Making a Tough Job Harder

I sat with Carol in her classroom that January, calculating grades.  The school district had called a snow day, but in our urban district, that meant that staff usually still had to report to our buildings.  I had dropped Z off at my sister’s house for a day of fun with his cousins and then made the hour and a half long extended trudge through the snowy highways to work.

“Can I ask you a question?” I asked Carol, my brow furrowed as I looked at my grade book.  The students were an interesting mix of city kids.  Some were studious and motivated; but they were the vast minority.  A good chunk of students were here because their parents had made them attend; they could be motivated with the right mixture of parental communication and interesting lessons.  They of course would test the new teachers to see how far they were willing to go to make them do the work; I’d discovered this the hard way during the first marking period when a good third of my students had failed and more than half had Cs or below.  I had been called into the principal’s office and told in no uncertain terms that I was to fix this problem with my students’ grades, pronto.  Whatever it took.  Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

But there was a third type of student at our school too; the completely uninterested student.  Their parents weren’t involved, and it was a miracle that someone had even bothered to take the time to enter them into the lottery to attend our magnet school.  This group of students, in each and every one of my classes, could be the difference between a day that went sort of OK versus a day that was a complete disaster.

“Sure,” Carol responded, looking up from her grade book and bubble sheets.

“I feel like I’m going in circles,” I started, trying to find words for the frustration I was feeling.  It wasn’t just the kids, although they presented enough of a challenge.  “I don’t know how to say this, but the kids don’t feel like my greatest problem in this school.” I paused and lowered my voice.  ” Do you know what I mean?”

Carol nodded knowingly, leaning in.  “I do,” she said quietly, encouragingly.

I went on, ready to say more with the affirmation.  “It takes me all hour to calm the kids down when they came from the other English teachers’ room.  And I can HEAR them through the walls in the science room next door.  I don’t know what is going on upstairs but they are like wild animals sometimes when they come down from the second floor.  How much learning is really going on with these kids?   Have you noticed that the kids really are going nuts for some of the other staff?”

Carol smiled at me and put her pencil down, pausing to choose her words carefully.  “I hear you.  It’s a lot harder to do your job when other people aren’t doing theirs.”  She too lowered her voice and looked out her open door.  Seeing no one, she continued:   “One of the math teachers upstairs is not teaching at all; the principal doesn’t know it yet because he just gives out As and Bs so the parents are happy. The kids told me that they turn in papers and he just puts them in a cabinet, never checks them, never returns them.”

“How can they get away with that?  I got called in for having too many Ds on my students’ report cards last fall!”  My sense of fairness rose up in my chest like a five year old who has been reprimanded for someone else’s wrong doings.

“The kids tell me, but their parents don’t know because they don’t want to have to do any more work, so they don’t say anything to anyone else.  For some reason, they trust me.  It’s like they want to have someone know about it, but not any one with any real authority to do anything.”

I swallowed.  “It explains why I have such a hard time motivating the kids to do social studies.  They aren’t even tested on that on the standardized tests at this level.”

“Exactly.  When I make them do their work and tell them why, some of them counter with the fact that Mr. O doesn’t make them do work in there.  I have spent hours talking to them about why that feels good now but it really isn’t in their best interests in the long run.”

“Really?  What do they say?”

“Well basically three different things.  The ones that are pissed that they’re not learning are grateful that someone actually said something and thank me.  The middle ones, you know the ones, the ones that pretend not to care but know they will get their asses kicked for a C or below?  They front and talk big but then they get down and do what I’ve asked them to as well.  Because at the end of the day they too know they need to know things to get anywhere in life.  The ones that don’t care because their parents don’t care, they still misbehave and I spend the rest of my time keeping them at a low boil so the rest of the kids that give a crap can get their work done.”

I thought for a minute before I spoke.  “I never thought that part of the difficulty in teaching would not only be the students and their behaviors, but also the other teachers too.  When there isn’t a uniform level of expectation or discipline, it makes it that much harder for those who are expecting more than those who are accepting less.”

Carol nodded.  “Listen, these kids aren’t stupid.  They know they’re getting away with something, but some of them also know that they are losing opportunity with every day they don’t learn what they are supposed to.  Work with those kids and just manage the rest.  That’s how I get through it.”

I nodded and went back to my bubble sheets, the silence between us easy and comfortable with shared outrage and experience.

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One Response

  1. […] I had been surprised and somewhat elated when our principal had, at the end of the previous school year, told me I would be swapping subject matter with another teacher in our building.  It was a major, and very obvious, commentary on my colleague’s effectiveness as a teacher.  And while on some level I felt a little badly for him, a man twenty years my senior, on another I felt vindicated that someone had indeed noticed how much effort I put into my job versus how little he’d put into h… […]

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