I have been substituting at my old school for the past six weeks, and now that the school year's over, I thought I would discuss teaching and education in general. It ain't pretty, people. So strap yourself in, 'cause I have a feeling this is going to be a long one.
First, the students. Oh, the students. Now, I teach in what we like to call "the ghetto." Phoenix doesn't have ghettos like I think of ghettos (I grew up in Philadelphia, and used to drive by the burned-out home up by Temple University - that was a ghetto!), but it does have poor sections, and I work in one of them. It's a poor area with a lot of immigrants (legal or otherwise) or kids of immigrants, and most of the kids are classified as "at-risk." This means they're poor, special ed., abused, delinquents, or all of the above. This gives them a little bit of an excuse, but not much. I'm going to rant about them for a while and why most of my students would do well if we re-instituted the draft.
I am convinced that a good number of my students are sociopaths. This site
defines sociopathy as "chiefly characterized by something wrong with the person's conscience. They either don't have one, it's full of holes like Swiss cheese, or they are somehow able to completely neutralize or negate any sense of conscience or future time perspective. Sociopaths only care about fulfilling their own needs and desires - selfishness and egocentricity to the extreme." That may seem extreme to describe teenagers - aren't they all sociopathic in some way? - but with our students, I have a disturbing feeling that it's true. Here's a typical day at my school:
Class starts at 8 o'clock. There are usually one or two students in the room. The rest wander in from any time from 8.15 to 9. They offer absolutely no excuses other than "I overslept." They are not even embarrassed that they are late. In my class, at least, I give work at the very beginning of class that counts toward their attendance grade. The state of Arizona says half their grade must be attendance, so I give them some points for being in class and some more for doing the work at the beginning of class. That way if they show up late, I give them points for being in class but not for the work. Last year I would give them a grammar exercise for the first 15-20 minutes of class (the classes at our school are 2 hours long - yes, two ... hours ...) and then went over the answers in class
. You might be shocked by how many high school students don't know what a noun is, or how to capitalize, or how to punctuate. Even after I gave them the answers, most didn't write the answers down. I would give them back and occasionally throw a grammar test at them. They usually failed.
After this fun exercise, it's time for the class proper. Allow me to describe the behavior of the children (and this is whether you're a hard-ass or not, so the attitude of the teacher is pretty much irrelevant). Whenever they feel like it they get up and leave the class. We have hall passes, but they only take them occasionally. We also have a set time period that they're allowed out of class (usually five minutes), but again, that's pretty much a joke (and I have had children who can't tell time, so five minutes means nothing to them). Only one student is supposed to be out at a time, and sometimes I can keep to that, but if someone really wants to go, they leave. Occasionally they offer an excuse (the pregnant girls are good at this - "I'm pregnant, Mr. Burgas!"), but usually, they just leave. We have a button in the class that connects to the intercom, and we're supposed to tell the principal about it, but I usually don't use it, because a) the fewer students in my class, the happier I am, especially since the ones who leave are usually the troublemakers; and b) nothing happens to the students anyway (more on that later). So we have kids leaving the classroom with impunity and wandering the halls or hanging out in the bathrooms getting high or selling drugs (I wish I was kidding). Of course, as I mentioned, sometimes it's preferable for them to be out of the classrooms than in them.
In the classrooms their behavior is atrocious. These kids curse so much it's almost unbelievable. Typically, every two normal words they say is accompanied by a "fuck" or "shit." As in, "Yeah, we been fuckin' drinkin' on Saturday, shit, and I was fuckin' so fuckin' drunk that I fuckin' fell over three fuckin' times. Shit!" Again, I wish I was kidding. The school is about 65% Hispanic and 20% black, so the "n" word gets thrown around quite often. I have stood in class and listened to a couple of black kids talking, and I swear to God, every other word is "nigga." Now, they claim that when they say "nigga" it's different from a racist saying "nigger," but that's, well, bullshit. I try to explain to them that they're calling each other animals, but they're certainly not going to listen to a square white guy when 50 Cent tells them it's okay to say that word. They talk like this no matter who is around, too, and again, show no embarrassment when you call them on it. Many of them don't even realize they have been cursing. It's like breathing to them, or when other people say "uh" between words. It's amazing when you tell them to stop, because they say "My bad," and not ten seconds later they're cursing again.
