For years my husband has said I need to write a book about what’s wrong with public schools. I’ve always countered with A. I don’t want to and B. who would care what I have to say? I’ve been an alternating teacher/journalist since 1985, but I’m just a veteran of all three districts in Pulaski County, not an “expert in educational theory.”
Heck, I don’t even have a degree in education. I majored in English, minored in psych and got certified to teach on the side, while taking some journalism courses along the way. I have a bachelor of arts and a teaching certificate that will expire this December (again).
So rather than inundate you with opinions unsubstantiated with “empirical data” (educational buzzwords), I’ll just tell you my history in teaching and let you connect the dots – a skill that’s sadly lacking in many students today. When you teach to a test, you don’t teach children how to think, you merely teach them how to take tests. When you teach children to write three-point enumerations, you don’t teach them how to think creatively – you teach them how to follow a formula.
But I’m getting ahead of myself and the story.
Chapter 1: The early, excited years
My first full-time teaching job started the fall of 1985, just before my 30th birthday. (I took some mom years before starting a career.) It was in the Pulaski County Special School District at Jacksonville High School. I had newspaper staff, yearbook staff and four periods of senior English the first year. I also had total control in my classroom and quite a bit of latitude in curriculum choice in my English classes.
(The position I was hired to fill was for four Honors English classes, but when I reported for duty, I had Regular English. These were the pre-AP days, and English came in four flavors: Honors, College-Bound, Regular and Basic. A teacher with more time had swooped in and claimed the Honors classes. No matter; I was still excited, if a bit let down.)
I learned quickly that what my beloved high school journalism teacher, Myrna Gail Hopkins, said was true: If you teach newspaper or yearbook staff, someone is always mad at you – as in other teachers. Whatever. All I cared about was teaching and my students.
For some reason, in those days, the current wisdom in the district was not to teach any grammar in senior English. If the kids hadn’t gotten it by then, the powers that be thought, they wouldn’t get it in one more go-round. And it certainly wasn’t considered important for regular kids, who, it was assumed, would fill blue-collar jobs or join the service. My students begged to differ. Some of them told me they wanted and intended to go to college and were worried about their grasp of grammar. They actually asked me, please, to teach them grammar!
We had no textbook, so I collected $1 from each student to help offset costs, went to the local print shop and made grammar pamphlets to use to teach them, along with some worksheets.
One of my favorite teaching stories happened during the grammar lessons. During first period one morning, when you could have heard a pin drop the kids were working so quietly on grammar worksheets, a boy named Chris loudly pronounced, “I’d rather step in shit than do this.” The entire class looked at me with shocked, round eyes as I stifled a laugh and said, “Well, Chris, you’re in it now.” The entire class erupted in laughter, and I wrote a behavior document and sent him to the office for D-hall (had to – someone would have turned me in otherwise, but I wasn’t offended at all). The next morning, Chris came to school extra early so he’d have time to apologize to me before class. He was sincere as he told me he didn’t know why he said it and that I was his favorite teacher and he’d never want to offend me. Of course I accepted his apology. He did his D-hall (unlike today, when he’d have to miss class for in-school suspension, one of the many silly reasons kids miss class), and life went on.
As I said, teachers had quite a bit of latitude in curriculum choice – we had some basics to choose from, but nothing was etched in stone tablets and handed down from the education gods. Some thought I was crazy to teach Alice in Wonderland to regular seniors, but once some of the boys got over their initial resistance, they loved it. Regular students and poetry? Especially the boys? Please. We did a heavy-duty, college-level unit on WWI poetry written by soldiers and those kids loved it.
Seniors had to do research papers, but since these were “only” regulars, not college-bound or honors, they didn’t have to do literary topics, so I let them choose things they were interested in. One boy whom I’ll never for get – we’ll just call him RR – asked if he could do his on the heavy-metal band Metallica. I told him sure, if he could find enough research to support it. He was thrilled, worked his rear off, wrote a decent paper and mentioned it every time I ran into him after he was grown.
Speaking of research papers, one boy who struggled to write a sentence and was really over-placed in regular classes, turned in a very advanced paper about nursing. When I kept him after school to ask who wrote the paper and what he thought he was doing, he immediately apologized and told the truth. It was his aunt’s nursing school paper. He was so overwhelmed by the project that he was paralyzed with fear. We talked about how he struggled to keep a D in my class, then I met with his counselor and mother, and we moved him to Basic English, in which he thrived. No one questioned whether I had a right to make that call or whether he was being treated unfairly. A teacher’s opinion and wisdom were respected, and ability grouping wasn’t taboo.
Ability grouping may have fallen from favor and become “discriminatory,” but used properly, it’s the best situation for teaching. So it’s not PC – sue me. My husband’s an attorney. And why is it OK in some situations and not others? Journalism classes today are a hodgepodge of National Merit scholars and special ed students. Not ideal for teaching, to say the least. But again, I’m getting ahead of the story.
Funny story (as in, isn’t life strange, not “ha-ha”): One boy who caused trouble on a regular basis – again, I’ll never forget him, but we’ll just call him RB – made me so furious one day when he refused to look at me as I tried to talk to him that I blew a gasket. I always treated him respectfully and he couldn’t even look at me?! I told my class to behave, marched RB to the assistant principal for seniors and said, “He’s banned from my class! I’ll send his work to your office every day and he can come take tests, but he’s sitting in here during class time. I’ve had it.” We only had a month or less of school left, which may be why I got away with it, but, again, my decision was unquestioned. The funny part is that years later I saw an adult RB at Target, where he was working. He made a beeline for me (“Uh-oh,” I was thinking) and told me how glad he was to see me and how much he’d liked me as a teacher – and how fair I was. Go figure.
Another funny story – when my daughter was about 13, we ran into another former student from JHS in a guitar shop, a young woman this time, who excitedly greeted me and said, “You was my English teacher!” “Gee, good job, Mom,” my daughter said as we walked away. You can’t win them all.
The second year at JHS I had newspaper, yearbook, one period of senior English and three of regular sophomore English. At the end of that year the county was broke, so a young enthusiastic coach, a young, enthusiastic drama teacher and I were let go under the last-hired, first-fired principle. Same old story – teachers who went through the motions (or didn’t even bother) but had years with the district were guaranteed their jobs, along with the very fine teachers who worked their rears off for years. I don’t have the solution for that dilemma, which persists to this day. The coach and I were recalled by mid-summer. The drama teacher wasn’t so lucky. The coach returned, but I went to work for the Arkansas Democrat editing a section called “The High School Times.” Fun, fun job.
That was the first time I left teaching forever.
This story is running long, so I’ll save Chapter 2: The Glory Days for next time.