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.