Several months into my first year of teaching, I bought a cactus plant. It cost three dollars at the Walgreens that I sometimes stopped in after my nightly runs through an urban area in Fort Worth with too high a crime rate to justify such recreation after dark. I displayed it at the edge of my desk; it was my inside joke with myself – a metaphor in which my heart was developing spiky armor in the middle of the desert of my soul.
Three weeks after my cactus made its debut in my classroom, I found it mangled in a heap on the floor after a long, grueling day of attempting to instill a modicum of scientific knowledge into the minds of students who equated my classroom with prison walls, and therefore exploited any distraction in their limited arsenals to derail a lesson for their own amusement. They had figuratively torn out my soul. With a little cleverness or imagination, they might have eaten it for effect.
Needless to say, on the last day of school, I returned to my apartment, packed my car once again to the roof, and drove back across the country. I was so exhausted and traumatized that I didn’t even tell the friends I had made in Texas that I was leaving–people who supported me, and who deserved an explanation.
Now when I tell people about my experiences teaching in a Title I school, the reaction is uniform. They are impressed. I have been a recipient of compliments along the lines of, “you displayed such resilience in dealing with those hoodlums,” from well-meaning people who likely don’t realize they have insulted my students and perpetuated an oppressive stereotype of children in poverty.
To be fair, I came back with some pretty good stories. I’ve been spat on, cursed at, sexually harassed, accused of misconduct, confessed to, lied to, assaulted, cried on, and splattered with glue. I gave the benefit of the doubt, and had my trust abused. I split up a fight in high heels. I put out two fires and one gas leak. I looked on in horror as a student climbed on a table, shoved a basketball that I had previously confiscated under his shirt, and began punching his stomach, yelling, “Miss! I’m having an abortion!”
One afternoon, after my students discovered that I was allergic to peanuts, I was rendered unable to teach my fifth block, after a child brought peanut butter crackers to class, distributed them, and encouraged his fellow students to rub their hands all over the lab tables.
On another occasion, I held a student after class, and posed a hypothetical: “What would you do to someone if they treated you the way that you treat me?” His response? “I would beat the shit out of them.”
At the end of the day, they were just kids, occasionally, but not always, capable of empathy. As an experiment in reverse psychology, I called one mother to laud her rabble-rousing son for an insightful lab write-up. She was enormously grateful, and shared with me some of the difficulties her family had been facing that may have contributed to this student’s misbehavior. Like magic, he was an angel in class for a week after that.
It hurts my feelings, and I feel immensely guilty when people, upon hearing my barstool stories, congratulate my strength of character, and say offensive things about my former students. For one, while my intentions were good, my students would have been much better off with a teacher with a less robust scientific lexicon and educational pedigree, but better classroom management skills than I. I did them zero favors by being a cerebral figurehead lacking authority.
The rationale behind deploying me to a high-needs classroom¹ was that, with my expertise, I would convey the scientific material in an innovative yet comprehensible way. The hubris of my alternative certification program was that it held the notion that it would be easier to teach scientists to be teachers than to teach teachers to be scientists. The program believed it could do this by abandoning a young scientist into the midst of a classroom overcrowded with hormone-spewing, high-needs adolescents, equipped with about six weeks of irrelevant training and hugs–the educational equivalent of pushing a soldier out of a helicopter into the thick of battle without a gun.
Yet, in my experience, the problems plaguing classrooms in under-served communities were not confined to lack of talent, though of course I encountered other teachers who were not experts in their subject area. (Unbelievably, instead of cultivating an environment of collaboration, some of these teachers attempted to undermine my lessons by accusing me of teaching concepts that were “too difficult,” despite being clearly outlined in the curriculum–complaints that were leveraged on rumors from struggling students.) However, being versed in the nuances of periodic trends isn’t going to help a child who still has not grasped the concept of matter, let alone the idea that all matter is composed of atoms. Computing Hardy-Weinberg equations to solve population genetics problems is not in the realm of possibilities for a child who struggles to do basic arithmetic. And forget about administering a standardized test to kids who can’t read.
I acknowledge that my teaching was insufficient for numerous reasons. When I say that other teachers complained that my class was “too hard,” I am well aware that they were not complaining merely about the content matter presented. My skills may or may not have improved with more experience. After my first year in the classroom–a veritable trial-by-fire–my principal offered me a position teaching advanced students. But I didn’t pack up my life and drive halfway across the country to help kids who would probably excel without me bestowing my “expertise”–a sentiment that speaks to the reason this experiment was a failure in the first place: because I didn’t want to be a teacher. Yet even tenured teachers whom I admired could not produce favorable outcomes in the neediest of our student population.
These children are suffering from institutionalized deficiencies that no amount of brains or enthusiasm would be able to overcome, starting with the misappropriation of funds to higher ed rather than to pre-K, all the way to the antiquated lesson designs, to the structural barriers that mass-negotiated employment contracts erect in the face of effective education. In the end, even though the government purports to distribute public education equitably, a high-quality product is usually relegated to those who can afford to pay. So, the problem with education lies not with the myriad problems in the way we administer public education, but rather, with a problem of poverty. The effect of poverty on education, in turn, is cyclical, because it’s impossible to convince people that education is a vehicle of social mobility when there is no evidence in their community of that value proposition.
In the mean time, encouraging well-educated young people to be social colonists engenders an “us” and “them” mentality, where different classes are not subject to the same measure of autonomy. Aside from being profoundly condescending, proposing a proverbial Deus ex Machina to drop in and save the poor from themselves absolves people of responsibility for their values, priorities, and actions, which strips them of their liberty.
So, the next time I regale a crowd with horror stories of Classroom 306, I hope to solicit only amusement–because I am a compelling story-teller, after all–but not pity. I chose to pursue a path fraught with challenges of which I was aware from the outset. And, like all choices, mine had consequences that I endured. But it was my choice, and I stand by it. In the future, instead of infantilizing people, I will endeavor only to enable them to choose as well.
1. My classroom was composed predominantly of English Language Learners, children with intellectual disabilities, and children diagnosed with attention disorders and other psychological deficiencies.