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Guest Post: The Life of an American Teacher

As always, the opinion of American Teacher are not mine, but are posted to stimulate discussion.

It took me just six months to realize that students have no interest in Sophocles or Beowulf. They don’t know who Epictetus, Montesquieu, and Locke were; and moreover, they do not care.  They are not driven to learn.  Education begins not with teachers, not with schools, but with desire, insatiable desire.  The generation that will replace us lacks desire.  The secret to their hearts is apathy.

This total absence of desire was crystallized one afternoon many years ago when I was helping a student with his paper.  I turned to look at the boy to make sure he understood.  He wasn’t looking at the paper.  He had not been listening.  He had been looking at the back of my head.  I stared at this shining example of apathy.  “Can I go pee?” he finally asked.  I nodded.  The past six months became clear.  I realized then that none of my students were fired up and that it was beyond my capacity, indeed any teacher’s capacity, to fire them up.  Any warm, fuzzy illusions that I still harbored about teaching teenagers were swept away.

That students found no interest in learning did not make me inconsolable.  Students taught me and I learned from them.  I learned to be deeply practical.  I learned to separate my job from my life.  I learned to swallow my saliva and withhold comments.  I learned that rules do not apply.  I learned to shape my own destiny and I came to believe that everyone, including students, shapes their destinies.  How burdened would I be had I not been such a quick learner.

I make a handsome living.  What with health benefits and life insurance, I make well over six figures.  I pay less than $50 a month for health insurance.

By contract, teachers work 185 days a year.  The reality is a lot less.  There are the sick days and personal days.  I take all of them.  Mid-term week and finals week, just sit there.  All the other testing days, whether mandated by the state or given by the teacher.  Field trips.

Movies.  Guest speakers.  Half days.  Snow days.  Delays due to weather.  Evacuations due to threats.  Assemblies.  Goof-off days like the last day of school and the day before Christmas break.  The list seems endless.

I have evolved techniques to get through the rest of the year.  Technology is my friend.  My classes spend Mondays in the computer lab doing “research.”  Some weeks, we need to do more research.

The Scantron machine is also a friend. After collecting the tests, I run them through the machine.  I don’t think that I’ve graded a test in years.  Ditto for papers.  I found a computer program that grades them for me.

I celebrate everyone’s birthday.  Cupcakes are cheap.  And they’re tax deductible.

It’s wonderful to have good friends.  One of my friends is an assistant principal, who makes out my schedule every year.  Every teacher has a duty, such as a study hall.  My duty is to help the assistant principal.  I go out and get coffee, breakfast, whatever she needs.  We sit and eat, gossip while she qvc shops.

I found myself discovering all sorts of little freedoms.  I use my prep period to run errands, go to the bank, pay bills, get some shopping done.  Sometimes, I go home and let the dog out.  Unless it is pouring outside, I take care of me during my prep.

I became sly and wily. I park my car in back of the school behind a dumpster.  Being able to sneak in late and sneak out early is worth the awful smell.  I shirk every responsibility that I possibly can.  Only if it is absolutely necessary and I need a spawn of Satan kicked permanently out of my room do I write a report.

What could be easier than all this?

I do this because it does not matter.  I could stay at school until ten o’clock every night, designing lessons and correcting papers and nothing would change because at some point, at the end of some very long day, it is up to students.  My students were a bad influence on me.  They have dragged me to their depth.  They and the parents, administrators, education professors, and politicians who abet them are the villains of this tragedy.

Listening to their vulgar, slang-filled conversations, I look at my students as a form of entertainment.  I hear about everything in their lives, from acts of physical intimacy to bowel movements.  At sixteen and seventeen-years old, their slates are still blank.  I do not believe that they have been endowed with complex brains.  There are students who sit in class, staring straight ahead, doing absolutely nothing.  I used to think that they were thinking deep thoughts.  Now I realize they think about nothing at all.  They are like old men in wheelchairs that you see in nursing homes.  One day I expect to see someone drool.  Their frontal cortex, that part of the brain which runs short-term memory, motivation, and attention, seems severely stunted.  I am convinced that our closest genetic cousins, the chimpanzees, are more mentally active than these kids.  Sometimes I give them little art projects where they can color.  Based upon my experiences in the classroom, I am no longer sure that I know human beings when I see them.  The ones that I don’t like I largely ignore.

I learned this all in just half a year.  The outrage at student apathy vanished.  I stopped trying to fix people and became happy in my impotence.  I’m just a teacher in a classroom.  If students do not see that education is in some sense a matter of survival, then I cannot make them see it.  It’s not my job to save people’s lives.  I am not a venal person.  I am a realistic one.

All of my teacher friends are like me, but not all teachers are like me.  There’s one teacher who constantly says to her students, “Thank you for the gift of you.”  You’ll never hear me say that.  Another one crouches besides her students as she talks to them. It’s not a pretty sight.  You’ll never see me do that.  Then there was the teacher running after the student who was walking briskly away from her: “Please, let me help you,” she beseeched the girl.  You will never see me plead with a student.  There was also the teacher who said to me, “While we’re here, we’re everyone’s mom and dad.”  I’ve never had a thought remotely like that.

Some teachers get genuinely upset at snow days or two-hour days.  “I have to get through the curriculum,” they gripe.  The only thing that perturbs me is having to make up a day in June.  I love delays.  “Twenty-minute classes are my kind of day,” I think.  We don’t have to make those up.

I recognize that my apathetic students are casualties of failed parenting and pedagogical practices.  When everything is handed to them, from food to study guides, students cannot be induced to work.  The more they are provided for and the more indulged they are, the more lazy they become.  Socialist-inspired handouts have killed desire in students.  Now, they don’t care.  So I don’t care either.  No one can be as invested in his education as the student himself.  My classroom just holds a collection of bodies.  Dedication is unnecessary when you are working with kids who don’t give a damn.

