the unschooled schooler

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 20 2009

a crossroads already

So I’m in a pretty weird place right now. Two days of teaching kindergarten were enough to solidify my distant worry that putting more than twenty 5-year-olds in a room together, under the dubious supervision (“instruction” is too strong a word) of two adults, is conducive only to disaster or brainwashing. Since I prefer disaster, things went downhill very quickly; by Tuesday, I had resolved again to quit, based on ethical/safety/psychological concerns. My assistant was always telling the kids to “shut up” and asking “what’s wrong with you?” (terrible examples to give children, and terrible appraisals for them to internalize) and my own impotence as an intimidating dictator resulted in thrown and broken toys, obscene noise levels, and many many tears. The final straw was when I started crying, myself, and the three kids who’d been causing the most trouble laughed in my face. I was not teaching emotional intelligence or patience or acceptance. No, as in fourth grade, I was making myself a ceremonial voodoo doll for children’s unbridled frustration and ignorance. This is what happens when schoolchildren don’t fear you; in the classroom, fear is synonymous with “respect,” and real respect is nowhere to be found. (Another example of this misguided understanding of respect is all the behavior kids get away with once the teacher’s back is turned — even a child as young as five will confide in a whisper in the hallway, after folding her arms and smiling quietly at a reprimanding teacher who passes by, “okay, she’s gone now!” and return to the previous antics. I’ve seen it many times.)
I resisted teaching elementary school for the first several months after I was accepted to TFA, and for good reason. My short stint into elementary teaching, however, cast doubt on the whole purpose of my being in Teach For America, and I spent the rest of this past week flipflopping agonizingly about whether standing at the front of a classroom was really the best way to actually help kids. When you think about it as a sentence, like “A teacher has a bigger impact than a parent or tutor or friend because he/she spends the most time with the child,” it seems to make sense, right? That’s what I struggled with. It seemed to make sense. That whole making-the-classroom-my-oyster thing.
But in practice, a teacher gets to spend very little time with each individual student. The teacher’s role has more to do with creating Classroom Culture, and Routines, and Consequences for the infraction of Rules, and Rewards for the execution of Assignments. The teacher interacts with the kids as a body for the most part, with little time left over to tend to their individual needs until it’s too late. Some kids, particularly older ones, respond well to a teacher who talks to the class as a whole, with punishments for interruptions or distractions; many, particularly younger ones, do not.
My experience has convinced me of one thing for sure, which is that my future school will absolutely NOT have grade delineations at the elementary level. The limited amount of time I’ve had with my fourth-graders and kindergarteners was mostly spent getting to know their strengths and weaknesses on an individual level (hence the complete nuclear fallout we had at the class level), and while I’m more convinced than ever that every child is incredibly intelligent and has the potential to learn just about anything, I’m less convinced that a top-down routine-heavy “standards-based” structure is the best way to draw that potential out. Young children need guides of various ages who will let them follow their interests; herding them like cattle during their formative years and then being surprised when they have terrible listening skills, and even more surprised when most of them grow up almost completely incapable of original thought, is not the answer.
Which is why the purpose of my being in Teach For America is now rather blurry.
I quit my job on Tuesday night, had a miserable phone call with my TFA advisor afterward, went to school on Wednesday to help the kindergarten class transition to yet another new teacher (presumably permanent this time), and went to my educational psychology class at Hamline that evening. I got to Hamline early enough to get on the library internet and send an apology to the principal, offering myself for the 6th grade position I’d heard they might still be hiring for. I was regretting every move I made — joining TFA, dropping my fourth-graders, dropping my kindergarteners, asking for another chance. I nearly skipped class because I felt so horrible and conflicted, but I forced myself to go.
In class, of course, I was surrounded by bright-eyed bushy-tailed TFA achievers; the universe obviously took pleasure in twisting the knife, because we were assigned to small groups to brainstorm lists of qualities found in a good teacher. I fought off tears while reading the list compiled by the class as a whole, as the instructor typed them into the computer projecting at the front of the class…things like flexibility, a sense of humor, passion, organization, self-awareness, etc. I still felt like many of those qualities were either part of me or within my reach, and I wondered why on earth I’d thought quitting was the right choice. What was my problem? Was I really a lazy wuss of a copout failure? What was the deal? I fantasized about getting my fourth-grade class back, and magically fixing everything. It was too late though, and probably just as well; whenever I let myself actually remember the thoughts, emotions, and actions associated with those first few weeks of teaching, the old nauseous pining for death returned in faint waves. Time to get real.
Thursday and Friday, I continued to help the new teacher. I found her creepy and not very kid-friendly; she was young, but the example she set was abysmal (high heels, Diet Cokes, magazines with risque ads plastered all over the back), and she would talk about herself in the third person (“Mrs. D does NOT like having to raise her voice with you!”), and scold kids in the singsong voice that people use to scold animals. I felt a fresh wave of guilt for turning the munchkins over to this witch.
