My life in recent months has been rife with difficult questions. What will I do after I quit TFA? How will I pay rent while paying back my TFA loans and searching for a new job? Will I stay in DC? Will I feel guilty when all is said and done?
One by one, I have struggled – and succeeded – to answer these questions. I found a new (and better-paying) job, thanks to heavy amounts of both perseverance and luck. I forgot about tax refunds until a financially savvy friend pointed out that my refund checks might help alleviate my financial woes before I start at the new company. With the help of some girlfriends, I found a cheaper place to live next year that’s just down the street from my current apartment. Two months ago, I had nothing figured out – except for my need to get out of TFA. Now, I have a beautiful future lined up and waiting to greet me as soon as I walk out of my classroom for the last time in June.
I even know the answer to the guilt question: I will leave without regret. I can’t say, however, that I will never look back – I will, but not out of remorse. I know already that I will keep returning to the past twelve months of my life. I will replay them in my head, over and over again for years to come, in order not to forget them. It may sound strange, but traumatizing as they were for me on an emotional level, I need not to forget them. At least, not until I have finally come to understand them. I will always look back, in the hope of answering at least some of the questions that this year has raised about the world I live in, and about who I want to be in that world.
I know already which unanswered questions will linger the longest: Why couldn’t I help my students succeed, academically or otherwise? Why, in spite of the manifest good intentions of the teaching staff at my school, was the entire operation headed towards failure? Why couldn’t we get our kids to learn? And, of course, the two most important questions of all: Who has the power to make things right? What price will we pay as a society, as a country, as a world, if nobody ever answers these questions correctly?
I say “correctly” because in today’s education world, everyone has answers. Bad teachers, bad unions, bad systems, bad measurements, bad budgets, bad administrators, bad solutions, bad kids. Everyone has an opinion – some of which are much more politically correct than others. As a TFAer, especially, claiming “bad kids” is tantamount to preaching eugenics. The problem cannot be their failure to learn; it has to be our failure to teach them the way they need to be taught.
Yet the ugliest and most critical truth in the education world today is that teachers, especially new teachers, routinely talk about their students as the problem. It’s not because they’re evil teachers. It’s not because they’re unfit, or elitist, or eugenicist. It’s not because they’re not trying hard enough. It’s because on a day-to-day basis, their students are their greatest challenge. Or, more specifically, management of their students is their greatest challenge. Ask any struggling first-year teacher to explain what’s going wrong, and I guarantee that he or she will not reply, “I don’t get paid enough,” “Budget cuts are really hurting my access to resources,” “My administration is out to get me,” or “The state test is just so unfair!” The classic response stems from the classic problem, “I just don’t know how to manage my classroom. I don’t have control over my kids.”
In fact, even at TFA, the problem is systemic. I sat through a workshop at a TFA Professional Development Saturday last November designed to help solve management issues, and I was stunned by the sense of despair that permeated the room. In a group of perhaps twenty corps members, everyone was on the verge of giving up. And everyone gave the same reasons: “I stand there, and I talk, and then I yell, and then I beg, and then I threaten, and still no one has heard a word I’ve said. It’s like I’m invisible. I might as well not be there.”
If people at the workshop deviated from this response, it was to say things like: “They hate me. They curse at me and tell me I’m fat, or ugly, or whatever else they can think of. They say things to me in Spanish that I know are awful and then they laugh because they know I can’t understand.” These statements were made without exaggeration, without anger, and also without hope. All I could think was, this is only November.
My roommate once came home while I was watching a video of a fellow corps member’s classroom. She sat down next to me on the couch and watched for three minutes while he tried desperately, patiently, calmly, and repeatedly to get the attention of his students at the start of class. He didn’t yell, he showed no frustration, he said all the right things. He taught by the TFA book. Meanwhile, his students might as well not have known he was there. My roommate was floored. “I just don’t know how you handle that level of disrespect every day!” she kept saying. “How can that be real? No one was listening to him! No one was learning anything! They acted like the didn’t even know they were at school!”
Though the video was not of my classroom, that is how I feel at least once a day. Perhaps not all day, every day, but at least once a day I stand in the middle of my students and blink back tears as I realize that they are simply never going to stop talking. Why can’t they just SHUT UP???? I scream inside my head, while I try with every fiber of my being not to scream out loud at them. And then, sometimes, I do scream, because it achieves a brief moment or two of silence before they forget about me again and calmly return to their boisterous business.
Funnily enough, my principal has commented on the good rapport that I have developed with my students. He claimed, after a recent observation, that it was “evident” simply in the way the classroom was running. They trusted me, they were willing to talk to me, they cared enough to participate in the conversation I had started for them. As he said this, all I could think was, “so what?” He caught a good class on a good day, but even my good classes drive me nuts. Even my good classes fail tests because they aren’t actually learning. Even my best and brightest students will chatter away, oblivious, as I try to explain what happened in the War of 1812.
