An Encomium on Teaching

Next weekend’s the DFW Expo for Educators, and this expo is an example of one of the things I like being a teacher: all the support that comes with it — expos like this, readily available books, even whole stores dedicated to outfitting teachers, and, increasingly, fellow UDers who have become teachers.

Like my old college friend and former roommate Scott — after thrashing about in the office wonk world for eight years (beginning with Quaker State, endig with — Scott, feel free to correct me — Hyundai), he’ll be starting his new job, teaching high school English. As he says, “Finally, I can do something which won’t suck out my mind and soul. Thank God.”

Gee, that’s exactly what I felt like after I quit Quaker State for UD’s Teacher Prep program.

Even though I’m a Ph.D. candidate and have been a college teacher for six years this coming August, my first experience teaching was as a student teacher, teaching high school senior English at a public school, specifically MacArthur High School here in Irving. Four sections of “Regular” English and two sections of “AP.” What with my background, I though I’d enjoy the AP over the Regular, but I was dead wrong. The AP students were diligent and BORING — very much the freshman college students that they were preparing to be. The Regular students were hostile but exciting — and, in making me work for those students, to make them give a damn about British Lit, teaching the Regulars was as good for me as it was for them.

But what I hated — HATED — was the idea that the public school tracking system considered my Regular kids dummies. The teacher-of-record (the teacher whose classes I was teaching for several weeks in the Spring semester of 1999), pretty much wrote off the Regular classes and only really cared about her AP classes. That PISSED ME OFF. By the end of my stint, I had black girls clicking their tongues at Dumbass Satan in _Paradise Lost_, Korean kids stare, riveted, at my writhing Lady MacBeth, and even the resident pothead to not get high for a change just so that he won’t miss out on all the fun.

And ALL kids should have such a classroom experience, but many *don’t.*

What I hate about teaching public school, to get to my point, is the tracking system, which is funny since I’m a success story of that tracking system. I like to say, “I’m a product of the public school system” — which is true. My folks couldn’t afford to send four kids to private school, and especially what with moving around when my father would get stationed all over the place. But, unlike my brother and sisters, a caring second grade teacher noticed me work in the classroom, talked with a Gifted and Talented coordinator of my elementary school, and had me tested. Lots of looking at calendars and clocks, building with wooden blocks, and counting games. Soon after, one of my recess periods (my elementary school at Guam had *two*) was replaced with a GT class (I honestly don’t remember what we did), and my permanent transcript forever had “GT” attached to it, which determined what level of classes I would have, from second grade to 12th grade. That early identification set a precedent, and so I was guided towards taking Honors/GT/AP classes, and was even taking dual-credit college freshman English classes my senior year because, at my high school, the dual-credit classes were the *only* Honors 12th grade English.

So with a public school college-bound tracking like that, of course I’d be more than prepared for the arduous curriculum of the the University of Dallas (which, oh, my readers, IS NOT EASY).

In contrast my younger sister didn’t have the luck of having an attentive teacher early in her public school career, and so she was stuck at the “regular” track, also called, on the high school level “Minimum” track; and she took all the “regular” classes, and fulfilled the “Minimum” track. I still remember helping her with her English classes, struggling to understand what she was reading and feeling like a dummy. She graduated from the same high school as me, enrolled in the local community college and *struggled* to pass Developmental Reading and Writing because, according to the community college’s placement test, my sister was incapable of reading on the 12th grade level and writing a simple, coherent essay. Kids like my sister are whom I’m teaching now at my college, and I *seethe* knowing how much the public school tracking system has *failed*.

One can get a good public school education; I’m a testimony to that. But one needs good teachers who care about students, enough to say, “Hey, I think you’re GT material” and involved parents (although my case wasn’t so much — what with a Navy father overseas most of the year and a mom working 14-hour days, six days a week) who knows the tracking game and forces the counselors to test their kid for undiagnosed learning disabilities (as I suspect my little sister had) and a chance for a higher track.

In my Honors classes, I noticed that the teachers were better, the learning strategies were better, the students helped each other while being highly competitive, all with the expectation of “Of course you’re smart — you wouldn’t be in an Honors class if you weren’t,” and even the low-performing students in such a classroom weren’t seen as being stupid but just being a slacker such that an Honors “C” has more grade points than a Regular “C.”

I can’t change the system from the top-down — I don’t have that kind of power. But as a teacher I’ve laid out the game rules to my students such that they can play the tracking game and perhaps change it from the bottom. For my 12th grade regular seniors, it was a too late for them; but for my freshman college students, struggling to get through the core curriculum of a *community* college, I explain perhaps why they are struggling, and empowered with that knowledge, they can make informed choices that they didn’t know they had because nobody cared to tell them earlier.

Teachers are so damn important in shaping the future. The institutions that teachers and students find themselves in are not perfect, but there is always a way to work within them. That is my faith, anyway, and for students whose parents have no choice but these flawed but important public schools, it’s that faith that keeps teachers teaching to the best of their ability… because these kids are worth it.

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About lizardqueen

If single-mothering were a paid job, I'd be rich. However, it doesn't, so I write (which doesn't pay the bills) and teach (which does). I'm overly-educated in the liberal arts, but that doesn't hinder my ability to be pragmatic and realistic. YAY.
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