Wednesday, April 16, 2008

My Mississippi Teacher Corps Experience

At this point, though admittedly close to the events in question, I’d have to consider my Mississippi Teacher Corps experience to be largely a failure. I have come to this conclusion after about two years of thought, even though writing it now I feel as if I am voicing a rash, rush judgment.

I entered MTC with the highest of hopes. I was innocently idealistic and envisioned myself – as much as I tried not to – fulfilling the role of the Hollywood-scripted teacher, inspiring the apathetic masses and shaping generations. I suppose we all believed in this myth to a degree, otherwise we would not have signed up to teach.

The day I found out I had been admitted to MTC, I was nearly as excited as the day I got into college. I told my friends, “I am set for life,” meaning that I thought by going through MTC I would be trained in a profession I could always fall back on, whether I ended up absolutely loving teaching or seeing it as something to do post-midlife crisis. By signing up for MTC I was not only fulfilling what I really wanted to do – make a difference, help kids, help my country, etc. – but also planning for my future by receiving training in a profession. A masters in education would grant my liberal arts undergraduate degree some structure, would make it seem a little more solid.

Upon arriving in Mississippi I was first struck by my peers who were entering the program. Though I had been told that MTC was the “most competitive” alternate-route teaching program in the country, I was shocked to find that my comrades did not live up to my high expectations of them. Part of the reason I joined Teacher Corps was because I wanted to be part of an active community that strived to ask big questions, make big changes, and work together. I commonly stumbled upon petty bickering, undeserved arrogance, and shortsightedness. In our academic classes people seemed more bent on critiquing systems rather than finding workable solutions, one of my pet-peeves about volunteer, charity, and nonprofit organizations with which I have been involved (not to mention the educational field in general). This should not take away from the numerous amazing individuals I met through MTC; it was that handful of folks that made the program worthwhile for me. Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of the individuals I found unappealing or troublesome dropped out of the program, either quickly (within a few weeks) or by the end of the first year. I did not expect every member of MTC to be incredibly interesting, intelligent, or inspiring, but the way the program was advertised made it seem that its members were far better than mediocre, which is what I commonly encountered in many members of my MTC class and the one preceding it: stunning mediocrity.

The “academic” portions of the MTC program also left much to be desired. I came in thinking that the graduate coursework at Ole Miss would be challenging and a welcome intellectual respite from the weekly grind of teaching. I was sadly mistaken. Almost all of my classes were incredibly dull and produced about as much intellectual stimulation as the prime-time lineup on the Fox television network. My experiences in the classrooms of Guyton Hall left a bitter taste in my mouth about the University of Mississippi School of Education specifically and education graduate programs in general.

That said, the heart of MTC is not ones classmates, nor is it ones academic work, it is the classroom. And I have had some amazing times in the classroom over the past two years, many of which I hope have been chronicled in this blog and other MTC assignments. I have truly enjoyed hanging out with my students and being a part of their lives, even if I have not enjoyed being a teacher. I am sure I will keep in touch with many of my students for years and decades to come.

The training I received from MTC which prepared me to enter the classroom was solid. I learned how to present academic topics, check for student understanding, manage the behavior of individual students (if not the class as a whole), complete the paperwork associated with teaching, and deal with my administration and peers. The one main problem was that I was never prepared for the most major problem teachers in under-performing schools face. It was never addressed in my summer classes or mentioned as one of the major problems in teaching in either MTC or Teach for America’s recruiting materials. Even some older members of Teacher Corps (including second years, MTC instructors, and MTC administrators who had been members of the program previously) did not adequately warn me about it. Maybe it was assumed that I would be versed in this most horrible of problems, this steepest of hills, this tallest of hurdles, but I was not. I had no idea about the plague of student apathy.

