Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Interrogating my own assumptions (spoilers)

I never intended to be a classroom teacher. I started my graduate program with the goal of becoming a college professor who was an expert in human development. I discovered quite quickly that my interest in human development was not nearly as great as my interest in why schools function the way they do, why students learn what they do (or don't), and how all of this comes together to shape kids into the adults they become. So, I switched to a program in teaching in curriculum.

Specifically, I switched into a program with the title Teaching, Curriculum, and Change. The change part was what I wanted to get to. I wanted to change things. I remembered my own experiences in school. I loved learning, but found that the stuff that I was really interested in (why things were the way they were) was rarely talked about, and we students were rarely asked to do anything other than spit back what we had been told. I knew we needed the foundation, but I also knew that we needed to be able to do something with what we learned. To figure out why change was so hard and slow in coming, I really needed to learn about teaching and curriculum. And, if I was going to teach about teaching, learning, and change, I’d better have some experience in the trenches. So, I learned how to become a teacher.

When I first started learning about how to be a teacher (a transformative one, in my mind) I assumed that there was a magic bullet, that my professors would teach me what I needed to know in order to be a teacher. There were certain things that they did teach me. I learned about human development, but had to figure out what it meant in practice. I learned about the history of curriculum, and why schools focus on what they do today. I even learned about the importance of lesson planning, having a clear structure in teaching, and the importance of goals. I learned practical things about ordering activities, the importance of assessment and the utility of testing, but didn’t really get it until I got into the classroom.

When one of my professors noted that a local teacher was looking for someone to work on two different projects, one that would prepare high school students to become teachers and the other to create a new theme-based US History class, I jumped at the opportunities. I assumed these two opportunities would make me an expert teacher with just a little bit of practice of the theories I had learned.

Was I wrong. What I learned was that no matter what you learn in teacher education classes, what you see in the classroom is far more complex. Think about it. You can be told what to do when X happens, but you never really encounter X. For instance, the first time I encountered student resistance to learning, I employed the strategies that I learned in school, only they didn’t work. Why? Because I had forgotten what I had learned earlier about who kids are, what they are interested in, and how to engage them on a human level. So, for awhile, I sucked as a teacher. It wasn’t until my cooperating teacher told me that it was OK to take that step back to learn about my students that I relaxed about getting through the curriculum.

In terms of teaching in an urban community, I have to admit I was very na├»ve. I knew that I was going to have to engage students who, for the most part, had very different experiences from me. I grew up in a predominantly white, middle class community where almost everyone went to college. In fact, people who did not go to college were looked down upon. If anyone has read Penny Eckert’s Jocks and Burnouts (1989: Teachers College Press), you know the type of school community to which I am referring. My teaching in Rochester was very different. And teaching in two different schools was like night and day.

City High was the large comprehensive high school. There were as many 9th grades as there were 10-12th graders. 50% left or disappeared. That’s a scary number, much like what Michele Fine talked about in Framing Dropouts (1991: SUNY Press). Demographically, the high school matched the city’s because the lottery system made sure that all schools were balanced. That meant that 60% of the students were black, 20% were white, and 20% were Hispanic (I know I am mixing race and ethnicity here, but these are the categories the district used). Rochester was and is the second highest needs district in the state of New York. That also meant that more than two thirds of students were on free or assisted lunch.

In the high school magnet program at City High (a pseudonym), I assumed that the students were there because they wanted to be teachers. Wrong. The truth was they were attending a large comprehensive high school that they perceived to be too large and dangerous. It was a large school. The facilities took up an entire city block in downtown Rochester. And, because Rochester uses a lottery to match students with their choice schools, many of the students attending this particular school did not get into the first or second choice. City High was where they ended up, one of 1800. They and their parents were afraid they would be little more than numbers and would be lost. The magnet program enrolled 30 students per year. It was more intimate, classes were cohorted, and teachers knew their students personally (or so parents were told). The reality was, we were working with urban kids who were scared of the school which they were attending. Parents and kids assumed we could protect them, and we assumed we could mold them into teachers.

The other school, Beyond Borders, was a small alternative high school that attracted non-traditional students. In fact, many of the students who attended this school most likely would not have made it if they had attended a more traditional high school. These were smart kids, some of whom had learning disabilities, all of whom thought outside the box. They were frequently independent, inquisitive, and very critical. But, they were still kids from Rochester, which meant that some of them had all the opportunities life could afford them, and others lived hand to mouth.

In the case of social studies, I assumed my students would like my classes because I thought they were interesting. True, my interest in teaching and passion for the subject matter made it easier. But, let’s be honest, most 9-12th graders are not interested in Civics. I had to make it interesting for them. So, I had to step back and talk to them about the rules and laws that they experienced on a daily basis. All of a sudden, I had students who were talking over one another, trying to express their frustration about a number of things related to government, laws, and fairness (or what they perceived to be a lack there-of). They were incensed that they could be drafted at 18 and potentially die in a war, yet they couldn’t buy a beer. They were told that “we” have freedom of speech according to the First Amendment, but their voices were marginalized and silenced. They were censored. They couldn’t wear clothes with political statements. That ended up being my starting point.

I never thought going into teaching in Rochester that I would be unsafe. I never thought I would be mugged or jumped. And I never was. I did assume that I could save the kids from their home environment, and I did picture myself to be one of those “great white hopes.” That lasted for about three days. They saw right through me, and I had to rethink how I was going to approach everything. It was a long bumpy road. I couldn’t save the kids, but I could save myself. I learned to be more humble, I learned to look beyond the surface and see the kid for who he or she was, not who I though he or she should be. I also learned that as a teacher educator, I cannot provide my students with the silver bullet to “fix” the schools, and I cannot tell people how to “fix” their students. I can teach them how to see with different eyes.

To be continued…

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting that you mention that you could not tell others how to "fix" their students. The common solution Bulman claims that many of the Hollywoodesque urban education films mentioned in "Teachers in the Hood" get at is that "we gotta fix the students". And fixing them is instilling middle-upper class suburban morals and views.

    Like you said, you were raised in completely different foundings and surroundings and so it must be difficult to understand where exactly the kids are coming from. I feel like I'm in the same boat. I have such a different realm of experience than many of these students may have, coming from a 94% white, middle-upper class suburban community where violence is either a very rare occurrence or swept under the rug and college is the thing to do after high school.

    We can't really "fix" the students, but we can keep our eyes open, be patient and caring, but firm, and give everyone a fair chance, right?