Now, I know about all of the things that I am doing wrong. Try as I might to deliver a perfect class, I know that the bad days are my fault – for not structuring my lessons correctly, or not releasing the learning to the students quickly enough, or not providing an interesting hook at the outset to capture their engagement throughout the period. I know that my students goof off because they have trouble reading, or trouble with English, or trouble focusing for seventy-two minutes. I know they’re twelve, and I’m not giving them what they need. I know I can’t blame my students.
Of course, the consensus in the education world supports this conclusion. But somewhere in the struggle to find a better, and more acceptable, culprit, everyone seems to have lost sight of the root problem in so many schools. Forget the tests, forget the budgets, forget the teachers’ unions. Look at the classrooms themselves. Students aren’t learning because students aren’t paying attention and teachers don’t know how to fix it. Teachers try. Teachers feel responsible for making them pay attention. Believe me, teachers feel guilty when they fail. They feel useless, they question their career choices, they bemoan their personal failures. They stay up late agonizing. Maybe after months of agonizing, some of them give up. But even the ones who feel like empty teacher shells still have to try; it’d be suicide not to.
If our students are not the problem, then, to use TFA speak, our expectations for them are. I have heard plenty of teachers at my school tell me that my kids can’t learn what I’m trying to teach them – so clearly low academic expectations play a role. But low behavioral expectations are the real failure, and they’re not a problem of individual teachers or even whole administrations. They’re a failure of the system.
I teach in a system where the status quo is wrong. My (middle) school has three security guards, and runs an in-school suspension room each day. Emails about long-term suspensions are routine, and often greeted with sighs of relief by the teachers who can cross at least one major obstacle (a disruptive student) off of their weekly agendas. The school is under legal pressure from the county to lower its suspension rate, so repeatedly the staff is told to deal with behavior issues in-house. Call parents, send kids to the classroom next door to do work in isolation, et cetera. And, of course, reward good behavior with things like candy and free homework passes. That’ll provide some level of deterrence – right?
There are some teachers in my school who thrive in this system. For whatever reason – personality, technique, age, effectiveness – some teachers have a tight lid on their classes. But too many teachers don’t. As a result of my own failures, my students don’t respect me enough to behave well. But as a result of the system’s failures, I am teaching a group of students whose default is to misbehave. It’s incumbent upon me to force them to listen, force them to sit still, force them to learn.
Over and over again, I have asked myself, “How???” For months the problem seemed to lack any solution. Everything I tried wasn’t enough. Then finally I came to identify, if not the answer, at least the point at which everything was going awry: I discovered that before I can teach my students history, I have to find a way to teach them to be considerate human beings. To teach them character. To teach them that they owe respect to the people around them, enough to listen without being asked and learn without being forced. But the question remains – how??? On the occasions when I get through to a disruptive student, it’s always by appealing to the child’s own motivations and convincing him or her that it’s in his or her best interest to improve. I have never managed to convince a student to behave well simply because it’s the right thing to do, and the right way to treat people. Until I learn how to do that, I’m not sure anyone I teach will learn, either.
This, in fact, is the one answer I will walk away with – the one answer I won’t have to search for in the years to come: until we develop systems where there is a zero tolerance policy for poor behavior, we will have broken systems and broken results. I’m not suggesting that we kick out every kid who says “Boo!” Far from it. We have a responsibility to educate each and every one, no matter the circumstances and no matter the challenge. But we’ve allowed a culture of low expectations to permeate our schools, and until we rectify it, we’re going to achieve lower-than-acceptable outcomes.
Moreover, the stakes are too high to waste time on this front. We can’t get it right ten years down the road, because by then an entire decade of America’s youth will be hurt by our missteps. We need an overhaul that fixes it here, and now. No more alternative schools – a practice built on the assumption that we can avoid the issue if we run away from it. No more mass teacher firings – we’re playing a misdirected blame game. No more arguments over assessment data. We need to change the default operating system in our schools.
I don’t say this out of a desperate desire to make my life as a teacher a little bit easier. I don’t say this out of a desire to get revenge on my most disruptive, classroom-spoiler children. I say this out of a deep, heartbreaking, troubling concern for the students I have been teaching. I worry that I’m teaching them the wrong lessons. I worry that by giving them candy when they’re quiet, and sending them to in-school suspension when they’re not, I’m failing to teach them how to treat the world they live in. I want them to know that they can’t insult each other, and fight each other, and ignore each other’s voices. I want them to know that they should instinctively respect their teachers, and their coaches, and their peers. Not because there’s anything in it for them – but because it’s what you do. I want them to be able to use their incredible intelligence, and their innate understanding of right and wrong, to get the things that they deserve in life. My students have a conscience. They are smart kids. They are good kids. But as a school system, we’re absolving them of the responsibility to use these gifts and abilities. As a result, we prevent them from reaching their academic potential.
Character is who you are when no one is looking. In a world without consequences or rewards, you still have to choose the right side. You still have to be a good person. And being a good person starts by treating others with respect. This is the lesson I want my students to know. This will be the one point on which I feel guilt when I walk away: that I left before I could discover how to teach them this. Because ten years down the line, or twenty, or thirty, it won’t matter if they can explain the War of 1812. But how they treat the world they live in – this has the power to change everything.