The way MTC and TFA present their programs in recruiting materials, I believed my work teaching in a poor, underperforming school would be akin to driving into Mogadishu in 1993 atop an United Nations truck filled with rice. Sinewy, dust-covered black arms would reach up to me as I stood atop the truck, handing out what I could as quickly as I could. “Education! Education!” they would call. I’d be there to give it to them, and they’d greedily claim it, immersing themselves in it as Robinson Crusoe would dig into a steak dinner.

Alas, I was mistaken.

And there’s the rub: one cannot help those who do not want to be helped. It is a simple fact of life which is also a simple fact of teaching. Because of student apathy (not to mention the apathy of their parents and the greater community), I was unable to accomplish my goals in the classroom.

But this failure – and my greater dissatisfaction with my Teacher Corps experience – is the fault of only one person: me. More than anything, I failed to fully embrace Mississippi as my home and community. I was constantly being tugged at by concerns elsewhere. My family, which was one thousand, four hundred-and-fifty miles away. My friends, who were in some cases ten thousand miles away. Other intellectual interests, particularly what I could be spending my time exploring. Other professional interests. and the thoughts of what I could be doing instead of teaching.

So, Ben, that's all I have for now. I'm sure there's more, but I am tired and I'm going to bed. Sorry, buddy.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"Mississippi Goddam" - Nina Simone (1963)

The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddam
And I mean every word of it

Alabama's gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam

Alabama's gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam

Can't you see it
Can't you feel it
It's all in the air
I can't stand the pressure much longer
Somebody say a prayer

Alabama's gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam

This is a show tune
But the show hasn't been written for it, yet

Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day's gonna be my last

Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don't belong here
I don't belong there
I've even stopped believing in prayer

Don't tell me
I tell you
Me and my people just about due
I've been there so I know
They keep on saying "Go slow!"

But that's just the trouble
"do it slow"
Washing the windows
"do it slow"
Picking the cotton
"do it slow"
You're just plain rotten
"do it slow"
You're too damn lazy
"do it slow"
The thinking's crazy
"do it slow"
Where am I going
What am I doing
I don't know
I don't know

Just try to do your very best
Stand up be counted with all the rest
For everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam

I made you thought I was kiddin' didn't we

Picket lines
School boycotts
They try to say it's a communist plot
All I want is equality
for my sister my brother my people and me

Yes you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you'd stop calling me Sister Sadie

Oh but this whole country is full of lies
You're all gonna die and die like flies
I don't trust you any more
You keep on saying "Go slow!"
"Go slow!"

But that's just the trouble
"do it slow"
"do it slow"
Mass participation
"do it slow"
"do it slow"
Do things gradually
"do it slow"
But bring more tragedy
"do it slow"
Why don't you see it
Why don't you feel it
I don't know
I don't know

You don't have to live next to me
Just give me my equality
Everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam

Monday, March 10, 2008

RHS' spring break is next week. Thank God. If I stayed a teacher for much longer, I think it might just kill me. I'd have a heart attack at age 24, keel over, and die. I am only exaggerating slightly.

For the first half of spring break I will be hanging around my place, I hope reading a bunch (I'm only about 160 pages through Lonesome Dove and it'd be great to finish it over break). I've actually done a poor job reading these past two years, I should have surrounded myself more with Southern literature rather than merely reading whatever struck my fancy. I have read a bunch of Southern lit while in Mississippi, but if I really buried myself under a pile of Faulkner, etc. my experience here would have been much more complete.

(As an aside: something I am noticing as I write this is that my writing has worsened over the past two years because I am out of practice. I've not had to write a real academic paper since I graduated from college and I am now having trouble thinking of simple synonyms to use. I'm really looking forward to getting back to a position where I can use my brain more fully.)

I was hoping to go north to check out a school for next year, but the Professor has yet to email me back, so that probably won't work out. Maybe I'll take a day trip or two, there are a couple of Civil War battlefields in the immediate vicinity that I'd really like to see before I leave Mississippi.

