Monday, March 9, 2009

Falling for Teaching

My path to teaching is reminiscent of that John Lennon quote . . . life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. I had always known what I wanted to do with my life. When I was very young, I wanted to be an artist like my father, then an interior designer and finally a businessperson, possibly in hotel management, so I could live overseas and go for the big money. I was completely opposed to becoming a teacher.

They certainly didn't get paid enough. To my superficial eyes, all teachers seemed to be one of the following: peculiar, burned out, or way too self-sacrificing. I didn't like the way teachers dressed or the corny jokes they told in class. I couldn't stand the idea of sentencing myself to a lifetime of going to high school or even - god forbid - junior high. It wasn't that I didn't look up to my teachers. I liked some of them immensely and usually found something about each of them that I admired. Teaching just wasn't for me.

But I had been a teacher in training for years . . . through babysitting, being the oldest sibling, and helping my friends with their schoolwork. In school, I was one of those students used for crowd control. I could usually expect to be assigned seats next to the boys who struggled with their assignments and spazzed out in class. They would naturally ask me for help with their work. (As we got older, these were also the boys I dated, creating a lifelong habit of being drawn to the bad boys. As a teacher, I vowed never to do this to the well-behaved girls. Let them sit next to the boys who did their homework and stayed out of trouble.)

But then I suffered a big disappointment in my senior year of high school. My parents wanted me to go to the local community college for a couple years before transferring to a four-year. They had three kids to think about and couldn't afford it any other way. I couldn't believe it - I felt so cheated. I was graduating as one of the top students of my program, had a collection of academic awards, made sure to have a list of extracurricular activities to include on the college apps, earned a 5 on my English AP exam . . . and I was going to COMMUNITY COLLEGE, otherwise known as 13th grade?

In the long run, staying home for a couple years after high school turned out to be the best thing for me. It gave me the opportunity to heal family relationships that were hurt by my teenaged frame of mind - with all its self-involvement, arrogance and criticism. The director of my business program offered me a part-time job as her assistant. So, I began my freshman year with two jobs, in retail and education, and proceeded to take a full load of courses that I would need to transfer as a business major to a 4-year.

As the year progressed, I discovered a couple things. For one, I really hated business classes. My economics class was so boring that it was like staring at pavement for two hours at a time. I earned my first D, sentencing myself to having to take the course again. (The second time was even more painful . . . this time, it was taught by a family friend who was a very nice man who happened to be an evangelical Christian. He used the econ class as a vehicle to express his Christian beliefs . . . on everything from going to church to abortion. I got an A but I practically had to staple my mouth shut to get through it.)

The second thing I discovered was an inner calling to teach the seemingly unreachable students. The director of my high school business program had just started a second program designed for students targeted to drop out of school by junior high. She hired experienced teachers for the new program and all of them quit after the first year.

There were several incidents involving the "at-risk" 9th graders that first year. In one class, students passed around gum and at the agreed upon signal, threw the gum at the teacher's hair. Apparently, it was so bad that she had to cut her hair. I was asked to sit in classes next to the students who acted out the most so I got an interesting view of the dynamic between the teachers and students. I could see that there was a lot of tension and disrespect on both sides.

The director asked another program assistant and myself to hold a daily after-school study hall for the at-risk 9th graders. She didn't want either of us to be alone. The other program assistant came to one meeting and vowed never to return. I didn't tell the director I was alone because I was intrigued with the idea of creating a positive working relationship with the kids. For the first few weeks, I was back to being called white bitch on a daily basis. The kids pulled several pranks, the most memorable being that they stacked all the desks in the large supply closet before I got to the classroom. When I walked in, they yelled at me for not having desks. I didn't react other than to locate the desks, put them back in rows and ask students to get to work.

Eventually, we broke through the hostility. This was my first experience of gaining the trust of students with trust issues. When kids have been repeatedly let down by the adults in their lives and/or their environments have been chaotic, then often the only way they know to protect themselves is to drive you away before you leave them. Once they show you their worst behavior, and you still come back to work every day without grudges for what they did yesterday, they will eventually change their behavior at school.

My director discovered that I had been working on my own in the study hall and that things were actually going well. From then on, we became partners in doing whatever we could to get the kids an education. We got to know more about their personal lives and why they didn't come to school. We bought clothes and did laundry for the kid who lived with two alcoholic adults and rarely got to the laundromat. My boyfriend at the time was a sponsored skateboarder, and he donated skateboards to the boys who stayed at home to avoid the gang bangers on the way to school. (I say boys because the girls didn't seem to face the same obstacle in getting themselves to school, nor did they express any interest in skateboarding.) The boys could now skate quickly by the people who intimidated them and their attendance improved. We saw real academic progress and it felt like such an amazing accomplishment.

I was completely hooked. As soon as I realized I wanted to be an English teacher, everything fell into place. I would be a lit major and go to a university that was famous for being noncompetitive. There were no letter grades, only narrative evaluations, and the campus was beautiful. It would be so relaxing to read novels and write papers in the redwoods. It felt like a reward for all the hard work of getting A's and earning paychecks. And finally, my hopes for the future came true.


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