Friday, March 26, 2010

Why I Do It

Some people ask me when I tell them all that frustrates me about the bureaucracy of being a teacher, "Why do you do it then?  Why not just quit?"

One, I'm not a quitter.  In high school, I produced, directed and wrote a play about teenage domestic violence.  I cast it with other members of the honors drama class and a week before we were supposed to hit the stage the "Big Man on Campus" who was cast as the abuser got cold feet at playing such a role and quit.  So, I found someone else to play the role.  The day before we were set to take the stage, when we were doing final rehearsals, the replacement quit for he too was lily-livered.  I didn't give up though and found someone to step up and play the part and he did it well.  I think tenacity is in my DNA.

Two,  let me tell you the story of Gem*.

In my second year of teaching I was handing back some papers while the students were supposed to be working independently.  I came up to Gem and another girl talking when they weren't supposed to and chided them for it.  They said something about talking about Gem not getting along with her stepmom.  I told them I know what it's like to not always get along with a stepparent. As I began to walk away I hear, "Yeah, but does yours hurt you?"

My alarm bells went off and I began to worry about what they meant by that.  Hurt her how?  Emotionally?  Physically?  So instead of wondering, I put a note for Gem to come see me before school on her latest assignment and handed it back to her the next day.  She arrived like the good former honors student that she was and I pulled her aside and asked her about what I heard and how it was meant.  My heart sank as she let the truth roll out and I saw the mark she reveled hidden behind her clothing. 

I wrapped my arms around her in a hug she seemed to sink into and told her what I had to do legally and suggested she tell her father what had been going on behind his back.  She agreed and she left after I promised to wait to report it.  She came in later that day, crying, and begging me not to report it.  I told her that I could never live with myself if I didn't report it and something happened to her; explaining that it wasn't just a legal issue for me, but a moral one as well.

I reported it and it became a bit of a mess because they knew who had reported it.  Her stepmother threatened to get me fired (maybe she succeeded because I was let go due to budget cuts at the end of that year), and things got worse between Gem and her family.  Nothing was really done besides a visit from CPS and the only thing I could do to help her after that was listen to her and give her what advice I thought wouldn't cross any lines for the remainder of the year (it might be a good idea to spend the summer with her grandmother, take your brother up on his offer of a couch, etc).

Now, you might be wondering, "Wouldn't that be a reason to give up?  To quit?"  For some people, yes.  Some have left teaching for exactly that reason.

For me, though, because of this "incident" I have a special memento I pull out whenever I question if this is what I'm supposed to be doing, when I question my calling.  A letter from Gem that she gave me the last day of school that year, when I was saying good bye to the students and school.

I'm not going to share all of the letter because it was meant for me and it means so much to me, but I'll share a part so the few readers out there can understand why I keep doing what I do even when many think I should quit.  This is why I do what I do:

"Dear Miss B

...You don't know how grateful and appreciative I am for what you have done for me.  Thank you so much for caring enough about me and feeling that it was your duty to step in and see if I was have made me realize that what has happened to me is not ok and you were definitely an adult that could count on...that is something I'm not used to.  You have made me find the strength to stand up for myself..."

* Name changed because I'm not stupid

Monday, March 22, 2010

Hostage Situation

"We need to hold the students accountable for their work."

When I hear those words, and gather at the hidden meaning behind them, I feel like instead of holding the students accountable for their work that I'm being held hostage.  The hostage taker?  The administration.

Instead of looking at the structure of the school, the students, and parents for why the students are doing so poorly (and when you have so many students with different teachers doing poorly, the odds are it's not the teachers), the automatic blame is put on the teachers.  We aren't doing enough to hold the students accountable, apparently.

When a student doesn't do an assignment, they get a zero.  I was under the impression that is one way of holding them accountable.   Apparently not.  Another?  Get the parents involved.  Well easier said than done when you can't even directly communicate with more than half of your students' parents because of a language barrier and your school doesn't provide any support for those situations.  Even when you have been able to speak to parents, it hasn't done a damn bit of difference.

I've sent notes home, made phone calls, had conferences, tried to give detentions for not doing their work, tried to bribe them with prizes to get them to do their work.  I've done everything shy of putting a gun to their head.

What has it gotten me?  The figurative Uzi is pointed at my head as the hostage taker makes demands. And, unlike the good old U.S. of A., I don't have the luxury of not negotiating with terrorists.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Frustrated and Failing

"If 5% of your students are failing, then you are failing as a teacher."

If only 5% of my students were failing that would mean I would only have 10 failing students of the 200 students that I have.  Instead, 55% of my students are failing right now with only a week to go before I have to turn in grades.

Yes, right now, I feel like a failure of a teacher.  A failure because I do my best to contact parents, but when there is a language barrier it's hard to do and I feel like I failed to see the future and take Spanish instead of Italian (not that I can speak it anymore).  I send letters home (with Google translated Spanish) and have done so twice this quarter because that is the best way I can communicate with parents despite the fact I know the letters will probably never reach home.  I don't have the translation ability to call at 5, 6, 7 at night.

I think sometimes administrators and society forgets that the kids my colleagues and I work with are the ones that came to us with bad study habits, apathy, no support, and bad attitudes.  They came to us having failed and not on the course for graduation.  Of my two hundred students, every single one of them had failed English previously.  Helping one child to learn and pass is a success, let alone 90 of them.

As the saying goes, "You can lead a horse to water...".

But I'm so frustrated because I'm trying so hard to find ways to get my horses, all my horses, to drink.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Teacher Tormented Takes the Stage


Obviously, I've started a blog.  What inspired this?  You may ask.  The answer:  My students, society, and The Freedom Writers (and the Freedom Writer Teachers).

You can call me Miss B.  My students once did.  The students I have now?  Not so much.

Why the title Teacher Tormented?  Well because that is what I often am.  I know it has a connotation to be negative, but it isn't always.  Yes, I certainly feel tormented by my students (apathetic continuation high school students from the inner city); and, I certainly feel tormented by administration and their lack of understanding; and, I feel tormented by a huge vocal chunk of society that automatically judges me and finds me lacking because of my profession:  teacher, educator, profesoressa, maestra, and the many other platitudes that "apply".

However, most of all, I'm tormenting myself.  I feel like a failure as a teacher on a weekly, if not more, basis (even if my colleagues think I'm "Teacher of the Year").  I torment myself to do better, find the way, the road, to get through to my students and make a difference, teach them something, get them to learn and not to simply plug and chug.

So, welcome.  Welcome to my own little Freedom Writer's diary.  The freedom to express myself; the freedom to try, to be passionate, and to strive to make a difference despite the fact I sinfully think of some of my students as "rat bastards".