At the same time, I found that I enjoyed assisting, in a sort of roundabout way. Since I didn’t have to patronize or control the class — that was the new lady’s job, and she basked in it — I had time to talk to or work with kids individually, and also to observe the things that happened while she was busy going through her routines or talking over the students’ heads. I saw whenever somebody was tuning out, or when friends were interacting, or when there was one student who lay curled under the table in the hope of being left in peace. I saw thumb-sucking, reflexive slapping, taunting, and all the other little things that a classroom environment allows to foster while the teacher tries to multi-task. Over time, I saw well-behaved kids turning rude, and timid kids turning insubordinate, and energetic kids turning destructive. One week, and I saw the beginnings of all this. People learn mature morals from their families, from society, from ideas. School limits exposure to those influences, and puts kids in an environment that cultivates stress, power plays, and immaturity in every sense of the word.
What I mean when I say I enjoyed assisting is that I enjoyed observing. I liked seeing what the teacher did that created positive effects, and what created negative effects. I liked seeing the kids come to realizations, or the way they interacted with one another. I eventually concluded that I would infinitely prefer research to actually teaching in public schools, and that it would teach me more for the purposes of my own school, because I wouldn’t have to embroil myself in a lot of practices that repulse the fiber of my belief in humanity.
So I began, then, to regret asking for the sixth-grade position. This was intensified when I got another stern talking-to over the phone from my TFA program director, who was alarmed by my flighty moves and didn’t think I should continue in the program; I’d already hurt TFA’s relationship with my school, and asking for a third chance at a job that still might not be right for me was pushing the limit. On Friday I asked Dr. Y, my principal, what his response to my email was; he said they’d already interviewed for the position and were waiting on references. I felt a little relieved and a little annoyed. I should have just rescinded my offer, but I felt that it would have been tactless.
The way I see it now, the situation is out of my hands for a few days (and my school is out on Monday for Eid, so that extends the process a little). If I get the sixth grade job, I’ll stay in TFA and work my rear off, and stay sane by getting my class in on a goal that involves ultimately doing away with our rules and procedures completely in favor of a student-run classroom…something I might have done with fourth-graders if I’d thought of it, but they had pretty much stopped listening to my meek voice by the third or fourth day anyhow, and with kindergarteners it would be impossible. Older kids are in a better position to understand the finer points of abstract notions like power and status quo, and they’re disillusioned enough to want to do something about it. Or so I suppose. As my PD pointed out, maybe sixth grade would be just as impossible for me as the previous grades. Maybe. I don’t know. I’m willing to try something different, anyway.
So maybe I jumped the gun on quitting, but then again, I’m still committed to my kids (two classfuls, now). If I don’t get another job at the school, I’ll drop out of TFA and put together some part-time jobs to eke out a living for a year or two, and build my schedule around volunteer-tutoring at my former school. I’ll also conduct my own research by observing various teachers and classes, especially all the new TFA corps members teaching throughout the Cities. Then maybe I’ll apply for PhD programs, or take a year abroad to go teach English where the students 1) understand why they’re in the class and 2) feel capable of getting something out of it without my having to whip them into shape, because I don’t play that game. Or I’ll look into Montessori or Waldorf or other methods, or work at some progressive private school for awhile. Someplace that doesn’t need rules for walking in the hallways, because the kids are trusted to do it properly; someplace where the food is real, the mealtimes are restful, and the friendships are intergenerational; someplace where the daily schedule is preparing a future society of interdependent thinkers and doers, not dependent followers and listeners and information-binge-purge trainees. A lot of kids are stuck in public schools, but let me tutor there, not count myself among the teachers. From what I’ve seen, teachers have to actually enjoy at least some aspect of psychologically controlling children, or the job quickly turns you against yourself.
A quick note – as my PD and several other TFA teachers keep reminding me, lots of people came through the public schools “just fine.” I bite my tongue to keep from pointing out that yeah, you got through but now you’re a blind consumer of pop culture and industry, and you’re still working on your self-esteem and sense of direction even though you’re well into adulthood. Most of my friends who have “gotten through” public school and connect really well with me are quiet loners who have very few other friends, are struggling to find something they are passionate about (they haven’t had practice in looking, you see, but they’re tired of following what’s prescribed), and scorn the selfish consumer lifestyles that we’re all raised to embrace. They were in the minority in their schools, and they are nearly nonexistent in underprivileged schools where social stratification and academic stagnation rule. Rather than asking why there are so few innovators, leaders, and role models of color, we should be asking why there are so few PERIOD. I don’t think it’s a fact that most people are sheep and a few people are shepherds, but that’s a topic for another day.
I just hate schools with a passion. I love kids, and learning, and teaching, but I hate schools. This makes me a poor choice for Teach For America. Too bad I didn’t figure that out before, but I have learned a lot, and I think I will be able to help many more kids because of it. Anyway, we’ll see what next week brings.

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