So I’ve had my discouraging moments, right? That’s when it’s time to focus on my job without all the BS of the school board majority. Here’s some of the great stuff:
I have awesome sophomores. They come in every Tuesday and Thursday at 7:20 sleepy, maybe even trying to sneak in a mug of coffee. They put their heads on desks, and I have to call them by name to get heads up. Fridays we start a little later, which helps. Then the learning begins. We read The Crucible last week, and they definitely liked it. They’re excited that it’s the school play. It’s time to really nail paragraph structure, so we worked on a paragraph together proving that Americans’ desire for both safety and liberty has created tension in the issue of gun control. This was to prepare them to write their own paragraph showing that the desire for safety and liberty create tension in The Crucible. This is a concept Arthur Miller introduces in one of the essays embedded in the play. I’m asking for two tough things—a well-constructed paragraph and analysis involving a pretty complex idea. I gave the assignment Tuesday, with Friday as the due date. Thursday they asked for an extension. I said they could have one, but that I would grade harder, since presumably being given more time would lead to better papers. I told them to work it out, and I went to my computer to take attendance. The whole class was pretty engaged, though I was not part of the discussion. One student asked if they could access the play online, and I said no, so they asked if they could check copies of the play out. When I said yes, the intensity of debate increased, and finally a vote was called. Five students wanted to just turn in whatever they could come up with by the next day. Nineteen wanted to take plays home and write the best paragraphs they could. That was when I told them how proud I was of their choice.
I went on to do a mini-lecture on the Enlightenment, and we began to read the Declaration of Independence. Whenever I do this lesson, I ask kids why 24 kids in a classroom sit quietly while I, the one teacher, make them take notes and read old literature. Why do 1,600 students in a school with maybe 120 adults move in an orderly fashion from class to class all day long? At first, someone usually says they’ll be punished if they don’t. “What punishment?” I ask. “Will you be shot? Suspended? So what if you get suspended? All that means is you don’t go to school.” They look around at each other; it’s the first time they’ve ever thought about it. Invariably, one kid pretends to pack up his books to leave and they laugh. Usually, a kid says, “Well, we need an education to get a good job.” That’s when I explain that they, the governed, give me the power to govern them because they believe I am giving them something of value—a secure future—in return. This time the first thing a kid shouted to my question about why they do as I say was “We love this class!” I love you, too, kiddos! I actually had to guide them into the usual conversation about getting a job in the future.
In my junior ACE class, I have several students getting A’s now who failed my sophomore class last year. Because ACE counts as 2 classes, they have 2 A’s on progress reports that haven’t seen A’s in years. The parents of 2 of those kids came to conferences Wednesday and Thursday so excited to see their kids feeling encouraged and working hard. The success in ACE is transferring to other classes and they have no grades lower than C’s. We’re all excited about that. In class, the kids are giving career presentations, and most have really done their homework. They are figuring out what they want to do, finding out where they have to go for the training, and realizing that it’s not too late to get their lives back on track, but they need to get off their butts and do it.
In my senior class we’re reading John Grisham’s A Time to Kill. The kids who didn’t have me for ACE last year are discovering what ACE kids learn a little earlier: You can actually like a book! Grisham is great at spinning a yarn. He uses the techniques great writers use, but as a commercial rather than literary writer (though I consider A Painted House literary), his craft is not subtle. We can easily see how shifts in point-of-view and choices in language manipulate the reader, and the kids are intrigued by this as we explore. In addition to looking at the way the novel is constructed, we look at it through the lens of history (thanks to a group research project on race in the American South which we had done to prepare for this book), and we explore the whole concept of race in America. We talk about racism in our own world and break down the paradox of not wanting to be racist and yet being incapable of color-blindness in our relationships. Discussions are honest and respectful. My one black student speaks frankly about how race affects her, but I also have a white student who constantly and very appropriately brings up her frustration with feeling held responsible for history she didn’t create. I have a pretty good-sized group of Latinos who bring their own perspective as a group that has been marginalized, but is not the group marginalized in the book. (Don’t worry, nobody seems to think they’re being taught to America-bash here. We have this crazy idea that you can love something flawed—even your country.)
This is what I do all day, every day. Jealous?
This is why I tell you that teachers don’t do what they do for money. I don’t associate my job with money. The reward for my job is everything I’ve just described. All I ask is enough money to live on and raise a family and some monetary acknowledgment of my personal investments, in time and education, to hone my craft to benefit kids. I don’t need bonuses and labels others don’t get. If another teacher isn’t teaching as well as I am, she’s probably not as deeply satisfied on a daily basis as I am. I’ll tell you something else: Kids aren’t dumb. If they don’t feel they’re getting something valuable from a teacher, they don’t give her the power to control the classroom. That’s just how the Social Contract works. When kids don’t give teachers the power to teach, teaching is a miserable job, and more often than not, bad teachers end up firing themselves.