Saturday, April 21, 2012

Teaching Memoir

One of the classes I'm taking this semester is a creative writing class for teachers.  Not only do we learn how to become  better creative writing teachers, we learn how to be come better creative writers.  We pick on piece that we work on and fine-tune throughout the entire semester.  It's actually the second class in a three part series.  (I took the first part last spring.)  I absolutely love  it.  I think it's mainly because it forces me to write since technically it's homework.  Last year, I started writing my memoir, which I will one day get to a point where I am comfortable sharing it.  I feel like personal narrative writing is my strongest skill, so I decided to go with it this semester as well. And this is what I came up with.  It's still a work in progress, and there's a lot more I want to do with it, but I'm happy with how it's turning out. Enjoy! :)


I've been asked, "You teach at Carroll Junior?" in that, "Are you crazy?!" tone many times in the past few months since moving to Louisiana.  I've also seen the wide eyes when I answer the cheerfully asked question, "Oh, you're a teacher? Where do you teach?" (as if being a teacher were the most adorable and innocent thing ever) with the dreaded reply, "Carroll Junior".  Normally, I say “Carroll Junior” as if it’s a question because I'm not sure what the response will be.  I grasp onto the small hope that maybe this person has never heard of the all-black, worst performing junior high school in the area whose students are known to be a step away from juvenile hall or a mental asylum, but that rarely happens.  Some people I speak with are encouraging, saying that the school needs good teachers like me to really make a difference.  Others are shocked and deplored, saying I need to quit right away and run for the hills.  There was even one fellow teacher who tried to convince me I could do better and gave me the name and number of the superintendent in the neighboring district.  She said that someone with my personality and experience would do better over there. 
Regardless of the spectrum of reactions, I am grateful to work at Carroll Junior, and I say it with pride.  Yes, my days are filled with students with too much swagger.  I sometimes have to yell louder than I have ever heard myself yell in my life.  I deal with constant obstinacy and obscenities.  I hear “we be” “they be” or “I be” more than I ever would have liked, and most days I sit down at my desk and wonder: Why in the world am I doing this?!  But then I look around my classroom.  I think of the students I work with – the ones who need just a little encouragement and guidance to make a better future for themselves.  I think of the teachers who have come and gone out of the classroom – the ones who gave up and couldn’t take it.  I feel that tug again deep inside my heart, and I finally admit to myself:  This – the kids, the hope and desire to do something good – This, is why I am doing this.

I consider myself a “veteran teacher” in the sense that it is not my first year teaching.  I have three full years’ experience (not to mention all of the hours spent in the classroom during my undergraduate career), but those three years were spent teaching remedial English and “life-skills” courses to first-year community college students.  Since my degree was in elementary education and I always dreamed of teaching young children, I was surprised at how fulfilled I felt when I started teaching at the community college level.  I genuinely fell in love with teaching.  And I didn’t have to worry about IEP’s and 504 plans and parent phone calls and lawsuits and state mandates.  I could just enjoy teaching.  I got to make my own schedule, and most semesters I only taught two or three days a week.  Sometimes I wouldn’t have class until 10 or 11 and could sleep in.  And the money was pretty good, too.  I had the life.  Why would I ever go back to public education when I can have all this in higher education?  So I forgot all about my elementary education degree.  I let my teaching license expire, never expecting to need it again.  I set my sights at moving up, and no one was going to stop me.
Then my husband got offered a transfer to Monroe, Louisiana – twelve hours from our home in Terre Haute.  It was a great opportunity that promised further growth in the company, basically Dustin’s dream job.  At first, I was obstinate.  There was no way I was going to just pick up and move and leave everything I had built at Ivy Tech and IU behind.  Plus, there’s the boys (my two step-sons).  How could we stand being so far away from them all the time?  Crazy idea.  No way it’s happening.  Then we were confronted with it face to face.  This opportunity in Louisiana was finally there and we could either take it and see what we can do with it or we could turn it down and stay in our comfortable little life.  We’d had a rough year due to some personal, family issues, and we were the strongest we had ever been.  That strength and faith helped us abandon our fears, let go of the “things” holding us back and just go with it.  Give it a try.  We didn’t have much to lose.
So here we are, living and working in Louisiana, and doing completely different things than we would have imagined us doing a year ago.  In a few short months, I went from having an elementary education degree but teaching remedial English at a community college in Terre Haute, Indiana to having a K-12 certification in English and teaching 7th grade ELA in an inner-city school in Monroe, Louisiana.  Seems like a pretty drastic switch, but I adjusted surprisingly well.  I love teaching, and I truly believe that it doesn’t matter what subject, grade, or area I teach, I’m going to love it, and I’m going to be great at it.  It’s still hard for me to believe that we’re here and I’m actually doing what I’m doing.  But I believe that I’m meant to be here.

