18 March, 2006

Educational Reality

If you're a regular reader you know that I'm a public school music teacher and my contract wasn't renewed for next year. But here's the dirty little secret I've tried not to tell myself for the last year...

I'm not sure I've wanted to keep teaching in a public school. And this column explains why:

...in the face of larger numbers of children who arrive at school with emotional and psychological problems, teachers are saddled with regulations and bureaucracy intended to address the fact that parents aren't being parents. And so teachers are being forced to try to be parents.

When I say that "parents aren't being parents," I mean that in the most basic sense: children come to school not properly fed; their clothes aren't clean; no one makes them do their homework or go to bed at a decent hour each night; there is no discipline or organization (and children desperately need both).
That is exactly the situation we teachers face. I can't tell you how often I've watched children sway in their seats because they stayed up on til 2 a.m. watching an R-rated movie, or because mom and her boyfriend were drunk and fighting. In those situations, students are not capable of learning. And yes, I went into teaching with my eyes wide open about all of that, believing that I could help children in those kinds of situations, that I could be the stable adult in their lives. But it's not that simple:
Neglected, rejected, ignored or abused, these children are needy, angry, resentful, depressed, enraged, aggressive and difficult if not impossible to control. They require extra time. Trips to the principal’s office. Reports. Meetings with parents and social workers and psychologists. Student aides. Conflict resolution training. They are often disrespectful, disruptive and even violent.

How are teachers supposed to do the job they are being paid to do? A teacher with 25 students in a class who has 45 minutes to teach geography, or arithmetic, or reading and who routinely has to contend with even a small handful of students whose antics eat up five or ten or fifteen minutes of that class time is hard pressed to meet his or her obligations to the students who are not causing problems.
No kidding. Just try that when your classes consist of 30 minutes twice a week! No, my classes are not chaotic, most of them are the model of discipline and proper behavior. But there are special notes for 60 students with behavior issues that I need to recall at the drop of a hat (if I do the wrong thing, a mere misbehavior could degerate into a fullblown meltdown of a troubled child).

And here's what makes me wonder why I want to keep doing it:

At least 20% of those sixty wouldn't have been in a regular classroom 20 years ago; they would've been in a small class of 6-10 students with behavioral problems, under the tutelage of a specially-trained teacher and an aide. What makes me sometimes despair is that the disruptive power of those 20% can pull me from an effective and engaging lesson, resulting at times in my losing control/attention of the rest of the difficult students and half the others.

I can't blame this on a defective school enviornment. My current school is amazingly well-run. We have a schoolwide discipline plan and basic schoolwide rules (Safe, Respectiful, Responsible), and the support of our principal on discipline issues. We have a psychologist, an after-school tutoring program, communication on student problems between all teachers involved with that student, etc. It's the best environment I've ever worked in. Yet we all experience everything described in the article I linked.

Like the author, I have begun to wonder whether public schools can ever excel if operating as they are now required to. But as my principal often reminds us, we can't control what happens to our students outside the classroom and we have to educate every child that comes to us. So, we do the best we can: we use all the procedures and programs described above and in the article.

I wouldn't want to abandon a single one of my struggling students to whatever they're coping with (or without) at home. Yet I've become more and more unsure that I can be one of those extraordinary teachers that manages to break through all of that and change students' lives inspite of everything.

I've never doubted my ability to teach children, but so much of what teachers have to do today has nothing to do with teaching (such as dealing with the 4th grader who decided that he would spend the class period growling and chasing his classmates around the room). I long ago began to wonder whether I had the skills be a true teacher amid all the other requirements that should have nothing to do with teaching (though now they do).

Can each child be saved? Theoretically? Yes. In practice? No. And sometimes I think that the children for whom the answer is "no" are dragging other borderline students down with them. Again, I don't want to give up on a single child... but how do we do it?

I don't seem to have the answer to that. I still want to help "underprivileged" children. But perhaps the public school environment isn't the setting for me to accomplish that...

H/T to Homefront Six for reminding me