The latter half of the week my mother is coming to visit, so I'll show her around some of my favorite spots in Mississippi. This will definitely be a time for me to rest and recharge, though I hope not much energy will be needed for the last two months of school given that we'll just be preparing for the state test, taking the test, and then hanging out (read: watching movies) until the end of the school year. From here on out, I am hoping that it's all like running downhill...

Monday, February 11, 2008

I have been wondering recently whether Teacher Corps, Teach for America, the NYC Teaching Fellows, and other similar programs actually fail at one of their main goals - that is, placing more "quality" teachers in the classroom - because they scare away those who would otherwise consider teaching as a lifelong profession by placing them in exceedingly difficult situations.

As has been much discussed in this forum, my Teacher Corps class has lost about a third of the original 32 members of our class. I believe that the majority of these have not only left the Corps, but have also left Mississippi and teaching altogether. From talking to many of my classmates that remain, it seems that most will be leaving the teaching profession after this year. Given this exceptionally high turnover, I wonder if Teacher Corps is doing the educational world a long-term disservice by driving (Corps-proclaimed) "high quality" teachers out of the classroom before their careers have truly begun. To be clear: I am not saying that this fact - and I do believe it is a fact - outweighs the positive accomplishments of Teacher Corps, its leaders, and its members. What I am saying is that perhaps it is time for us to reconsider the way Teacher Corps goes about achieving its organizational goals. How can we reshape the program to better serve the students of Mississippi and the Corps members who arrive in this state fully dedicated to helping them?

The best proposal I have heard tossed around - never fully annunciated or explored, mind you - is the idea of opening a Teacher Corps Charter/Magnet School. I think the first place I heard this mentioned was by Ben Guest, and I probably immediately dismissed it as a pipe dream at the time. Too many logistical and monetary issues. Legislature wouldn't like it. It wouldn't fulfill Teacher Corps' goals. Etc.

But given the way the program is going right now, I don't see any reason not to try opening a Teacher Corps Preparatory School.

The advantages would be numerous. To begin with, the school could control the raw product, that is, the students who are admitted. I am not suggesting that it should only admit the best students, but rather those with the most promise of improvement. Taking a student who was going to attend Vanderbilt and getting them into the University of Chicago is not that great of an achievement for a teacher; the talent probably carried the student. Taking a student who was headed to a GED and no college and convincing them to attend a four-year school is an exceptional achievement for a teacher and a school, a theoretical Teacher Corps Prep should keep that premise in mind.

Another huge plus would be the near-guaranteed administrative consistency and competence. I have witnessed many of my peers - both those in MTC and teachers in general - have been sent running for the hills after a year or semester spent with a horrendous administration. Even if I'd not already made alternate plans for my next year, even if I wanted to remain teaching in Mississippi, there would be no way I'd continue at my current high school if the administration remained the same next year. A solid administration could inspire both teachers and students and would significantly contribute to a drastically improved retention rate amongst teachers.

Innovative administrative thought could also be utilized in designing a new school, both physically and ideologically. Given the opportunity, Dr. Mullins, Dr. Bounds, and the leaders of the Barksdale institute would have a field day designing an improved secondary school environment. Curriculum could be redesigned to align more with national rather than state or regional standards. The school could be a community center rather than a building only used from 7:00 am until 4:00 pm. With Teacher Corps members manning the controls, there's no limit to the number of innovative projects that would thrive at the school. Additionally, the intellectually-based extra-curricular interests of Teacher Corps members would be more likely fulfilled by their job; I imagine a community garden, forums for artistic exploration, outdoor education. I imagine a place where parental involvement would be all-but mandated through a variety of innovative tactics. I imagine partnerships with the other wonderful organizations trying to transform Mississippi: The Sunflower County Freedom Project, the William Winter Institute, Teach for America, the Barksdale Institute. I imagine a center for a community that will be invigorated by higher demands and a school faculty that will be inspired and challenged by the community they serve.

