Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Teaching
The First Year
 
I am going to try something new. 
 
I have just about run out of historical material that I want to post.  I have maybe two segments left about individuals that appear in my historical novel Crossing the River.  I have maybe four or five segments left about Algonquian natives and English settlers at Roanoke in the 1580s.  I have provided plenty of excerpts from my novel.  I am having difficulty reading and reviewing historical fiction fast enough to post one review each month.  I would like to feature every month a skilled, debut author of historical fiction.  That hasn’t been possible.  I need to introduce new subject matter. 
 
I was a public school teacher for 32 years.  Teaching remains in my blood.  I’d like to share with you some of my experiences and what I learned from them.  I want to present an accurate picture of who public school teachers are and what they do.  Teachers need to defend themselves given the vicious onslaught currently directed at them and public education by profit-driven, deep-pocketed, vilifying critics.
 
How I loathe what they say about us!  These corporate know-it-alls and their paid political allies excoriate low student achievement test scores.  It’s the teachers! they rant.  Bad teachers, teacher tenure, the damn unions!  Failing schools!  Clean house!  Out with the bad, in with the good!  We need charter schools!  Tough, uniform curriculum standards!  Demand!  Drill!  Test! 
 
Most adults view public education through the lenses of their own experience: what they remember of their own school days and what they know of their children’s experiences.  Very likely each of their children has had one, two, or maybe three weak-to-bad teachers through the elementary and secondary school grades.  My children did.  But is this fact of life justification to conclude that public education must be pulled out by its roots and thereafter privatized?  A certain percentage of the general population has always had (and always will have) a negative opinion of the teaching profession.  Teaching is easy, these people declare.  It isn’t a full-time profession.  Teachers are coddled.  They’re overpaid.  They whine.  The old saying “If you can’t do anything else, teach” goes back to when I began teaching in 1957.  Teachers have had to battle this perception for decades.  How easy it has been for the champions of privatization – who have produced the films “Waiting for Superman” and “Stand by Me” and who have never themselves taught -- to rally uninformed, innately critical people to their cause.   
 
I see public education through the lenses of my own work experiences and what I have observed of other teachers. I will be frank, and honest.  
 
My first year of teaching went badly.  I was mostly to blame.
 
Summer 1957.  I had attended UCLA an extra year to earn my general secondary teaching credential.  My teaching major was history and my teaching minor English.  I had student-taught an eleventh grade American history class and an intermediate grade remedial reading class.  I was to teach in the Los Angeles Unified School District at a combined junior and senior high school a 30 minute drive from Pasadena, where I lived with my parents.  I had been told that I would be teaching seventh grade history and a remedial reading class.  During the early summer I reviewed the seventh grade history textbook and made tentative plans of how I would utilize its content.  In August my parents and I took a two week vacation trip to Northern California, where we camped and played golf.  When we returned to Pasadena about a week before the beginning of the school year, I was informed that I would not be teaching history.  I had been assigned to teach seventh and ninth grade English, as well as the remedial reading course.   
 
I had a sketchy knowledge of the parts of speech and no awareness of their connection with standard usage of English.  I determined “is” or “are,” “I” or “me,” “quick” or “quickly,” and “wrote” or “written” usage entirely by what sounded right.  I judged the correctness of sentence construction by how the sentence sounded.  I knew only the most obvious rules of capitalization and punctuation.
 
What I remember especially about that year is that I taught most of my classes in portable classrooms, in trailer-like structures lined up behind the school’s permanent building.  I had to travel between periods to several one-period-a-day empty classrooms.  Except for my first period, this meant that I could not set up lessons earlier on blackboards.  Copying machines did not exist then.  If I were to type a grammar exercise to be used the following day by two or three classrooms of students, I needed the school secretary to use the school’s mimeograph or ditto machine to provide the necessary copies.  I was not permitted to operate either machine.  Also, mimeograph and ditto paper were considered a precious commodity.  The secretary was not an accommodating person.  This method of instruction was also closed to me.  What I had – I must have had; I don’t remember – was a state-issued grammar textbook.  (“Copy each sentence, underline each adjective, and draw an arrow from the adjective to the word it modifies.”) 
 
