It’s all over now, baby blue (or why I’m no longer a teacher, though I loved it, final chapter)

Before jumping into part three, let me point out again that this is just me, someone who’s worked in all three major districts in Pulaski County, each in a different decade, explaining, through my experiences, what is wrong with public education in this country. I’d also like to add that I always loved most of my students (even the ones who might not have loved me back), though with some of them it was a real struggle to find something lovable. Sometimes it just had to do to know that someone loved them and they were fellow humans. But that was rare.

I worked with great teachers and administrators; most teachers are hardworking and dedicated no matter what that snotty Reason TV reporter and cameraman said to Matt Damon recently. But many, many are disheartened and leaving, thanks to the curse of the No Child Left Behind Act and the insanity of standardized testing.

But I get ahead of the story. Let me back up.

My husband suggested calling this section “Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone,” because of the profound changes that came with NCLB (he’s pretty witty, that John-oh-mine). I considered The Doors “The End,” but that’s too depressing and freaky and not really how I feel.

The perfect title for this chapter, instead, comes from the Travelin’ Wilburys:

Chapter Three: The End of the Line 

If you question the depth of conviction I felt over leaving teaching forever in 1998, consider this: I let my certification lapse. Anyone who knows how hard it is to get certified – and how increasingly harder it grows to keep a certification – knows what that means. The rest of you will just have to take it on faith. I was finished. Kaput. Done. I loved editing and writing and working with witty adults. I was already used to working year ’round, because being a single teacher mom meant the end of summers off. My kids were out of school, I’d done my public-servant time, and I had no reason to go back.

Then in early 2005, I read a brief article on page 2A of the ADG, one that disturbed me greatly. The report of a small survey, the article said that a majority of high school students didn’t recognize The Bill of Rights when they heard it aloud but did say that whatever it was, it was far too liberal. Further, they said the government should have the power to censor the press, especially in times of war. I was shocked and dismayed and brought it up at a weekly features department budget meeting as something that should be explored locally. Most people thought it was funny and had “who cares; they’re just kids” attitudes.

But that did make me start thinking about how much things were changing since 2001 and the last teaching spark flickered.

Then, in a convoluted way I won’t explain (johndoe@hotmail, you know who you are. I still don’t, though I have suspicions), the Journalism One/Newspaper Staff position at Central found me. I debated long and hard – on the plus side, Nancy Rousseau, the principal, and I hit it off immediately; it was four minutes from my house; I’d be working with the wonderful yearbook and photography teacher, Susan Garner (whose son Trace had been one of my favorite newspaper staff kids at NLRHS); and it was Central High. On the con side, I knew all the negatives of teaching (hah, or so I thought), and I enjoyed my job and the freedom that came with it.

I stalled until July, when Nancy said she really must have an answer. John said go for it if I wanted. We decided I could take it a year at a time, but I really took the plunge thinking this would be the job from which I’d retire.

I was given a conditional teaching certificate, which required taking six college hours within a year to get my official certification back. I instead took the marvelous and free 12-hour LRSD CyberTeacher class at UALR, after which PowerPoint became my favorite teaching tool.

The one thing I didn’t factor into my decision – heck, I really hadn’t even paid attention to it – was the hideousness that is the aforementioned NCLB and the even more vile standardized testing that keeps students out of class, takes away valuable teaching time, prevents any real momentum and teaches children not to think, analyze, synthesize or connect the dots, but to write three-point enumerations and take standardized tests.

OMG, as the kids would text in class on their illicit cellphones, THS SUX. What had I willingly jumped back into??

My first day of class, just before first period, I realized the depths of how things had changed when a large young man who towered over me glowered at me at the door and said loudly, “What IS journalism and why am I in here?” I gave him a brief definition of journalism and asked him to find a seat. (Interestingly, he parked himself right in front of my desk and lecture spot in the very, very, very crowded room.) Turns out that under NCLB, special ed students could take any course they wanted, and his counselor had put him in mine.

He had a very supportive father, took a shine to me, and we made things work. IEPs were one of the things I didn’t expect in journalism (that stands for Individualized Education Plans, if I’m remembering correctly). Long gone were the C-average in English prerequisite days. It seemed the only requirement was a pulse, though I’m sure a zombie would have been permitted to take a class had someone threatened a lawsuit.