“Alright,” I say sternly as I turn away from the SMARTboard, “that’s enough with the humming!”  With a clenched jaw, I glare across the classroom filled with boys feigning innocence.  I’m frustrated and irritated after trying to teach for fifteen minutes only to face humming every time I turn my back or start to speak.  I furrow my brow and in frustration think, Those sneaky little bastards.  I just want to slap them all across the face.  But I can’t, of course.  And no, I don’t really think they’re bastards.  They are sneaky, though.  And mean.  And so…teenage-ish!  Finally, some silly straw came and broke this worn down camel’s back, and I completely lost it.  In a moment of classroom management weakness, I ended up screaming, “I’m not putting up with any more of your shit!!!” to my fifth hour, all-boys class.  Of course, all the ooooo’s started from there as they realize that Teach means business.  A handful got sent to the vice principal, and after talking with him after class, we decided that about ten of them would get lunch detention the next day.  During my prep hour the following day (right after the class involved in the above incident), the vice principal stuck his head in and said he needed to tell me something but for me not to worry because I wasn’t in trouble or anything. 
“I had all those boys in my office during lunch today,” he tells me.  “I was talkin’ with ‘em about how they can’t get away with treatin’ you the way they did yesterday.  They all started hollerin’, ‘Oh, but Mr. Kennedy, she was cussin’ at us!!’” 
My eyes got a little wide when I thought back to my moment of classroom management weakness.  He quelled my nerves by going on.
“So I ask ‘em, ‘Do your parents cuss at you if you don’t do what they tell you to do?’ ‘Well, yeah,’ they say.  ‘Do I cuss at you if I’m telling you to sit your ass down and you don’t sit down?’  ‘Yes, sir,’ they say.  ‘Then is Ms. Allen cussin’ at you really a problem?’ And they all like, ‘No…’.” 
He laughs for a few moments, and my nerves are comforted.  He then looks up at me and says, “You know, at first, I was kinda worried about you…but now it’s good to know you’ve got some fight in ya.”  And here I am, still fighting.

“Well,” she says condescendingly, “if your entire class is completely out of control, then that’s a classroom management problem.  And I can come by and work with you one on one with that.”  I should have known better than to confront my principal and speak my opinion during a faculty meeting.  Of course it’s all just a classroom management issue.  Forget about the fact that I’m a great classroom manager.  Forget about the fact that these students have no respect or discipline for authorities.  Forget the fact that we teachers have no support from our administrators.  They know what we are dealing with.  They know what the kids are like, so why do they just blame all problems on classroom management?  The deep-seeded issues at this school go much deeper than simple classroom management problems.
When I first got hired at Carroll Junior High, I had no idea what I was in store for.  I did some preliminary research on the school, and I could tell that it was under-performing and under pressure.  I knew that it was an all-black school and that student behavior was an issue.  96% of the students are on the free/reduced lunch program.  Students have very little support at home to further their education.  It’s like I’m making up for lost time of being outside of public education and have been thrown into a situation that basically epitomizes everything that is wrong in public education and society in general. 
I walked in that first day with high hopes, channeling my inner Erin Gruwell (from Freedom Writers), determined to make a difference and have an impact on these kids’ lives.  The first couple of weeks were ok; I think the kids were being easy on me.  After a few weeks, though, I started to realize all the flaws in our school and district.  I started to realize that it’s far more than “poor classroom management” that causes the behavior problems that we teachers have.  Poverty stricken students. Crippling state and district mandates and regulations.  Poorly run schools by poorly organized administrators.  Conflict and opposition among school board members.  And most importantly, a generation of students who simply don’t care, or at least refuse to admit that they do. 
So how do we solve all these problems?  Where do we begin?  These are the questions that all teachers at this school are wondering.  And ones to which I still don’t know the answers.

