My first teaching job was at an upscale charter school for college-bound middle schoolers. I loved it. I was passionate about it. I was great at it.
My current teaching job is at a public high school using Title I funds on an intervention class for at-risk freshmen (in this case, they are “at-risk” for dropping out). I love it. I am passionate about it. I am sometimes okay at it.
They are the two sides of the education scale. Soooooooooooooooo different, I need that many O’s to even start to get across the point.
Working with College-bound middle schoolers:
I ran my class with military precision, high expectations, and a non-negotiable pace. No unit lasted longer than three weeks. Students turned in assignments almost daily. My class was a well-oiled machine. Even when I wasn’t present, my students followed directions.
When I asked for bookshelves, they delivered immediately. When I requested a class set of books, they were provided.
The parents were so involved it was suffocating. A parent emailed me on the second week of school to request that I move on to my next unit because it was “too easy” for her special snowflake and the girl was bored. THE SECOND WEEK.
I had another set of parents that would email me within minutes when I posted an assignment grade and it was below a C. Convincing parents to step back was my biggest chore.
The most scandalous thing to happen was a sixth grader caught smoking in the bathroom. Another kid brought a pocket knife. Both were expelled.
My students always had their pencils, they never asked to go to the bathroom, and most were pretty healthy.
I can honestly say that I taught my students important skills in the realm of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and behavior.
Working with at-risk freshmen in a Title I (AKA low-income) school:
My class is either a mad house of over-enthusiastic, off-task energy OR the students are literally asleep on the desk. I aim for something in the middle and some days I hit it for a couple ten-minute bursts. My units started out as academic powerhouses and have evolved into life-skills boot camp. If I am not physically present in the classroom, nothing gets done.
The first time I walked into my room, I had to hold back tears. It was a hot mess. A window-less, eggshell white, cinder block mess. Part of my ceiling is buckling and there is a crack running up the wall. I immediately sent requests for furniture changes, permission to paint, necessary supplies. Half of it was given to me no questions asked. The other half, I was told by the district they wouldn’t provide, with no opportunity for negotiations. How does one DENY bookshelves to an English class?
The parents are so distant, I have yet to hear from them. I send emails and make calls every day. Radio silence meets me.
The details I have gathered about students’ parents are dismal. One student wrote on her Goals project that she wanted to be a “Dancer.” And I’m not talking about ballet, I’m talking about stripping. When I pressed for her reasoning, it became clear that “dancing” is her mother’s profession.
There are fifteen boys in my class. Twelve of them come from fatherless homes.
I have a fifteen year-old girl who comes in every day smelling like cigarette smoke and I don’t say a damn thing. Want to know why? Because if she passes my class, she can go to an alternative graduation program and get her high school diploma. If she doesn’t pass my class, she will drop out of high school. I want to scream at her about the dangers of cigarette smoking, but instead I celebrate that she’s actually coming to class (because I know she ditches all her other classes) and hand her a breath mint.
A gun was brought on campus in January, so now the school holds random student-searches, where students are taken out of my class, their backpacks searched and their bodies wanded for weapons. That’s the most scandalous thing to happen this calendar year. It’s March.
My students are suspended so often that I had to make a deal with the disciplinary action team that allowed students in in-school suspension to still attend my class. If I hadn’t made this deal, I would lose literally half of my class every day. Daily, I have to have conversations about appropriate behavior. I’ve derailed more than one fight in my room.
My students don’t bring anything to class. One student doesn’t even come with his backpack, because it was literally stolen off his back two weeks ago. I have a revolving supply of pencils and paper. I don’t let them take supplies outside of the room. Their journals, their worksheets, their pencils stay in my room because if they go beyond my door I know they will never come back. I have to make double copies of everything I hand them because of this.
I have one student who has a skin disease so painful that he cannot sleep in his bed at night and struggles to stay awake in class. How do you teach a kid about figurative language when their body is covered in scabs and he can’t keep his eyes open?
Some students are just apathetic. They have been told their entire lives that they suck at academics, so getting them to even give half an effort is a giant win.
I can honestly say that every day is a different battle. Sometimes I teach a student an important skill like using his words instead of smacking his neighbor. Sometimes we have an amazing discussion about how our choices today are impacting our long-term goals. Sometimes a kid voluntarily tells me that he’s sorry he messes around. Sometimes a girl will hand me her cellphone so it’s not a distraction.
Sometimes, none of that happens and most times I don’t know why.
Most days, I try. I can honestly say that I don’t know if they are getting anything out of my class. I sure as hell am not teaching them Common Core skills, although I like to think a little academic skill trickles in. I like to think that my frazzled determination sometimes pierces their thick apathy and a bit of wisdom gets in. Perhaps, if nothing else, they have one adult who cares about them.
This is the battle that meets teachers on the daily grind. Our jobs are demanding and fast-paced and tricky at best; they are heartbreaking at worst. To my students, I have to be knowledgeable and available, loving and hard, silly and serious. In the space of an hour, I can go from drill-sergeant to mother hen to nurse and back again to academics; while maintaining an awareness of my room so everyone can be safe both physically and emotionally.
I don’t know why I write all of this, other than to show the vast array of skill that is required of an average teacher. This kind of nonsense is why teachers leave schools or the profession altogether. And I’m not writing this for pity. As I said above, I truly love my job, which is something I am proud to say. I just want to offer a glimpse of my world.