The students in my remedial reading class were eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh graders.  A few read at the second and third grade level.  They were mostly sight readers.  All had difficulty pronouncing consonant, vowel, consonant blend, and vowel letter combination sounds.  Years later I had to teach one of my grandsons to read.  I learned from that experience what and how a struggling reader needs to be taught.  I did not have that knowledge then, despite my student teaching.  I remember that I tried to teach them how to divide words into syllables.  I tried to familiarize them with suffixes and prefixes.  I tried to find old reading material that matched their different reading levels.  I remember wishing that I had the time to write individual stories that would be at each student’s age/interest level and slightly above his/her reading level.  I accomplished little.
 
I remember giving spelling tests to my English students.  Sitting on a table at the front of the room one day, I thought, “This is neat.”  Two ninth grade girls devised a way of getting 100 percent on every test.  I had been giving each student a ruled notebook sheet of paper on which to take each test.  These two had been copying each week’s words beforehand on a similar sheet of paper and submitting it.  Somehow I figured out what they had been doing.  The next week I handed out individually named, stapled together, booklets of ruled paper.  I kept the booklets in a cupboard between tests.  I regret to say this did not motivate them to study.
 
I knew so little about how to teach English.
 
I spent a lot of time drilling my students to identify parts of speech.  I didn’t think to teach standard usage until late in the year when a veteran English teacher advised me that I should.  I don’t recall what we read.  Surely we used some sort of anthology.  But then, maybe not.  I did have them write compositions.  Did I demonstrate how these compositions were to be structured?  I hope I did.  I recall that one ninth grade girl wrote particularly well.  She seemed to enjoy the assignments.  This made me feel good.  I remember sitting in a recliner at home one night grading compositions.  My father, a proof reader for a Los Angeles newspaper, was curious.  I had him read one of the graded papers.  He looked at me for several seconds and then told me what he thought.  “How about giving this guy a break.”
 
One of the most hurtful memories I have is about how I treated a big-bodied, quiet, ninth grade Latino boy at the end of the first semester.  He had asked me what grade I intended to give him.  “An F,” I replied.  He wanted to know why.  I told him that he had done none of the assigned work.  “But I haven’t made any trouble for you,” he responded.  That was true.  But, no.  The grade would stand.  Indolence should not be rewarded.  A good teacher would have investigated early why he was not doing the assignments, discovered what learning deficiencies were preventing him from attempting them, and worked with him to achieve some sort of success.  I was too ignorant to recognize that.
 
I did get along with my students.  It was the only gift I had.  Maybe it was because I was good-natured.  Maybe it was because I was 23.  That the administration had a good handle on student conduct certainly helped.  I had the radio antenna of my car snapped off, but nothing malicious was ever directed at me face-to-face.  One day a ninth grade girl stood up from her seat while I was conducting class, turned about, dropped her jeans, and mooned me.  Recovering from the shock, I considered the incident laughable and said and did nothing. 
 
I know that at least one of my seventh grade classes liked me.  At the end of the first semester that class was assigned to another teacher located in a nearby portable building.  I was to receive her first semester class.  The second semester began.  Then the powers-that-be changed their minds.  They informed the two of us that each would be teaching his/her first semester class.  The classes would switch classrooms the second day of the new semester.  That moment arrived.  I told my class of one day what needed to happen.  They filed silently out of the room.  Then, running down the pavement from the other English teacher’s portable building came my old class, cheering.  I felt both embarrassed and gratified.  And mortified about what my colleague must have felt.
 
I was a bad teacher that first year.  Bill Gates and the Walton family and Michelle Rhee would have dismissed me in a second.   It was not because of indifference or lack of application that I was bad.  Nor was I bad because the school had contributed in making my job more difficult.  I did not know certain things.  I was not prepared.  Although I did not believe so at the time, I was fortunate that I had been drafted into the Army during the school year.  I reported for basic training three days after the last day of school.  I was given two years to grow, expand my knowledge, and analyze my mistakes.