Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Good & The Bad Were Good

A letter to the editor I wrote named the look of teachers as suicidal Walmart workers. It was published in the Hawaii Tribune Herald and also Honolulu Civil Beat. The next day, in class, I saw a drawing in a student notebook that had the caption Suicidal Susan.  Someone had read my letter.  Patti Epler, the editor of Honolulu Civil Beat, said she liked my writing.  Now, I have a column that appears every Tuesday called Hawaii Teacher. 

I work in the poorest school complex in the state, a place where it was recently promised that another restroom would be opening up after the break for students to use.  That would make two, then, for 650 seventh through twelfth graders. 

There is an extreme lack of services at the school.  There are not enough social workers.  There is no pregnant teen guidance counselor or class to support those students who would more than likely drop out, perpetuating the cycle of poverty seeping into every pore of the campus.  There are two counselors for students.  There is no transition/college counselor.  There is no counselor for 504 students with emotional impairments/disabilities.

 My 11th grade English class has 32 students in it.  Some students have to share outdated textbooks because there are not enough.  I am glad that I have the number of texts that I do, however.  I am writing this column in order to piece together the things I see and experience in my job as a teacher.  I work with some amazing individuals.  They would rather hold their noses to the grindstone and keep their jobs than speak out.  I do not entertain the notion that I speak for all teachers, only that they daily injustices cannot continue to pile up and pile up without disheartening even the fresh, young/new faces on campus who have replaced abused and burnt-out teachers.  I know of one teacher who is in the last stages of her PhD.  She has a very large family (11 children, plus grandchildren) and her job is very demanding—servicing the severely disabled students. She is not afforded a health aide but must toilet students herself (some physically resemble adults) in dim, crumbling facilities.

Teachers were told lately that they would not get the $1500 hard-to-staff/hard-to-fill incentive at our school if they did not perform satisfactorily.  This leaves teachers not only vulnerable as targets if they speak up at department meetings (or attempt to write a column) but also if they attempt to demand better work conditions.

I have enthusiasm for the students, for their quirks and potential.  I see this potential and their amazing, if often maddening, qualities.  We read, we write.  We read and write together.  We discuss.  They cuss.

I was recently asked if it was difficult for me to participate in the state-wide work-to-rule activity teacher and the union made a point to demonstrate, beginning on November 29th.  I was asked if it was difficult to “shut my door” according to our working hours specified in the old contract.

Not at all, I said.  It was a great excuse to shut the door and walk away from a plethora of problems that a teacher has no business solving or should not even attempt.  Teachers are tired of the sluggish, standstill negotiations.  Teachers need the union to fight like a fierce grizzly.

Because I was exposed to so many different teachers and schools I attended while growing up, I got to see many different teaching styles and methods.  Those I remember the most, taught me right away that that there weren’t any two teachers who were the same, and some of the more popular teachers with the kids I didn’t care for because I had not grown up in those communities:  their popularity had more to do teasing and playing around in class than actually learning subject matter.  I had some teachers who really showed they cared, verbally, and some who really did impact me in unspoken ways by leaving me alone; sometimes by showing cool art films (thanks, Anita Hara) and showing up when I was in the school play (ditto).  Sometimes, it was a comment or question or two that led me to observe their actions (Mr. Connolly, Mr. Ecker) than anything we actually accomplished or read in class. 

Some were to be hated, some were to be loved, and some were to be exasperatingly questioned.  Some were a combination of all of the above.  It seemed, though, that in just a few short months one could get to know a teacher and observe most of their habits.  There were some teachers who seemed to be speaking right to me, even though they were addressing the whole class.  Some teachers didn’t have a handle on anything; they fell asleep at their desks or else were so lax that the class became feral.

What I want to say is that they were just as important to my growing life of the mind as a dozen of Teacher of the Year types.  They were not perfect, some were “horrible” but what happened was that I was forced to consider material, ideas, concepts, and facts for what they were—often at face value, and form the likes and dislikes, my opinions, on my own.

This is not de rigor in the current overload of standardized testing where one size fits all and if it doesn’t, well, just don’t count it. Them.  The students who failed or who might fail in reported data to the superintendent.

I had some great teachers.  They saved my life.  I got to write. This is why I teach, to constantly keep them in my mind, to continue their legacy, their stance in life and to show others that freedom, creative expression, one size does not fit all and democratic ideals are a daily fight, even in an artificial setting:  classroom, students, teacher.  It is a place, and perhaps the only place beside the public library, to rest, to think, to work at and practice the high ideals of the American Dream and its many components.

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