Confessions of a Mediocre Teacher
Year ago, I was hired to teach remedial math. I really wanted the job and spent a few years taking extra classes working toward it. The school was working-class in Austin, but many of the students possessed an outsized sense of defeatism that would have been more fitting for the southside of Chicago or 2004-era Fallujah. I figured I was as prepared as could be: I volunteered with 5 year-olds at my church and helped with a youth group. Also, I had been doing standup comedy for 7 years, so I was used to roomfuls of people who hated me.
Soon, I realized that every true inspiring teacher movie likely played with the facts. For instance, at the end of Dangerous Minds, I'm pretty sure that, in real life, the students chased Michelle Pfeiffer's character out of town with switchblades. Are you familiar with Stand and Deliver? I starred in Sit Down and Take It. By Labor Day, I knew it would be a long year. My first real problem was an 8th-grade girl whose sullen demeanor and lack of use for any men was better suited for the sociology department at Vassar or the island that spawned Wonder Woman.
In our district, if a student messed up big time, it was off for 6 weeks to the alternative campus, the Opportunity Center, or "the OC". In fairness to the female mentioned above, her status as my first problem student came with an asterisk. Early in the year, another student of mine, "James," was sent to the OC for an incident that didn't involve me. So he was gone before he even became an issue. Later, upon his return, he became the first 8th-grader I encountered who could claim involvement in armed robbery and a tattoo. He was about 5 foot 3 but, thanks to a hard life, projected a gravitas beyond his years. I wouldn't exactly say I was afraid of him, but I was wary of any weapons he possessed. Also, I considered asking him to tell me where babies came from, but decided that might undermine my image as a hard-boiled, world-weary educator.
Christmas came and I probably received the fewest gifts of any teacher ever. It was the perfect intersection of ineffectual teaching and unmotivated students with no disposable income. After the break, I would be switching duties for the spring semester. Two other first year teachers and I would be shuffling assignments. I was led to believe it was caused by issues that one of the other teachers was having, but she probably was told the same about me.
It wasn't just me. The school was going through us math and science teachers like we were the French army. Intentional or not, the administration made the less-experienced teachers to feel like they stunk. It wasn’t hard. We kind of did stink, but we weren’t getting a ton of support either. Or maybe we were, but it still wasn't enough. I limped through the year fueled by coffee and liberal screenings of Walt Disney's great foray into numeracy, "Donald in Mathmagic Land."
The nadir came in April. During an assembly, a fight broke out between two girls. One weighed about 30 pounds more than I did, and the other was a Hurricane Katrina refugee who looked like she was 25. Like Starsky without a Hutch, I was the first to leap into action. If there were a car in sight, I probably would have attempted to slide across the hood. As it was, I grabbed onto the larger girl from behind and hooked her arms like the world’s only bald backpack. Five or six other teachers grabbed on too, but the girl from New Orleans had a death grip on the my girl’s hair. Apparently, being stranded on an I-10 overpass for three days after a hurricane does something to a person, because she wasn’t letting go without a fight.
The assembly ended on a tense note. Later in the same day, I entered my classroom only to see a boy (who could be an issue) and a girl (who never got in trouble) fighting. I again rushed for the larger student, in this case, the girl. Another teacher came in and grabbed the boy, who decided to continue to struggle. I could only watch in envy as the other teacher put the kid on his stomach in a chicken-wing type armbar. For the record, I wasn’t jealous of the ability to armbar the kid, as I could do that. I was jealous of the opportunity.
The second year shaped up much better, though. My situation was neither impossibly hard nor patronizingly easy. But the breakdown of the schedule was a dream: I had three regular 7th grade classes in the morning, lunch, an off period, and two honors 6th grade classes to close out the day. The 7th graders sometimes presented a challenge, but they were out of the way by lunch, then it was smooth sailing until the end of the day, as the 6th grade classes might have been even easier than the off period. By this time, I realized the illusion of competence was just as importance as actual competence, and the biggest red flag for administration was how often a teacher was sending kids to the office. I confined discipline to my classroom and didn’t use the principal’s office unless something was bleeding and/or flaming. And even then, I flipped a coin.