Our school was visited recently by Louisiana’s new State Superintendent, John White.  He was on a “listening tour” (which I like to call “publicity stunt”) to find out what is wrong with Louisiana’s schools and what needs to be fixed.  He specifically visited our school since it is one of the lowest performing in the district.  He said that spending time with the teachers and students and listening and asking questions will help him when making decisions that affect the school and district.  My classroom happened to be one of the four he visited during his hour and a half visit to the school.  Of course, the media made it sound as if he had spent all day interacting with our students and faculty when in fact, all of his classroom visits (each only lasting 10-15 minutes)  consisted of him sitting in the back of the room, asking students irrelevant questions, and staring at the teachers quizzically for a perfect photo-op. 
If you want to evaluate me as a teacher, then come sit in my room for a couple of weeks.  Yes, a couple of weeks.  Not an hour or even one day.  They’ll be nice at first, so it will take some time for you to truly experience what I deal with on a regular basis.  (The section that was observed by Mr. White was my worst behaved class, but they were perfect angels while he and his posse of camera crews were present.)  There’s no generic professional growth plan or futile lesson plan I can write that will show you my teaching capabilities. All they do is take up valuable time I could be spending on developing engaging lesson plans that are meaningful to the students.  It’s a shame the amount of time a teacher spends on redundant paperwork and ineffective meetings or trainings.  Allow me to be responsible for my own time and use it as I see fit.  You should be able to trust me; I am a certified, licensed teacher with a degree in education, after all.  I know what I’m doing.  If you find a teacher being negligible, take appropriate disciplinary actions.  But please trust my values and judgment as a teacher and allow me to dictate what I do and do not need to do with my students.

“She’s such a good teacher, and you guys are just throwing it all away,” I hear Coach Mack say sadly as I enter the room.  Coach Mack is our inclusion teacher/head football coach.  He’s about 6’5’’ with tattooed biceps the size of my head.  He’s a big, intimidating man, but he cares more for these kids than they realize.  As I walk to my desk, I look around at the solemn look on everyone’s face.  Like a puppy who knows it did something wrong.  Coach Mack’s giving one of his pep talks, so I let him go on before I start my lesson. 
                “She cares more about you and your education than you do,” he says as he paces around the room.  “And what’s gonna happen when you fail the iLEAP because YOU (pointing to the students) don’t care?”  He lets his words sink in.  “They’re gonna blame her.”  He points to me and the whole class looks, some with emotion in their eyes though I can’t tell what it is.  Sadness?  Regret?  Disdain?  He goes on, causing their faces I still haven’t read to turn back toward him.  “They’re all gonna say it’s her fault.  They’re gonna say that she ain’t teaching you right, and that she’s a bad teacher.”  His face looks hopeless as he shakes his head and looks down. 
                “It’s just sad,” he says very matter-of-factly as he looks up.  “And it ain’t fair because it’s not her fault.  Whose fault is it?  It’s your and your parents’ fault!  You’re failing yourself because you don’t care and your parents don’t care!”  All the kids’ heads jerk up, giving Coach looks of “Uh uh, you didn’t just go talkin’ bout my momma!”  Coach Mack is one of the few not afraid to get down dirty and tell these kids what the real problem is.  (I’m sure having a lawyer as a wife helps.)  Despite some of the ugly looks, no one says a word.
“When I was going to school,” he pauses, making sure he has everyone’s attention before moving on.  He played the card we teachers all know well.  Talk about ourselves.  These kids would listen to us tell stories about our lives for hours.  All eyes were on him as he goes on, “my mama made me come home every day, and she’d sit at the table with me with a switch while I did my homework.  I couldn’t leave the house till it was all done.  If she caught me playin’ or daydreamin’, I’d get the switch across my hands.”  His words caused everyone to flinch as he imitated a small branch being whipped across his hand and wrist.  “She did this because she believed education was important.  She made me care about my education because she cared.”  He looks around the class, and all eyes are listening attentively. 
The students are silent and solemn, and I let them sit there for a minute for it all to soak in.  Then I segue into my futile vocabulary lesson since there’s a lot more important things I should be teaching this kids than how to use context clues.  But I digress.  “Alright guys, open up your vocab books to page 91, Lesson 23.  Let’s look over these words…”  With the words of Coach Mack still echoing in our heads, we continue on. 

What’s it going to take?  How many pep-talks and lectures do we have to give these kids before it sinks in and they finally start listening?  So many teachers before me have just given up.  They’ve accepted that the students won’t change, so they’ve stopped trying to make them.  To be honest, I’ve even felt that way.  When I can only squeeze in about twenty minutes of instruction time into a fifty-five minute class due to telling kids to be quiet, dealing with constant disrespect and attitude which leads to having to send students out or write up infraction sheets, sometimes I think, What’s the point? Why should I even care?  Because I won't give up.  I was created to teach.  I know that I can have an impact on these kids.  I believe I am a great teacher, and now is the time to show it.  So I take a deep breath, forget about the argument I just had with a student, forget about the suffocating negativity and hostility that fills the room, and I teach my heart out for the next twenty minutes.