Monthly Archives: November 2006

How To Be a Better Teacher, or, I Suck

I thought I was getting comfortable. Competent. If not great, at least better than last year. Slipping a little more gracefully into my role as Benevolent Dictator of the ELA fiefdom in Room 200. My school is a training ground for overlords: I don’t like how Striver High does authority, discipline, pedagogy, collaboration, or community, but it’s a million times better than many city schools. Even if teachers here rely on worksheets, textbooks, and threats more than I would like, it is a relatively peaceful, supportive, dedicated place to work. Henry was suspended today for saying “faggot” in my class. Where else does a kid catch such swift retribution for that ugly but commonplace act?

Then I started reading book for class today on the subway: “The Differentiated Classroom.” I was being  responsible and doing my reading for class BEFORE the  paper was due, eschewing the New York Times Book Review (my standard Monday morning fare) for insight into how to teach diverse learners.

“In Mrs. Wilkerson’s 8th grade English class,” the author writes, “students often read novels around a common theme, such as courage or conflict resolution…Mrs. Wilkerson also varies journal prompts, sometimes assigning different prompts to different students. Often, she encourages students to select a prompt that interests them.”

Here we go.

“In Mr. O’Reilly’s 8th grade English class,” she admonishes, “students read the same novels and have whole-class discussions on them. Students complete journal entries on their readings.”

AND WE’RE OFF!  Bring on the guilt:

Us: (Deep breath) We’re reading “Ethan Frome.”
Them: Noooooo!
Us: Yes.
Them: This is wack! I hate this book! I don’t get it! This is borin’! I hate ELA!
Us: Read it anyway, young punks, or you’ll fail the quiz/marking period/semester/Regents/high school/life. See you in tutoring. I’m calling your mother.

Cue self-flagellation…

I could tick off the dozen or so reasons WHY I suck without blaming myself, chief among them the utter lack of coordination or planning in our department, confirmed, for example, by the list of novels we were handed to teach that was cobbled together by our new chair the week before school started, with no input from us; there is also the Ferris Bueller-style lecturing at the front of the room, followed by rote note-copying and multiple-choice exams, that Striver High seems to favor. When I try anything more “student-centered,” that seems to empower the kids and ask for their input, I’m suspiciously regarded as “lowering the standard.” Like, What, you don’t think our kids can handle the real stuff? (The “real stuff” being the longstanding pillars of old school-style education: book reports, five-paragraph essays, books by dead white guys.)

Recently, I suggested designing an independent writing project for a student who’d been removed from my room for discipline reasons; he hadn’t done a single assignment all semester. I wanted to design material with him in mind; how could I unlock this kid’s potential? “No, he’s fully capable of doing the regular work, like everyone else,” snapped the department chair. I know he’s capable, but he probably thinks it’s boring and irrelevant. And I sort of agree.

Anyway, back to sucking. I am in a pedagogical rut without the breathing room or the time to design something better. Forget planning it with my colleagues; I’d be developing it on my own, and there’s no way. For all the mediocre curriculum I plan, it takes an awful lot of maintenance. And I’m not the worst teacher in the world: I tutor five or eight hours a week, have everyone’s parents’ numbers on speed dial, manage 35 kids for 80 minute-stretches like a champ, enliven our by-the-book lessons with theatrical panache, make connections with students…my old kids from last year (the year I REALLY didn’t know what I was doing) wander in and tell me how much they miss my class, God bless them.

But I know it, I KNOW my class sucks more than it has to, I can see it in their faces when we do ANOTHER quiz just to prove they read the book they hate that we’re all reading that I didn’t choose. I need a vision, man. ‘Cause I could be awesome. But for now, I’m not. For real.