The school would still be semi-public so that it could qualify for state funds. It would still serve a "critical needs" community to qualify for federal funds and fulfill the most important facet of Teacher Corps' mission. Perhaps most importantly for the growth of the program in general, the school wouldn't scare promising teachers away, but would foster their growth into life-long educators and eventually make students and teachers alike into leaders in education, community, and society.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Ten Goals for Spring Semester, 2008.

  1. Continue to foster relationships with my students that will put them on a better life course than when they first met me.
  2. Put RK (a student) on the path to getting into one of this country’s top colleges.
  3. Avoid my principal as much as possible, for the sake of my health and his.
  4. Place The Autobiography of Malcolm X in the hands of at least one student.
  5. Get my all of my college-bound students to lay out a plan for college admissions.
  6. See more of Mississippi before I leave.
  7. Get lost driving around the Delta.
  8. Drive down the Natchez Trace at least once more.
  9. Embarrass as many RHS baseball players as possible while announcing home games.
  10. Be more patient in the classroom with my students and with myself.

I have recently developed the habit of skimming the front page of a couple of times every day. I do this not to get my news (I rely on other sources for numerous reasons), but rather to see what the good folks over in Ted Turner-land deem to be newsworthy. As those of you who know me can probably tell: I read it for the unintentional comedy. What percentage of front-page stories of America’s most watched news network will be about a celebrity’s new hairstyle (or a celebrity’s baby’s new hairstyle)? What vaguely attractive white woman is missing this week? What story has the Bush Administration’s press wing spoon fed Wolf Blitzer? What new negative adjectives can President Bush come up with to describe Iran?

I’ve also noticed that a good 97% of the stories dealing with education on have one focus: teacher-student sexual relationships. Given the sensationalist leanings of the network, this is not surprising, but I fear that CNN is telling Billie Sue in Peoria that this trend of teachers preying on young men and women is the major problem with the American education system, as opposed to anything truly substantial like quality of instruction, student apathy, administrative idiocy, or parental involvement.

From speaking with peers in MTC, it seems that most teacher-student sexual relationships in Mississippi are found in the Delta. I have heard numerous stories and there’s always that hallmark tale (semi-legend?) about one high school basketball coach near Greenwood or Greenville, I forget which. It’s easy to see how these stories spread, regardless of their validity, not only because they are sensational but also because they are plausible. The stories of teachers hitting on students when I was attending high school would spread rapidly and die just as quickly, as most were seen as rumors so ridiculous that they merited no discussion or consideration (even by a bunch of teenagers). However, rumors down here seem to have more validity because the history of such things happening (see Michael Johnson’s In the Deep Heart’s Core). I have witnessed numerous interactions that could lead me to believe such stories.

A handful of young girls at my school call our assistant principal their “daddy.” When I threaten them with a visit to his office, they ask me to send them because they know he’ll make them do nothing and they can hang out in his office nearly all day while avoiding class. He basically has a harem of five or ten girls. I’ve never heard any rumors or seen anything inappropriate with my own eyes, but would not be surprised if I heard or saw something. I believe that the assistant principal is trying to be a caring father-figure to many of these girls, but it is easy to see him crossing over into another kinship cliché: the dirty uncle.

The young, attractive deputy sheriff assigned to RHS also shamelessly flirts with girls at the school. Numerous male students at the school have lamented this fact, usually suggesting the deputy is attracting attention they wish was directed toward them. Again, I’ve never heard rumors of anything specific, but I’d not be that surprised if I did. The deputy’s friendship with the assistant principal (the deputy is basically the assistant principal’s minion) adds to these speculations around the school.

