Saturday, September 6, 2014

Teaching -- Getting Better
A person doesn’t break through the egg of college graduation a full-fledged, skillful teacher.  It doesn’t matter how bright and motivated the person is, he or she cannot achieve immediately what experienced teachers accomplish.  I was blessed to have been hired by an excellent school district after my first year of teachng.  I had mostly my lack of experience and a limited knowledge of my subject matter to overcome.  I became a competent teacher rather quickly.  What I learned during my first five or six years of teaching and my continued desire to improve as an instructor enabled me to become a good teacher.  The final ten years of my career I was better than good.
As I stated in my August 6 Teaching blog entry -- “The First Year” -- public school teachers are under fierce attack by corporate-funded “reform” activists bent on ridding communities of veteran teachers, privatizing public schools, making education a money-making enterprise for niche businesses, and indoctrinating children with a corporatized, agenda-driven, by-the-numbers culture.  Teach for America (TFA) -- a “reform” organization that seeks to place highly motivated, high-achieving college graduates in under-performing, largely minority populated city schools – serves those purposes.
Every year, TFA installs thousands of unprepared 22-year-olds, the majority of whom are from economically and culturally privileged backgrounds, into disadvantaged public schools. They are given a class of their own after only five to six weeks of training and a scant number of hours co-teaching summer school (in a different city, frequently in a different subject, and with students in a different age group than the one they end up teaching in the fall).  … they are lured by TFA's promises that they can help close the education gap for children in low-income communities.     An increasing amount of research shows that TFA recruits perform at best no better, and often worse, than their trained and certified counterparts. What’s more, they tend to leave after just a few years in the classroom” (Michna 1). 
“… more and more TFA recruits are now being placed in charter schools, where they are isolated from communities of experienced local teachers who can help train and ground them. “Veteran” teachers at charter schools administered by TFA alumni tend to have only three to four years of experience under their belts. The principals often have just a year’s or two years’ more experience than the teachers.    TFA exists to support the corporate education reform agenda, and that agenda is grounded not in creating better teachers but in the de-professionalization of teaching” (Michna 2).
My purpose, stated again, is to cut through the propaganda that poor teachers are the prime reason for low achievement test scores, that veteran teachers are set in their ways and, therefore, mediocre; and that, unlike traditionally hired new teachers today, bright, enthusiastic, TFA college graduates will overturn dramatically the debilitating damages of poverty.   I hope to do this by illustrating the natural process I (representative of most teachers) followed to become a definite asset to my students, their parents, my school, and the community.
Three days after I walked out of the junior/senior high school where I had taught my first year, I was on a train headed for Fort Ord – adjacent to Monterey, California -- where I would spend the entire two years of my military service and marry my wife Janet.  In the early spring of 1960 I sent interview requests to several San Francisco East Bay school districts, having decided to quit Southern California.  I received three invitations.  My wife would also be interviewing in the East Bay, finishing then her single year in Salinas, her third year overall of teaching.
My first interview was with the superintendent and assistant superintendent of the Orinda Union School District.  Orinda was not my first choice.  The district was opening a second intermediate school that fall and was looking to fill five classroom positions.  (Three of the positions would be filled by teachers from elementary schools in the district)  Each instructor was to teach a self-contained seventh grade class.  Each person would be required to teach English, social studies, science, and math.  The following year, after more classrooms had been built to accommodate both seventh and eighth grade students, instruction would become more compartmentalized.  English and social studies would be taught by the same teacher, not by separate teachers.  The same would be true of math and science.  Upon the advice of my wife, I took to the interview a list of questions.  The first words my interview said to me were, “Do you have any questions?”  I asked every question on my list.  I don’t believe they asked me one question.  I left the interview thinking, “Hmmm.  They’ve already made up their minds.  Scratch this district.”
My next interview was at an intermediate school in Antioch.  The interviewer was somebody for the administrative office.  His first question was, “What education books did you read while you were in the army?”  “None,” I responded.   What a stupid question, I thought.  Why would I want to do that?  Much better that I be reading literature (I had) to become better qualified to teach it.  I don’t remember what else he asked.  The interview was brief.  Scratch this district, I concluded.
My last interview was with the Mt. Diablo School District, their elementary, intermediate, and high schools in or adjacent to Concord.  The principal of one of the intermediate schools escorted me about his campus and asked questions, none of which I remember.  I left thinking that I had done reasonably well.  That evening my wife and I drove back to Monterey.  Several days passed.  I was nervous.  What if none of the districts offered me a contract?  That seemed a distinct possibility.  My choice of the three districts was Mt. Diablo.   Soon enough a letter arrived in the mail.  Orinda wanted me.  To this day I don’t know why.  I could not have been more fortunate.  It was a major turning point in my life.