So, there's the cursing. Okay. They also have no thought of threatening their classmates, littering, putting gum on the tables, ignoring the teacher, and talking on their cell phones. We have a rule in the school that they can't use cell phones, but rules obviously don't apply to them. I tell them that if someone calls on their phone, they need to get off the phone as quickly as possible. If they don't, I have a lot of fun walking over to them and shouting "Get off the phone!" very loudly in their ears. That pisses them off. Even if it's an important phone call, they don't think to stop, raise their hand, ask politely if they can go out in the hall because their brother was just in a car accident, and then walk out in the hall. They simply get up and say "I gotta take this call" and walk out. Whatever.
While they are wandering the halls, they think nothing of hanging out in the halls or simply walking into classrooms that are not their own. I am constantly telling kids to get out. I'm not allowed to lock my door because of fire hazards (although the door only locks from the outside, so we can get out if there's a fire), so I have to walk over to the door and kick them out. I enjoy slamming the door in their faces, because they honestly don't believe I'll do it. I have to, though, because telling them to leave accomplishes nothing.
They also litter a lot. I have a policy in my class that they're not allowed to leave until the floor and tables are clean ("clean" being a relative term, since the room is generally a sty). So they eat Doritos and throw the bag on the floor instead of hanging onto it and throwing it in the trash as they leave. When I tell them to pick the bag up, usually I have to ask more than once because they just stare at me stupidly, and when they do bend over and get it, it's like they're performing one of the freakin' labors of Hercules. Then, when the bell rings and there's still crap on my tables (usually newspapers, because God forbid they do work in class) and I'm standing in front of the door blocking their egress and I tell them that someone needs to pick up the crap on my tables, it becomes almost bizarre. There will be a group of three or four students standing by the table staring at the papers and not picking them up
(because it's not "their crap"). It's a freakin' newspaper, but no one wants to pick it up and throw it away, so I tell them no one's leaving until it goes in the trash. Usually, one of the better students stomps over and picks it up, letting them all off the hook, but it's one of the more bizarre moments in school.
As for the work that they do ... well, the less said the better. I have already mentioned that they don't know grammar. They have no concept of speaking correctly. As an English teacher, this drives me batty. Many of them can't read at anything close to grade level. Whenever we have tested them, they come in at third grade, fourth grade ... again, I wish I was kidding. They have no attention spans unless it has to do with watching movies they like or playing video games. They can't spell. I'm talking relatively simple words like "trite" or "liability." I don't even assign homework (with two-hour classes, it's kind of pointless anyway) because I know it won't get done. They can't extract simple information from their reading. They read it, but have no idea what it really means. They have no idea how to take notes or study effectively. More depressing than that, they don't care
. This is why I called them sociopaths - they care about nothing more than their own, instant desires. They have no thought of the past or the future - they live totally in the future. That's why punishment doesn't work - tomorrow they'll forget that the particular action for which they were punished led to it, nor do they consider what might happen if they do something wrong. They live in the moment exclusively, and anything you tell them to the contrary is literally in one ear and out the other.
Not all the kids are like this. But a vast majority are. I went to graduation the other night and was very proud of the ones who got through, although some of the graduates surprised me, because I wouldn't have believed they passed anything. I have had some very brilliant kids in class, and that makes the rest so much more annoying. And although a large part of this is the fact that they are "at-risk," at my other school, where the kids were from middle class families and were far less likely to be pregnant or use drugs, they weren't much better. Their behavior on the whole was better, but their work was almost as awful and their attitude was usually the same. Kids today, I have learned, have absolutely no fear. They hear all about "rights" and they see all sorts of things about lawsuits and they know that teachers can't do a damned thing to them
. Hence their shitty attitudes. Why should they behave when nothing is going to happen to them?
So the kids suck. I still love teaching them, because of the diamonds in the rough that you do find. I have met excellent writers, math geniuses, and wonderful artists during my 3+ years of teaching. However, they're not the only problem. The second part of this essay/rant will be about how we're failing these kids just as much as they're failing themselves.
First, the charter school phenomenon. We moved to Arizona because after I got my Master's Degree, I couldn't teach in a public school in Oregon because I didn't have a teaching certificate. Luckily, in Arizona in 2001, you didn't need a teaching certificate to teach at a charter school (by next year, every teacher will need one). Charter schools were created in Arizona because of the crappy public schools and legislators believed that this would help the problem. A charter school is run more like a business than public schools, but this, I feel, is a mistake. There are at least two businesses that should not be run like businesses, and because they are, things suck - schools and health insurance. I've worked in both, and because they are run like businesses, the people are the first to get screwed, because people are expensive, and businesses are all about cutting costs. The charter school system in Arizona has been a moderate success, but it still doesn't address the problems we have in this country with education. Charter schools are given money from the state based on the number of students they have - period. So they think nothing of stuffing 30-35 kids into a classroom. Now, I'm a big proponent of smaller class sizes, even though some people say it makes no difference. Let me tell you, with 25 sociopaths in a class of 30, class size makes a difference, but that's not in the school's best interest. For that reason, it's almost impossible to throw them out of school. We had a girl caught selling drugs in the bathroom, but she went through rehab (strange, since she was the dealer!) and she's back! Whoo-hoo - more money for the school! We have kids get in fights, we have kids threaten teachers, we have kids miss days and days of school, we have kids smoking weed in the bathroom, and nothing ever happens to them! Some of our administrators want to get rid of the worst troublemakers, but they can't do a thing.
