Friday, July 6, 2012

Learning Curve

It's hot, there's the soft smell of pesticide on the air, and I can hear the grackles congregating below my window where I had scattered last night's unfortunate french fries. Calypso tried to cuddle with me but she just doesn't realize she's made of fur. Today's post was going to be reader's choice, with a poll up on my Facebook, but since only my mother has cast her vote and is now out of town for the weekend, I'll just leave it up a few days and see if anyone else bites, and make Monday's entry reader's choice.

I was talking to my friend Janice the other night and I  don't know what brought it up, but I started talking about my brief stint in teaching. For four years in college, that was my main goal, to be a high school English teacher. After a semester in a classroom and completing all the courses and almost the entire major save the portfolio and state certification, I freaked out and changed my major down to just English. This was around the time that I knew that I had some issues with depression, but figured it was due to my birth control. Ultimately, it was the blank stares of my students on the day I was left to teach them in front of my professor that clinched it for me, but the experience of teaching was still very impactful. It was during this time I realized that my beloved academia was just as corrupt  as any business or government.

Go cougars! See, I can say that because they were Western Maine athletics and we were oddly Eastern Maine. See! No rivalries!

It's been about 10 years, I'd say, since I did my practicum teaching at Mt. Blue High School in Farmington Maine. I was assigned there because I didn't drive and didn't have a car, but it was still an unreasonable distance to walk. Thankfully, I had peers who gave me rides, since we were there in the morning. The school employs block scheduling, which I was used to from my high school experience, so I tried carefully to rotate my two good skirts and pairs of shoes, but because of snow days, I saw the same set of students most often, so they most often saw me in a long, brown skirt with Indian or Middle Eastern embroidery on it, and a black velour mock turtleneck tee (yeesh... don't hate me for that okay? I loved velour in college).

The group I saw the most often were my 9C's, These were low-level freshmen who were not expected to excel to any greatness past maybe graduating. Maybe. These were the kids that might along the line drop out of school, get pregnant, get kicked out, or get sent to "alternative" learning programs. I quickly intimidated by the oldest, biggest kid in the class. I was pretty shy back then, and this kid was a 16 year-old in a group of new freshmen. He was big, rough around the edges. He looked dangerous and you could see he had a temper. I tried to leave him be as much as possible, which is horrible to admit.

All of the students kept journals, usually having to write a page on a prompt, and my assignment from my cooperating teacher was to collect and grade the journals. When it came to the intimidating student's journal (I honestly don't remember any of their names, sadly) his handwriting was so illegible I despaired to try to read any of it. I'm usually really good at deciphering the worst writing. But I couldn't read it at all, so I gave him a check minus grade and handed it back. He was pissed. "If I can't read it I can't grade it," I said defensively, walking away from him. I also didn't know how to handle confrontation back then, either. The next day I saw my 9C's I collected journals and sat at my desk. I went through them as they did an assignment and to my surprise when I opened the intimidating student's journal I found not only legible handwriting, but articulate, intelligent, thought-out paragraphs. I read it twice. I marked it with a check plus and when I handed it back to him he had the hugest smile to see the check plus on the page. I told him it was awesome. I don't think he'd seen many good marks before. I stopped being afraid of this kid from then on out.

I think that was kind of an epiphany day. Maybe he was rough around the edges because he was raised that way, and maybe he was angry because people thought he was stupid. So,  unable to convince people otherwise he played along and let the grades slip, until someone saw that he was really, really, smart. He wasn't the only one. There was another student in the same class, willowy and small but really smart and good at drawing. Frustrated with how smart he was, I asked my cooperating teacher "why is he in here?" His response? "Socioeconomic status." I shit you not, that's what he said. Half these kids were in here, expected to fail simply because they were poor. He sympathized with my heartbroken look, but in the end offered up nothing more than "There's nothing we can do about it."

And that's the really, really depressing part. More and more I hear about teachers who don't care and I think about this rough around the edges kid that intimidated the hell out of me, and how one check plus on his journal changed his attitude in class. One bit of positive feedback made him work harder. And are teachers going to even care enough to single out those students in their classes, especially as class sizes grow? Part of me is still an educator, and that part of me weeps, because it knows the answer is no.


  1. Melissa, you can still be a teacher. there are so many different kinds of educators....not just those that stand in classrooms. Tutoring, alternative ed programs, all places where your passion for education could be useful and also fulfilling to you. Your contempt of the response from this teacher proves that you are the kind that is needed to make a differene....if only for one misunderstood, bright, articulate child that turns himself into a success are that powerful

    1. I've tentatively offered tutoring to my niece's friend, who is a college student. Trust me, I love ripping apart papers with a pen. I helped a friend in Kansas with his papers. Hard to do over email, but we managed. I'm much better one-on-one than that intimidating sea of blank stares. I didn't really have contempt for my cooperating teacher, he was doing a good job challenging them, actually, but he was as disappointed with the situation as I was that change couldn't be enacted, at least large-scale.

      OMG... I had a long-sleeved black velour mock turtle neck and a long black velour skirt... if I wore them together it looked like a dress. I never wore that ensemble to class lol.

  2. oh....and i STILL love velour...Purple to be exact...but my husband does NOT, lol