So began my preparation to teach four subjects.  Three of them I thought I could handle.  Science was the fourth.  I had never had any interest in and, consequently, had little knowledge of the subject.  My wife’s advice was invaluable.  “You will need to group your students in reading and math.  Here’s how you do it.  This is how you do bulletin boards.  This is the way you discipline.  Here are some teaching techniques.”  I had my own teaching mentor living with me.  I got through that year, but it was tough.  Students smell an inexperienced teacher.  They will pounce.  Well into the school year I overheard my principal remark to somebody that I was tough but fair.  At the end of the year I received a satisfactory evaluation and was hired to teach at the school a second year.
I would be teaching English and social studies (essentially Western civilization) to two seventh grade classes.  Many of the students in one of the classes were very intelligent.  What a joy to experience that!  The other class was heterogeneously grouped.  Due primarily to my lack of experience, some of the students were a challenge.  I made a leap in competence that year.  I researched and taught the elements of fiction; I sought out excellent reading material; I mastered standard usage rules and the identification of the parts of speech.  I applied notions I had of how different kinds of composition could be taught.
I began this second year (the third of my career) searching for short stories that I could use to illustrate characterization, plot development, point of view, theme, and irony.  I had in my classroom several old anthologies to pick through as well as the current seventh grade state-approved anthology text book.  Pick through them I did, not content to follow the course of study that the editors of the anthologies had designed.  Developing my own curriculum was my purpose.  What my students would read and what we would discuss I would own. 
I remember one short story that I had my higher achieving class read: “Lost Soldier” by Stanford Whitmore.  An American Korean War soldier finds himself alone behind enemy lines.  It is winter.  He must get back to his lines.  He sees a Chinese soldier ahead of him, behind a boulder, studying a road beyond them both.  A group of two or three American soldiers, patrolling, walk carelessly down the road.  The Chinese soldier watches them intently.  The “lost soldier” is ready to shoot him.  The Chinese soldier watches the Americans pass.  Now the lost soldier must try to determine why the Chinese soldier hadn’t attempted to use his weapon.  The gunfire, he believes the Chinese soldier reasons, would alert other American soldiers nearby and increase the risk of his being shot.  After much hesitation, the lost soldier shoots the Chinese soldier, hurls the dead man’s weapon away, and leaves.  I used this story to illustrate theme.  I used it every year thereafter for twenty-nine years.  I wonder how many of the boys that were in my classroom in 1961 thought about that story seven years later -- whether they were in the military or not -- during the Vietnam War 1968 Tet Offensive.
I had some of my best students enter stories in a national short story writing contest.  One of them received an honorable mention.  I typed and used years later several of the stories as examples of good student short story writing.  My students also wrote short essays.  I remember having fun with them showing various ways to write an introductory paragraph.  “Always end your paragraph with your statement of the essay’s main idea.  Never state the idea in the beginning sentence.  If the main idea is “Cats are wonderful pets,” open with an arresting sentence, like “They may scratch the heck out of upholstered chairs” or an informational statement like “Some people prefer dogs to cats” or open with dialogue: “Do you know what your cat did this morning?” 
I made definite progress that year as a teacher, more so probably in what we read and discussed and what and how my students wrote than in teaching standard usage and parts of speech.  I had my moments of genuine satisfaction and moments when I questioned whether I wanted to continue in the profession.  Teaching is hard work.  Students are not always willing receptacles of learning.  On any given day they can choose to be quite the opposite.  I had to deal with personal problems, like students being picked on.  One girl, who was not one of my students, had brought a lot of peer disapproval and verbal abuse upon herself.  I learned that one very nice boy in my more talented class had said something insulting to her.  She had lashed out at him.  Talking to him privately, I advised him to apologize. 
“Why?” he said.  “You know what she’s like.  She won’t believe me.”
“She’ll probably say something bad back at you,” I said.
“She would.  Why should I apologize?”
“You hurt her.  Your apology is for you as much as it is for her.”
He understood and apologized.  She wasn’t able to trust him.  Still, he seemed satisfied.  The boy today is an important business office real estate executive in the Danville/San Ramon area of Contra Costa County.
My second year of teaching in Orinda came to an end.  The eighth grade class’s graduation ceremony was to take place on the football field of the nearby high school.  I decided to attend.  Students of my self-contained class of the previous year would be receiving their diplomas.  I had ended this second year in Orinda dubious about staying with teaching.  But I was married.  I would surely be having children.  What else was I trained to do?  I watched individual students I remembered well walk across the stage when their names were called.  I began to feel nostalgic.  My emotions surged.  Had anybody asked me a question, I would not have been able to speak.  These little buggers were out of my life.  That they had been in my life mattered.
Work Cited:
Michna, Catherine.  “Why I stopped Writing Recommendation Letters for Teach for America.”  Slate: 9 Oct. 2013. Web.