The problem, as with most things, is money. I love how people say it's no good to throw money at a problem, but when the military wants to build yet another bomber, we throw money at it. Yes, I'm a bleeding heart liberal, but it seems that the military gets money any time they want it, but anything else in society, it's like blood from a freakin' stone. We don't want to pay taxes to support schools, and the kids suffer for it. My dictionaries are from the 1960s, and although I get the books I need, I have to beg for them a little. At my school we have hardly any computers, and certainly not one for every kid, which is how it should be. There's no library and there are hardly any flippin' protractors in the math classes. These kids, who need all the help they can get, are simply thrown into a classroom with a teacher who often doesn't have anywhere near the resources that he or she needs. Education is so low on our list of priorities that we shouldn't whine when these kids don't know anything. Bill Gates recently gave a speech
in which he said he won't even hire American high school graduates because American high schools are "obsolete." It's a chilling speech, and one that should disturb every American, especially minorities, since those are the ones who suffer the most. But we don't care. We want to pay fewer taxes and give 87 billion dollars to fight "terrorists" and live in blissful ignorance. Our ignorance is breeding these sociopaths.
Our culture also fails these kids. Most of them, as I mentioned, are "at-risk." They are children of teen mothers, and many of them are mothers. When a teenager becomes a mother, she often is alone because the guy has split. These kids say they're going to be good mothers, but being a parent is difficult, and when they hit 20 or 21 and want to party, will they really stay home with their 4-year-olds? I was a youngster once, and I liked going out with friends (I was never a serious drinker, but I liked to go out now and then). Kids who see their parents go out and party while they get stuck with grandparents (who aren't all that old in the first place) learn that it's okay to get drunk or high. Mia will never see me drunk or high (it's been many, many years since I smoked pot, and I hardly ever drink) because I don't want her doing that sort of thing. These students are conditioned from youth to accept drinking, cursing, behaving badly, smoking drugs, and generally being awful human beings as normal, and kids learn by observing behavior far more than they learn by parents telling them what to do. These kids have absent fathers, mothers who love them but are ridiculously immature, and they learn quickly that they can manipulate their parents into giving them what they want as a substitute for love. Their parents want so desperately to be their kids' friends that they don't establish any kind of boundaries. Sometimes when I tell these kids they can't do something, they stare at me as if they've never heard the word before. When kids go their whole lives without having any boundaries, by the time the hit their teen years and are rebellious anyway, it's even worse.
We have also reached a point in this country where there's absolutely nothing we can do about discipline. These kids are sneaky smart, and they know that we as educators can't do a thing to them. I have never wanted to smack a kid (well, not seriously ...), but they know they can get away with anything, because that's what our country has become. And don't think I'm getting all old-school Christian conservative "spare the rod, spoil the child" crap either, because these kids see politicians of all stripes getting away with anything they want as long as they have the money to buy their way out of it. When adults have no discipline, how are kids supposed to? These students see everything in the world run by money, from their rap star and basketball player idols to the politicians and "real" Americans who say they have to go back to Mexico because they're ruining the economy. So all they care about is making money, and education means nothing to them. We have taught them this, and we shouldn't be surprised that they ignore education. Our president did, after all. (There's also a sad sidebar to this "monkey see, monkey do" syndrome. Here's a story about a "racy" yearbook that students put together.
It's actually called X Rated
. This guy
makes the point that kids are obviously listening to adults, despite what adults think. Laura Bush makes sex jokes about her husband and Desperate Housewives
is the number one show on television and we're getting upset that kids think about sex a lot? Look in the freakin' mirror, America!)
