17 September 2006

Confronting the Culture of Can't Do

This week's LA Times's School Me column by Bob Sipchen really struck a chord.

Sipchen discusses the trials of Danny Martinez, just another freshmen beginning his year at just another southern California high school, facing just another battle with the school to be placed in classes befitting his goals and abilities, rather than classes that the school has room in which to put him.

Sipchen finishes his column with his question of the week: "Have your first weeks of school been fun or frustrating?"

Sadly, my first weeks of school have resembled Daniel's, only from the teacher's end rather than the student's.

Although my school is roughly 1/3 the size of Eagle Rock, we have had the exact same scheduling problems--students shelved in classes where they are out of their ability range (either too easy or too difficult), an administration promising to straighten schedules out, an overworked guidance department who tells us daily not to send students to the office because they don't have the resources to deal with them.

Tomorrow begins the fourth week of school, and I'm still trying to get scheduling changes for four students in one of my classes, students who should have never been placed in that class to begin with and who requested the change before school began. On Friday, I was told that, with luck, they'll be out of the class by the end of the month, 5 weeks after the start of school.

Sadly, I have other students who just gave up and accepted their fate--students repeating classes at a lower level that they already passed on a higher one, students who gave up on getting the math or science or history class they need for college admission because they were told too many times the same thing that Daniel and his mother were told: "There's nothing I can do."

This year has been unusually replete with scheduling nightmares, and all of us teachers have become cranky and cynical on a level not normally seen until May, with the onset of state testing. I thought it was just me, and then in the lunchroom on Friday, we all came to the consensus that it feels like the end of the year, instead of just the beginning.

I can deal with my own convoluted schedule--five preps, class sizes of up to 39 students, a classroom that was supposed to undergo modernization beginning at the end of the month, but has now been pushed off three more months. I don't like it, but I don't have a choice, so I deal.

What I can't handle is seeing students, strong and struggling alike, stuck in a system designed to support them, but that instead seems to be failing them this year. I estimate this year that close to half of my students have a study hall or teacher's assistant period, simply because there is no class space in which to put them. We're short teachers. We're short classroom space. We lost one of our computer labs this year. Our library has been turned into the front/counseling office because the office building is undergoing modernization, and that is apparently also running late.

What started as an exasperating and stressful series of events for all of us has turned into an educational farce. While all of us (administrators, office/counseling staff, and teachers) are soldiering on as best as possible, none of us are happy, and it's an attitude that is rubbing off on the students.

There's nowhere to really point the blame for the disaster that this school year has been so far. Hindsight is always 20/20, but in this case, the situation we're in at the moment is so convoluted that I don't think that more prior planning could have even averted the problems we are having.

I'm exhausted, and it's only the beginning of the fourth week. I'm rapidly becoming bitter--bitter with the system, bitter with the students, bitter with public education as a whole.

I hate to lose faith so soon, but I honestly don't think I've ever had a worse start to a school year, either as a teacher or as a student.

Sorry Bob--I doubt that's what you were looking for. I'm generally optimistic and enthusiastic at the start of each new year, but that's just not happening for me right now.


At 7:03 AM, Blogger Pass The Torch said...

Sounds like a very frustrating start to the schoolyear.

I sure hope it turns around for you and your students.

Pass the Torch

At 9:54 AM, Anonymous Vitis said...

Rah! Chin up! Would I could give you a speech such as King Henry V spoke at Agincourt.
Saint Crispin's Day Speech

Please press on. This is really truly one of the most important battles that you fight and there are always moments in the chaos of the fray when things look the darkest. But remember that teachers and students are the most energetically and creatively rich groups anywhere. You can and will find a way to overcome.

I would wish for you a pleasant moment this weekend. A massage or some treat after which you will take a deep and invigorating breath that will allow you to stand before your students and co-workers blazing with the indomitable spirit that is in the heart of every teacher I love.

At 5:37 PM, Blogger mmer said...

Teachers so want to give to their students. They want them to be happy and successful. They don't want their time to be wasted. It's so discouraging when a system meant to support, doesn't manage to do so.
But know this: you, the teacher are the piece that matters. Take whatever subject matter you teach and turn it into a vehicle meant to enhance a student's life. You have such power! I truly believe that it is not so much the subject matter, but the one who delivers it and how s/he chooses to connect it to life that makes a difference.
I have taught high school for 30 years and am about to retire. I tried last year but couldn't do it. I think that through all the refurbisments, really rotten administrators and crazy dictates from above, the thing that has made me want to keep on going in this game is the spark that ignites between the spirit of a student and that of a teacher who wants to recognize that the spark is there, and who is willing to blow on it gently until it blazes.
Forget the system and all its weirdness. It's not alive. You are, and your students are. Enjoy that. Exploit that.
Listen to vitis, the guy with the hero complex who loves heros. do something nice for yourself and then go back Monday and give those students all you can.

At 7:01 PM, Blogger Onyx said...

Hang in there. In many ways we are the Don Quixote's of the world, battling large beasts with few weapons that are truly helpful.

Be good to yourself. Have Sanco saddle up the horses and go forth to do battle against the evil minionn of public education


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