Monday, February 05, 2007

January is the cruelest month, teaching...

The program director of the Teacher Corps program has always told us that October is the hardest month of teaching. I don't know if he was trying to make us first-years feel better (in giving us a major goal to achieve relatively early in the year), but I totally disagree with him. By a wide margin, the hardest month of teaching is January.

January was the month in which I flirted with leaving the Teacher Corps after this year. It was actually more than a serious flirtation. I'd say that we ate at a nice restaurant, took a stroll on the beach, and I got her back to my place. We may have even undressed. However, I just couldn't do it. Barring catastrophe or another twist of fate, I'll be teaching in Mississippi next year. I don't know what, exactly, made me change my mind. Maybe I'll write about that some other time. Here, I'll publish something I began writing about three weeks ago, when I was at (what I hope will prove to be) the low-point of this year.


From a Newsweek article about Oprah Winfrey and her recently-opened South African school:

"Oprah also knows that some people will complain that charity should begin at home, even though she has provided millions of dollars to educate poor children in the United States, especially via her Oprah Winfrey Scholars Program. But she sees the two situations as entirely different. 'Say what you will about the American educational system—it does work,' she says. 'If you are a child in the United States, you can get an education.' And she doesn't think that American students—who, unlike Africans, go to school free of charge—appreciate what they have. 'I became so frustrated with visiting inner-city schools that I just stopped going. The sense that you need to learn just isn't there,' she says. 'If you ask the kids what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers. In South Africa, they don't ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school.'"

That last quotation - the one concerning American students asking for sneakers and iPods - caused a minor furor among American news commentators, though most of the editorials I saw were from second-tier newspapers such as the St. Petersberg (FL) Times and the Sacramento Bee. Like nearly anything, some commentators took issue with the sentiment and others agreed with her, though I cannot say that most of the response was either positive or negative.

Personally, I thought her comments were spot-on. My experience with American education (limited as it may be) has taught me that every student can get an education if they want to. Many individuals and organizations involved in the debate surrounding American educational inequality would have us believe that the system is fatally flawed and almost actively seeks to hinder the progress of racial minorities and the economically disadvantaged. Teach for America's website, citing the National Assessment for Educational Progress, tells us that

"Nine-year-olds growing up in low-income communities are already three grade levels behind their peers in high-income communities. Half of them won't graduate from high school. Those who do graduate will, on average, read and do math at the level of eighth graders in high-income communities."

While all of these facts and figures may be true, they fail to tell us the reason for the problem of educational inequality, a problem which I would submit has much less to do with the schools than Teach for America (and the Mississippi Teacher Corps) would like us to believe. To echo the adage espoused by teachers everywhere since Horace Mann: it's the parents. There is only so much teachers can do.

Many of my students don't care. They don't listen to me. They don't complete their work. They interrupt me with inane questions. They lie directly to my face. They put more effort into constructing excuses than anything else. They are immature. They are arrogant, even as they are proven to be totally ignorant. They show me little or no respect. They drive me insane. If I come up with an amazing, informative, and exciting lesson plan, they don't care. If I come up with a boring, difficult, and awkward lesson plan, they don't care.

Many of their parents aren't much better, but that's another story for another day.

To quote a cliche: I can only lead a camel to water. I cannot make it drink.


Sometime, around when I wrote that, when I was at my lowest point, I suddenly realized something. It's not me. They aren't disrespecting me, they are disrespecting an authority figure. They don't dislike my class, they dislike school in general. All things considered, they sometimes do listen to me. I don't know how I turned my attitude around, and I am still working on improving my outlook on teaching (many days I come home with a massive headache, but for right now things are going much better. I think the key was this: I began a unit the students really seem to enjoy (reading Their Eyes Were Watching God) and I am focusing on enjoyable parts of my job and trying to forget all the negative aspects of it.