We also have a problem with treating these kids like adults. Teenagers are a mess, and we don't make it any easier for them. On the one hand, we treat them like children, and they naturally rebel against that. On the other hand, we act like they should know how to act like adults, and then get angry when they don't We haven't provided them with any role models, so why should they know? We discriminate against them because we fear them. We want them to feel okay, so we don't challenge them to rise to their occasion. This goes all the way back to grade school. They don't learn what they need to, but we feel bad about them getting held back, so we move them along. They come here from Mexico, and instead of giving them instruction in their own language and teaching them English and making sure they learn it well enough, we move them into mainstream classes where they don't understand the teacher (this has happened to me more than once). We don't want to make special ed. kids feel bad by isolating them, so we mainstream them as well, even though teachers have no training on how to deal with them and therefore sell them short (another thing that has happened to every teacher I know). This, as far as I can tell, damages their self-esteem even more than if they are separated out, because they ultimately learn very little. But we don't have the funds to properly educate the non-English speakers or the special ed. kids, so we claim we have to mainstream them in the name of equality. It doesn't do anything for them, but who cares? Here in Arizona we have the AIMS test, which is a standardized test that every student will have to pass to graduate starting next year. They instituted it a few years ago, and many teachers rebelled against it, because it was so much teaching to the standards and killed creativity in teaching. Well, it tests stuff like reading and writing and math, so any teacher should be able to do a little toward helping the kids pass the test, but the state panicked when most of their students failed it (and failed it and failed it on multiple retakings). So instead of demanding that the kids get better, they have dumbed it down. I don't like the AIMS test, but if you're going to do it, make it hard and stick to your guns. If some snotty rich kid in Scottsdale doesn't graduate and his parents sue the state, so be it. It will work eventually, but everyone these days wants a quick fix, and so we panic. That's another thing these kids learn - if something difficult, eventually someone will make it easier for them, because we don't want anyone to feel bad.
I don't know what the solution is. Thomas
mentioned a while back that he's in favor of school vouchers, and I vehemently disagreed. It's not that I object to the idea of competition among schools, it's just that, as I mentioned above, competition culls the weakest from the herd, and in education, we should be looking out for the weakest. Vouchers wouldn't work because if you give most of our kids the opportunity to go to a private school, after a day they would be out for poor behavior. If some managed to stick around because they're well behaved, they would be gone the minute they were given a test, because they would be so far behind the school would realize it's pointless to continue. Also, vouchers imply that some schools are beyond redemption, and we should be working to improve schools, not drive them out of business. We need schools to create a sense of community, and if every kid on a street is going to a different school, each far away from the other, we lose that. It's a different situation, but when I went to high school (I graduated in 1989, in what seems like a millennium ago), we had the public school and a Catholic one (there were other private schools, but not many). Everyone went to one of those two. I hung out with a wide variety of different kinds of kids, from the choir and band geeks (I sung in the choir because I RULE!) to the jocks and cheerleaders (I was close to a particularly hot cheerleader, but because in high school I wasn't terribly confident, I never did anything about it - so stupid!) to the stoners (most of whom I knew from elementary school), because we all went to the same school and took some of the same classes (obviously, there were different levels of difficulty, but we were thrown together in some of the classes). It fostered a great sense of community and school spirit, and although it was a big school (my graduating class has 632 kids), it felt like we were all in it together. When our principal got annoyed with us and told us we didn't bathe (I'm totally serious), we all banded together and hooted at him, despite the fact that the bathers (of which I was one) often did
get annoyed with the non-bathers (of which there were more than you'd think). I would never want to go back to high school, but it was a great experience. For most of the students I have taught these days, high school is an ordeal. It just isn't important to them, what with the fact that they have children to feed, jobs to go to, drive-by shootings to avoid, friends' funerals to attend, and abusive parents to escape. A high school education is way down on that list.
Like I said, I don't know what the solution is. I do know that we as Americans simply don't take education seriously. We think, "Well, everything was great when I went to school, so these kids should just shut up and learn," or "I never got an education, and I did okay, so what's the problem?" Well, as Bill Gates said, we're teaching these kids with models from 50 years ago. I don't totally buy into the touchy-feely crap that passes for educational teaching these days, but I do admit that these kids are dealing with things we could never imagine. Dismissing them because they act like jerks is just as bad as coming down on them with every form of discipline we can think of. We need new ways of dealing with today's students, we need more money in education, we need to stop treating schools like businesses, we need to make these kids more accountable, and we need to understand that this is a serious problem. We can't fix everything - the parents, for instance, are still going to do what they want, whether or not the schools are better - but we can make things better. It will take sacrifices, and in Bush's America, "sacrifice" is almost as dirty a word as "liberal," but it needs to be done. Without hyperbole, the future of the country depends on it.