I shouldn’t joke. The situation is dire.

Many students were quite angry to find out a new sheriff was in town and they were expected to READ and LEARN in this class. Nancy worked with me and we came up with a plan to reduce the 30 kids per class to 25 by taking volunteers to bail (we had more volunteers than spots for bailees, as it turned out – for the first time, I had kids who really didn’t like me) and moving out five desks. We had slightly more breathing and walking room, and most of the kids who were left didn’t try too hard to run me off. I still almost left at semester. In fact my doctor insisted I leave, but I’m stubborn.

Student behavior was horrid that first year. I wrote behavior document after behavior document and spent hours calling parents, some of whom yelled at me and defended their children. Remember Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours? After he’d gotten out of prison and looked through a window to see girls doing the Twenty-Minute Workout and said, “TV has changed”? I was Eddie Murphy.

I would not have survived the first year or any year without Susan Garner. She was my lifeline and became one of my best friends. Sadly for Central, she retired this year. I’m happy for her but feel her pain. No matter how hard the job, the leaving is harder. (Once you’re gone, it’s another story. The relief was palpable for me.)

Once my reputation was established, student behavior improved immensely and the job became fun (ish) again, except for the immense stress and frustration surrounding standardized tests. Teachers operate in a climate of fear; one testing infraction and, not only can you lose your license, but you put the entire school in jeopardy. The insomnia of my teens came back with a vengeance.

As always, newspaper staff was a joy and great fun, but with all the mandatory paperwork and busywork required of teachers these days, not to mention all the class time lost to testing, we worked so many long nights to get the paper out that I woke up one day and my grandson, Jude, was almost 4. He hadn’t even existed when I started at Central, and I can’t tell you how many “Lolly, where are you? I want to come over” phone calls I got during those work nights.

Many a night at home was spent grading papers or editing newspaper proofs until 10 p.m. at our kitchen breakfast bar, and many a weekend was devoted to lesson plans. No longer did we have the freedom we once had to create curriculum – journalism teachers still had it way better than English, math or science teachers, but we were supposed to match every lesson to existing curriculum guideline codes and have them posted for the students to see – as if they cared about those numbers.

And let me say again, journalism teachers have it much better than core course teachers. There are no end-of-course exams for journalism, but unless things change, someday before long there won’t be any journalism, period. Or band. Or choir. Or art.

I don’t know how Nancy Rousseau does it, or any principal. I’d be bald or insane in their shoes. The requirement that all children be proficient in math and reading by 2014 is not realistic or achievable. Teachers want that, of course. But not every person is the same, not every background is the same and not every playing field is level. How can you dictate that everyone learn the same and achieve the same?

Sorry. Ranting. Concrete examples. Focus, Laura.

(Telling story: Students had a hard time telling fact from opinion (coughFOXnewscough), so I created a fun lesson for the LCD projector in which students had to determine if a statement was fact or opinion or if it contained both. One statement said “Everyone should go to college.” Almost every child every time said that was a fact. When I explained that, no, it was indeed an opinion, one boy raised his hand and said, “You’re a teacher. Are you allowed to say that?” Indoctrination runs deep.)

Once again, we built a top-notch but small Mac computer lab. (Professionals use Macs. I always wanted to prepare my students for real world jobs.) We started an online newspaper and video journalism. I had staff parents willing to start a POPS group (Parents of Publication Staff), and they were marvelous. The administrators were lovely and supportive with good senses of humor. You can’t survive in their world without that.

I had some of the best students of my career at Central. I cried when I told Nancy I had to leave and even harder when I told the next year’s editors. But my family had had an intervention. My husband, daughter, sister and mother all wanted me out. They feared for my health and sanity. It didn’t help that I’d developed an allergy to mold in the building and that I had my first two students I actually feared that last year.

You can take the teacher out of the school, but you can’t take the teach out of the teacher. Or something like that. But do I miss it? NO. No, I do not. Do I miss my students? Some of them greatly (and you know who you are).

Can I say for certain that minus the No Child Left Behind Act I’d still be teaching? Of course not. But I can say, with sadness and frustration, that I might have been. As it is, I walked away, this time with no job in sight. I took a year off, and now I’m starting grad school in gerontology.

One of the things I’m considering doing with my master’s degree is teaching the elderly.

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