Guest Post by an American Teacher: Children From Hell

The following is a Guest Post by an anonymous American Teacher who does not want to be identified. I do not endorse the opinions expressed. I present them in order to stimulate discussion on an issue of interest to readers. Comments are, as always, welcomed. –Ted

I am not the norm.  In the free-for-all of other public school classrooms, there is all manner of dining.  Not in mine.  Food is for lunchtime and in the cafeteria. I do not allow students to munch in my room.  So when Dylan brought in a hoagie from Subway, a truly awful transgression, I told him to go to the cafeteria.  He ignored me, his body hunched in an obstinate fashion.  I told him again.  Students turn nasty when corrected. Dylan put the sandwich in the bag and chucked it at me.  My stomach lurched.  It is unsettling to have something thrown at you.  You can’t suddenly switch to having a civilized class.  And writing reports on students usually causes an uproar with parents. Students always have the last word and the version of the teacher gets scant attention.  With parents backing them, there is no price for students to pay.

I have met students like Dylan not just once or twice, but again and again.  These are the Children from Hell that it is my burden to manage and accommodate.

A false impression, that the Obama administration created the discipline problems in public schools that allowed for the likes of Nikolas Cruz to run amok, reigns among some on the American right.  It is true that Obama signed off on programs such as My Brother’s Keeper and used his power to investigate racial disparities in public school discipline; however, discipline problems were wreaking havoc in America’s schools long before he took office.

Sometime between when I graduated high school and when I began to teach high school, wisdom died.  The problems of the street and home entered the calm and boring classroom; student performance declined; the expectations of teachers were lowered.  The public schools changed direction because the bedrock of society, the family, was crumbling.  The younger generation depends upon the older to do the right thing, but today the moral authority of the parents is nonexistent.  In the absence of a sense of right and wrong, families stopped working with schools towards compatible goals.  They became adversaries.  Nothing is worse than a parent not supporting the school their child attends.

As any administrator will tell you, they can’t control the parents. All that they can do is go after teachers. Go after us they did.  We are saturated with workshops on classroom management and differentiating instruction. It is easy to see through the nonsense.

Mountains of gobbledygook have been produced on the subject of classroom management, the tricks that education consultants swear will get kids to behave.  By its very nature a political term, classroom management dictates the way people speak about student misbehavior in class.  Instead of the onus on the student to behave himself, the onus falls on the teacher to manage the class.  The public is seduced by the shift because it lets parents off the hook for their children’s misbehavior.   Administrators breathe the air of classroom management because they don’t have to discipline students.  They can send the teacher to a reeducation camp.  If the student does something wrong, the teacher is either not engaging enough or is not managing the students properly.  Maybe they are even looking at the student the wrong way and the student is feeling uncomfortable.  The same classroom management strategies are uncritically repeated in education classes and workshops year after year, but the information is of little use.  There are no tricks, just a teacher putting up with increasingly bad behavior.  Nevertheless, the rules of the classroom have been changed. It is no longer possible to say something critical of students. The term classroom management has even ensnared the teacher into believing that disruptions are somehow his fault.

At the time that the moral authority of the family lost its compass, we also began accommodating students, completely accepting their differences, from the socio-economic to the ethnic and cultural to the bad day.  A bad day can be very bad, very bad indeed.  It might simply mean that the student was concussed in a car accident the previous week.  The student may have trouble refraining from cursing out a teacher for the length of the concussion.  Or she may feel anxious about returning to school and need home-tutoring for a month.  Let me tell you, it is not easy being a teacher, having to accommodate all of these misfits…oops, I meant scholars.

When the moral authority of the family collapsed, dysfunction hit the schools. One thing that students never fail at is dysfunction.  Now it is up to the school to fix it. Upon arrival, students get to go to counseling, lounging in peach-painted offices instead of history class, sitting on soft cushions embroidered with flowers rather than upright in a chair in front of a heavy text. They can leave regular class and go to their own sort of personal AA meetings with a school psychologist or social worker.  Giving students this space, to ramble on about the problems in their lives, simply means the problems develop a stranglehold on them and their schoolwork never gets done.  To feel better about yourself you actually have to accomplish things.  Perhaps a little repression is not such a bad thing.  Maybe therapy should be illegal in the public schools.

Classroom management and accommodating students changed the political climate of education.  Expecting the school system to become the parent is an impossibly tall order, but as parents do less and less parenting, they more and more expect the schools to raise their offspring and then they want to dictate to other adults about how to do it. Parents want to be pleased and to please them you have to tell them what they want to hear or they are all over you like a rash.  These parents have broken the teachers’ authority and thrown the whole system of public education into question.

Although difficult to find, there are still mommies and daddies in the same home, but there are also parents who have affairs and leave home.  Others either have criminal records or are in jail.  Too many just want to be their offspring’s friend.  Because telling one’s child ‘no’ is absent from this parenting curriculum, lippy children are never out of print.  Children are not getting nicer and nicer.  It is not wonderful to be with them, particularly when they throw things at you.  The respectable and well-brought up do not come to us.  We are sent Satan’s spawn.

Perhaps it was the way that I looked at him, perhaps it was the tone of my voice, but nevertheless, that Spawn of Satan who chucked his food at me should have been compelled to say aloud, in front of his class, an apology.  Instead he was simply shuffled off to some other class.  No doubt the shuffle has left him with a scar.

Public schools have been manipulated into trying to cure familial problems; however, schools cannot mend the problems of dysfunctional students and their parents.  One institution cannot save the other.  And progress, new-fangled pedagogical and social ideas, is destroying us.