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I’m Calling Your Mother

In the waning hours of tutoring yesterday afternoon, Ms. Kamath beckoned me into the hallway, her face cloudy with rage. “I’m calling Denisha’s mother tonight,” she hissed. I nodded. “She’s insane. She’s being totally disruptive.” I nodded again, and she looked at me expectantly. “Look at her. She’s DANCING AROUND YOUR ROOM IN HER SOCKS.” I turned around, and Denisha was, indeed, twirling around the room in her socks as Ryan and Ashantay tried to write the essays that were due four days ago. “Um, I think you should call her mother, too,” Ms. Kamath added. Right-o.

I felt like tissue paper: transparent and prone to shredding. I’d spent the last two hours trying to wring proper five-paragraph essays from stubborn freshmen who swore they didn’t know how to write a sentence. I’d blown up at Jackson (diagnosis: emotionally disturbed), who had banged a chair on a desk several times to get my attention as I tutored his classmate. I’d shooed Ashantay and Tyanna and Denisha out of the room to eat their fried chicken in the hallway, because the smell was making me gag. I observed that the classroom was at least as loud when this particular squad of four is present as when there are 35 kids in it. The cacophony was making my ears bleed. When a fourteen-year-old feels like she can’t do something, she’ll fight you to the death to prove it.

I walked back into the class and made a grave announcement. “You know,” I began, surveying the room, “I’ve had to quiet you guys down way too many times this afternoon. I’m gonna have to…call your parents,” I sighed. Denisha looked stricken. “Ms. Magnolia, you CAN’T call my mother. I’m gonna have to run away, and she’ll be on the news for murdering me. I am so serious. You CANNOT call my mother.” I looked at her, like, Seriously? “I’m mandated in my contract to call a hotline that goes to Albany if I believe any of my students is being abused,” I explained. “No, no, you don’t have to call a hotline,” she said quickly. “Then what? What do you want? A second chance?” I asked, impatience mounting. “It’s NOVEMBER. You’ve had your second, and your third, and your 27th chance. This is nonsense. You wrote the check, Denisha; now you’ve gotta cash it. This is on you. End of story.” Ashantay groaned, “Oh, I’m gonna get a beatin’.” “Ms. MAGNOLIA!” Denisha pleaded.

“I swear to God, I am gonna shut up for the rest of my life in your class,” Ashantay announced. (If anyone is a longtime reader, Ashantay is the ninth grade, raw-state version of TJ, my favorite sahsaying 12th grader). I stared at him. “Can I have that in writing?” I said, pushing a piece of loose leaf toward him.

“Are you serious?”

“Dead serious.”

“I PROMISE TO NOT TALK IN MS. MAGNOLIA’S CLASS UNLESS I AM CALLED ON,” it read, signed, “Ashantay Davis-Hartford. 11/01/06.” Denisha eagerly penned hers, including permission to call her mother immediately upon violation of the contract. (Like I need permission.)

“I have short-term memory,” Ashantay said as he packed his things. I stifled a laugh at my desk. “I’m not gonna remember that tomorrow,” he said. Which I figured. As they prepared to leave, they traded stories of the epic beatings they got from their mothers over various indiscretions over the years, usually for cursing out an elementary teacher.

“Fathers should not beat their children, because then they would die,” Ashantay observed. Once, he claims, he ran away for an afternoon to avoid his mother’s war path, eventually finding a police officer and insisting he’d been kidnapped. I listened, fascinated, horrified.

“Do you think you’ll beat your children?” I asked them. “No,” said Denisha firmly.

“I’m gonna slap my kids,” said Ryan, demonstrating, “but that’s not beatin’ ’em.”

“I’m not havin’ kids,” declared Ashantay, which was oddly reassuring, because I have never met a child who seemed so dead set against empathy or sincerity. (Think Joan Crawford meets Truman Capote. Everything is a performance.)

Worried for the future, I remain,
Ms. Magnolia Avenue

PS: Update: Ashantay was silent and intent as a coroner today. He seemed serious, which I liked, but unlike himself, which I didn’t. Denisha put a piece of Scotch tape over her mouth, which was creepy and thankfully didn’t last.