Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Haves and Have-Nots in My Classroom

Having just finished the first week of school in year 2014--a week that marks the end of the trimester midterm, a week filled with provocative information that has filtered into my mind through social networks, emails, conversations with colleagues, and my own observations and experiences with students--I have been thinking about the "Haves and Have Nots" in the various corners of the education world.

When thinking about and posting about students, I look for the positive, what my friend Gary Anderson refers to as "What's Not Wrong" on his blog. However, there are times when I scratch my head in dismay about the many challenges teachers face these days, and after a difficult week, I'm using this blog post to make some observations and comments about the "Haves and Have-Nots."

Having the Drive to Succeed in School vs. Not Having the Drive to Succeed in School:

This is a complicated issue that perplexes me daily. My personal story is one of a poor child who saw education as an escape from problems at home, including poverty. At one time when I was very young, my sister, mother, and I lived in a two-room house without a bathroom in Pitcher, Oklahoma. We had to walk down the alley to use an outhouse. I say this because I'm no stranger to the hardships many students face.

Yet rather than seeing education as a means to an end or as an escape from personal problems, which is what I did, many students have not the ability or the whatever to do this. I think about this when I speak to students traumatized by an alcoholic parent, when I know students who must work to pay their personal expenses, when I teach minority students who feel marginalized by languages of power.

For many, a cloud of disillusionment hovers over them. Even having the choice to read a book of their choice and having virtually no homework in my class so that school isn't an incursion into their personal lives, I see an absence of personal drive.

Mind you, I'm not talking about all students, but this trimester I have more seniors than ever who aren't making it. It's scary, and I don't know how to get through to them. They are polite and friendly--when they come to class, which for some isn't often enough.

Sometimes I share a little of my story--privately--with a student. Still, this rarely seems to work.

And I am not alone in these feelings and experiences.

Many of my colleagues have shared their frustrations. "I don't know if I can do this job another year," is a comment one male colleague made to me yesterday. He hasn't been in education nearly as long as I have.

All, of course, is not gray skies and woe. One class I teach is filled with hard-working, amazing students. I am in awe of their ability to push themselves when deadlines loom. This is my dual-enrollment Communication 1101 class. Simply, they rested during winter break and have had to "burn the midnight oil" this week so that they could finish their argumentative speech outlines. Almost all have excelled beyond my expectations with their first drafts. I am particularly excited to hear the speeches about excessive homework and the impact of high school sports on academics. These students, and others, take risks, knowing that their classmates and friends will challenge their positions. Yet they have the drive to stand up and speak up.

As I conferenced with one student about her outline yesterday, I asked, "How did you get so smart? This is a superb outline." The student, whom I taught as a ninth grader and who is now a junior, responded: "Great teachers like you, Mrs. Funk."

Having Professional Respect for Colleagues and Having Not Professional Respect:

On occasion I have a situation in which a colleague literally sabotages a student's academic success. How? Simply, said colleague excuses the student from English, even though English is a core class and even though the student struggles, and even though our administration repeatedly reminds teachers not to do this.

Teachers who keep students out of a class "to help" with whatever, literally sabotage the student. This lapse in professionalism is something I find inexcusable. It isn't uncommon for a student who has "skipped" with the help of another teacher to say, "I don't care" when I mention the student's failing grade or need for the credit.

Last year I even had a colleague who came to my room, with a student in one of my classes, and lectured me for nearly an hour about how I should teach. Mind you, this was not a colleague in my department (I can't imagine that happening). It was a teacher who frequently keeps students out of other classes for a variety of reasons. It was a teacher for whom I have no professional respect. I was dumbstruck. Not knowing how to respond because the student was present, I said little. I kept my focus on the student and did all I could not to reveal my disdain for this particular colleague.

Of course, many teachers work above and beyond to serve students and to respect colleagues, even when we don't agree. To honer one another, a few years ago a colleague had the idea to give recognition to a deserving teacher on our staff with the Lionel Bowzer Excellence in Teaching award. I have the honor of being the first recipient. This week another colleague was honored after being nominated for tutoring a student who needed to raise his ACT scores for a scholarship opportunity. My colleague gave up lunch time and time after school to tutor the student.

Last night as I took tickets at a basketball game, a colleague came up to me and said, "I have to tell you about what my students say about you." She proceeded to share comments students in a class made about "learning to write in Mrs. Funk's class."

Having a Cathartic Experience

When I began this post, I thought I'd be writing about national and state issues, including exorbitant pay for college coaches and budget cuts for teacher salaries. I thought I'd be writing about satire after seeing the Borowitz Report and posts about Chris Christy and the George Washington Bridge scandal. I suppose I needed to pen a more personal commentary.

Thank you for stopping by and indulging me by reading. This has been a cathartic experience. I feel better after writing.

I'll be back to sharing teaching ideas, professional resources, and other items more relevant to the larger educational community next time.