At the same time, I can empathize with the deputy and the assistant principal if their hearts are truly in the right place. I have given my telephone number to many of my students and have had phone conversations with a number of them. The original intent of this was so that students had me to turn to if there was a crisis situation and so that they could ask pressing academic questions. Students call rarely; I’ve not really gotten any crisis calls and I have fielded numerous academic questions, but the most common call is “Hey Mr. E, how are you?” One of my favorite students always calls on holidays and if I miss a day of school to check up on me. I’ve been told by some older teachers that having such conversations may be a bad idea, it may open the door to allow people to think certain things, etc. I am probably ignorant, but this is something I almost totally ignore. If I cannot carry on a mentoring relationship with students as well as an academic relationship, (what I feel is) the most important part of my job dies. I didn’t become a teacher to douse my students with information about seemingly-arcane academic topics, I became a teacher to help change my students lives for the better, whatever route I must take.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The best courses I have taken in Teacher Corps are those taught by Professor Mullins. The main reason is because they are the only intellectually stimulating courses I’ve encountered at the School of Education. Professor Mullins loads his lectures with allusions to history and politics, two of the topics that attracted me to Mississippi in the first place. When I am sitting in Professor Mullins’ class I feel like I am challenging my brain, which to me should be the primary goal of all education. I even feel open to asking vaguely odd questions, even if they make me seem like an idiot/bigot in his eyes, which I am sure I did with a certain question I posed in our most recent class.

Beyond providing intellectual stimulation, Professor Mullins’ class also allows me to center myself in that it forces me to pull away from the issues I am currently experiencing at school and re-focus on the original reasons I joined the Teacher Corps. Along with everything else, Professor Mullins is continually inspiring.

However, the most interesting single class I’ve attended as a Teacher Corps member was actually part of my second-least favorite Teacher Corps class, Strategies for Teaching English. Our teacher actually brought in her sister, a specialist in teaching reading, to address the class. Again, I think this helped me a little in the classroom, but I was more fascinated by the intellectual side of it and saw it as a possibility of what a master’s program in education could be: an academic study of how people learn best and what we as teachers can do to address those varied learning styles. It was one of the most interesting hours I’ve spent since coming to Mississippi, and given all the experiences I’ve had, that’s saying a lot.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

I don't know exactly how we got on the topic (which probably says something about how I run my class), but about a week ago one of my classes began discussing their families' specific financial situations. Actually, now that I think about it, it probably stemmed from the discussion we were having on how difficult it was for some immigrants to make a living with employments in urban factories.

Either way, I was shocked when the kids started rattling off how much their parents pay for certain monthly costs such as utilities, insurance, and rent. "Well my momma gotta pay all this. She got a car note, insurance, telephone, tv, cell phone, internet, rent, then she gotta feed me and my brothers and sisters... That's why she got three jobs." A few moments later, they started tallying: "well that car note gotta be about 200 a month, then you got rent at about 600, and insurance on top o' that..."

Since moving down here I've become aware of what parents have to do financially to keep their families afloat. I know about the loan sharks and credit officers and bill collectors. I realize that the majority of my kids have parents who are working long, hard hours, many times at more than one job. I realize how hard it is for many of these families.

What I did not realize is the degree to which my students are aware of their families' own financial situations. Perhaps it was because of my class (upper middle) or my ignorance (extensive), but I never knew what my parents were paying each month, and I never really had an idea how much money my father brought home each month. In fact, the thought never really crossed my mind; I knew we were about as wealthy as all my friends' families, perhaps a little wealthier when I got to high school. We weren't vacationing in Tahiti, but we were certainly living very comfortably.

Alternatively, most of my students, particularly the poorer ones, seem to know everything about their families' finances are concerned. What I began to wonder about this is how that knowledge transfers into an understanding of basic necessities and a measure of the value of money and hard work. Though they recognize where the money comes from, they don't seem to 'value' money that much (admittedly, does any teenager?) in the sense that they have no problem making frivolous purchases or dismissing a possible cost by claiming, "oh, my momma's gonna pay for that." I don't really know what this means, but I am fascinated by the disconnect, which I think I would see more in the rich kids I grew up with rather than my students.