One day during that year one of the students had a pretty serious "accident" in my class. It started with a mysterious smell, and I sniffed and inspected like Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun when he accidentally found himself scuba diving in a pool of waste. Eventually, we found the culprit. Sadly, it was a quiet kid who was a better-than-average student, who had his bathroom request earlier in the day stiff-armed by a suspicious subsitute teacher. Here’s the strange thing: I never heard ANYONE mention it again, and that class wasn't exactly composed of angels. To my knowledge, it was swept under the rug. Kids can be cruel, but every once in a while, they handle stuff really well, sometimes better than adults.
Also, that year, my married roommates/landlords got pregnant. They are close friends, so I read the subtext clearly and without any offense: it's been fun, now grow up and leave. I was 32, it was time that I found a situation that involved buying a bedframe. I took a cue from the last episode of Growing Pains, in which Mike used the fact that the rest of the family was moving as an inflection point to grow up. A few weeks later, I proposed to my girlfriend, Jessica, ensuring a lifetime of marital bliss and that I would always have someone with whom I could split housing costs.
Sadly, my wedding the following September (year three) set the stage for conflict. Long story short, our new principal didn't make it easy for me to take time off, and I believe I was forced to take unpaid vacation. Initially, I gave him the benefit of the doubt, but eventually, we came to resent his rigidity. Furthermore, my new status as a competent teacher earned me a special assignment: 2 periods every day with the same group of kids in a remedial class. They weren't bad; after about 75 minutes or so, you are looking at each other like a couple in a lifeless marriage. And no, I have no firsthand experience of a lifeless marriage.
Still, I managed to pass the time. Once, one of my favorite students fell asleep, so I turned off the lights and snuck the rest of the class out, then I convinced him that he slept through the rest of the school day. Another time, a particularly defeatist attitude by one of the more popular students led to me asking him a series of pointed questions while on all fours on his desk. Since this kid could dish it but couldn't take it, the inevitable tears came. That wasn't my intent, but I knew I went too far when another student murmured, "That's messed up, Mr. Connolly." Nothing like being shamed by a 12 year-old.
Eventually, the grind wore me down and by November, I landed a job with my church starting in January. I wasn't alone in my frustration, I just did something about it. I had at least one older teacher asking me to take her with me, and the fact that she didn't know me very well and might have been an atheist didn't seem to phase her. Also, my in-laws had planned a cruise that started a few days before Christmas break and I wasn't going to let the principal cramp my style again. I left three days before the end of the semester (but, in my defense, gave plenty of notice). It didn't quite dawn on me what a power (read: "jerk") move this was until a few years later. As my brother pointed out, all that was missing was me giving a speech saying, "Well, I've taught you all I can...literally, and now that it's December 17th, I'm taking off on a cruise" while wearing flip-flops and a Hawaiian shirt.
I remember the open house before the first day of school my first year. I was hit with a naive awe at the fact that these hard-working parents left their kids in our care. That soon gave way to survival. After those hard first-year lessons, year two was when actual progress could take place. By the third year, though, the patience tank that I should have been using on the actual students was partially taxed by struggles with administration and a constantly shifting set of "best practices." Since everything seemed to be constantly changing I ignored emails until someone bothered me about it in person (actually, that's not a bad way to navigate any office). Furthermore, we were doing damage control over kids who never really learned their multiplication tables (seriously, that could have solved 50% of the problems). Nothing I did seemed to matter. I cared, but didn't feel effective.
At the end of the day, teachers largely get caught in the crossfire. Some of these kids were dealing with a lot of issues at home — and dealing with it better than I would. For the others who weren't? Well, during my more lucid moments, I would say that at some point, self-preservation was going to have to kick in and they were going to have to figure out whether constant rebellion was going to get them ahead. A hard, but necessary, question for some adolescents. And bureaucracy wasn't helping. Teaching is a noble profession and a hard job if you take it seriously. However, it's also easy to just hide out and collect a check. I guess I preferred leaving rather than becoming one of those people. I hope the people who are left in the job, especially the ones at public schools, are largely better people than I am...not that it would be hard.