friends who are on the other side of the room for a reason, work doesn’t get done.
And my job was to make sure they learned (did their work).
Why did they move seats in spite of my direction? Could they not see the reasoning behind my request? Couldn’t they see by my demeanor of smiling calm that I cared about the test they would take later and the natural social-bonding aspects of school as well? Is it that I am too soft on them perhaps that they figured they could get away with it?
Well, the last class of the day did. I observed their blatant refusal to work with table partners and people at desks nearest to them as they one by one – popcorn-style – moved to places they wanted to sit, to be next to people they wanted to be with, and do their work. This was not the case for the previous two classes, one of which I had to call in an administrator to help reinforce my (and, in essence, the absent teacher’s and the community-at-large – taxpayers’-)expectations for the day.
But my stepping from the podium and trying to observe these different dynamics with as little micromanagement as possible, I couldn’t help noticing also the times I was respectfully asked if a student could go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. I say yes to this nearly every time even though I suppose in most cases they don’t really need to use the facilities and are most certainly not that dehydrated, but are just bored and need to take a break (to text a friend most likely) from the classroom. They really do try their best to control themselves, and work with me on this. It has been pointed out to me how authoritative this practice is, or, rather, that there is an indignity in having to ask to use the bathroom. Students accept some rules but not others, like being told where they should sit in order to review vocabulary.
I’ll no longer serve the State-of-the-Art school as a substitute now – I had to make that decision. I also had to make a bold move to stand up for a certain student who was especially tenacious at testing me, but – as was revealed later – shared a common ailment with me. Knowing about this commonality then compelled me to write the counselor of the school in a rage of reasoning passion and advocate for better understanding among school staff about this student and many like him. It was my antidote for the physical stress I endured as the authority figure in a deeply authoritative school structure, one which is counter to my instincts toward humanity. After all, I had my own share of mind-numbing in the American education system. If it weren’t for some key players along the way I might not hold a masters in teaching today, much good that it does me,