Why I Teach.

In my second year of teaching, my husband and I were at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving dinner.  My brother and his family were there, and we were carrying on a typical, banal, holiday conversation.

“So what are you learning in school?” my father asked my nephew.

“Well, we just learned about King Henry the VIII,” he said.

“Oh yeah?”  I could tell my father’s interest was piqued because he dragged out the “yeah” a bit.  “What did you learn about him?”

“Well…” Ben’s voice trailed off while he tried to conjure some remnant of a worksheet or a lecture.  “I learned he had eight wives.”

At the time, I was teaching British Literature, and I knew this fact was erroneous.  “No, he had six wives.”

“Eight!” Ben disagreed in a tone that can only be delivered by a I’m-right-you’re-wrong-seven-year old.

Unmiffed, I tried to explain why I thought he was confused.  “I think you are getting it confused with the eighth in his title, Ben.  He had six wives.”

“How would you know?” my brother asked derisively.  “You’re just an English teacher.”

I was furious.  Just an English teacher!  As if all I do is teach about gerunds and pronouns; as if all I do is teach vocabulary and read books.  The fact of the matter is that being an English teacher means that I have a vast array of knowledge on many subjects.  How could I teach British Literature without understanding and teaching the historical context of the different periods of literature?  How could I express movements and themes in literature without understanding the philosophical tenants of the times in which the works were published?

I think I childishly stormed out of the room, went to a computer, and proved I was right.  Let me tell you, I showed them!

To be honest, I didn’t show them anything, except maybe that I have a temper.

However, thirteen years later, I feel like the general public is the seven-year old and his dad at the dinner table, and I am trying to justify what I do.  “You’re a teacher. Well, that’s a great job, right?  All those days off!  For what you probably make, you got it good!”

I would like to say I am dumfounded when people say things like this to me, but I’m not.  For whatever reason, teachers are not respected as true professionals in America.  We are just the lucky ones who get a bunch of days off.  To the general public, we are overpaid babysitters who are whiney about our jobs.

But you know what?  I am not whining because if I really think about it, I do have it good!

I have it good because some days, students are so engaged in discussion that fifteen minutes go by before I say anything.  They are feeding off of each other and analyzing the text, its meaning, and the inner depths of the human spirit as it is presented through characterization.

I have it good because when I turn back essays, I tell the students that if they do not like their grade, they can rewrite.  “There is not a penalty.  I would like for you all to get 100%.  Read my comments, and if you want to, make an appointment to see me, and I will help you organize your thoughts.”  For two weeks, I see students almost everyday, after and before school, because they want to be better writers.

I have it good because I get to grade tests.  I teach and teach and teach, and then they are tested on their mastery of the lesson.  I cannot wait to see how well my students do.  I put stickers on all of the A papers, and I write compliments on many of the others.  When I notice a struggling student has done better than the last exam, I write, “Good for you.  Your effort is really paying off!”  So what if it is only a C-?  It is growth, and I want the student to know it does not go unnoticed.

I have it good because I get kids excited about reading Shakespeare and Beowulf and Huckleberry Finn.  Books come to life, and sometimes, the students get so into the book or the play, they finish it will before the due date.

I have it good because I get to apply the themes of literature to real life and I get to watch kids make connections and really think about the world in which they live and their part in it.

I have it good because every Fall (and I mean every Fall since I started teaching), I get at least one email or note from a former student.  It usually says something like, “Thanks for being so tough and so fun when I had you in class.  I am one of the only students getting an A in Freshmen Comp. and my prof used my paper as an example.”

I have it good because when I show up at a play or a sporting event, I get to see how well-rounded my students are, and I get to appreciate them, marvel at their talents, and understand their passions a bit more clearly.

“For what you probably make, you got it good.”

So yes.  Yes, I do have it good.  You want to know why?  Because I make a difference!”

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Are We Too P.C.?

I am upset with America.  I am upset that being politically correct means that many people have abandoned morality.  A sense of right and wrong is out the window because if you dare have a conviction that clashes with someone else’s conviction, well, dare say, you must be prejudice.  As a teacher, I sometimes have to stop, abandon my lesson, and call it a day.  We have become so P.C. that in a unit about minorities, my students are afraid to voice an opinion.

Yesterday, I started a unit about women.  Before reading A Doll’s House be Henrick Ibsen, we first discuss how women can be viewed as a minority group.   To build interest, I gathered some non-fiction articles about the glass-ceiling, women in the workplace, and women’s treatment around the world.

The first few articles about the glass-ceiling and women in the workplace were accepted the way I thought they would be.  My students were aghast that women make on average $.82 to a dollar that men make.  They were horrified that only 21 women are CEOs of the top five hundred companies in the United States.  When discussing these articles both my male students and my female students thought that if a women worked hard, she deserved equal pay and equal compensation for her efforts.

The focus then shifted to treatment of women around the world.  I had an article that said that in certain countries, like Yemen, women receive less than a year of education.   They thought that women should receive an education, and they thought that global human interest groups should gather and help set up schools.   They read an article about women in Saudi Arabia being arrested for driving.   They thought that the law restricting women from driving was archaic, and they hoped that women would soon receive the right to drive.

We were really getting somewhere.  Next, I had them read two horrifying stories.  We had been discussing injustice, and now, I wanted them to see how oppressive and offensive it can be for women, even in 2013.

The first article was about a young Afghani women, Bibi Aisha, who had her nose cut off for defying her husband.  The other article was about a young woman who, against her Bangladeshi husband’s wishes, enrolled in college.  When he found out, he tied her down and cut off her fingers with a meat cleaver.

As I probed them for a response, I noticed that they were unusually quiet.  The convictions they voiced ten minutes earlier were suddenly gone; their passion had subsided.  Suddenly, we were talking about other nations, and having been taught that one must be accepting of different cultures and tolerant of others’ ways, they did not want to voice opinions.

“Do you think this is okay?” I asked.  Clearly, in a unit on women as a minority group, I did not think it was okay.  I wanted for them to feel anger toward these patriarchal societies and aware of the injustices that exist in other parts of the world.

However, their tone and ideas shocked me.  “Well, maybe that’s okay in that part of the world,” one student said.

“Not everyone is as free as we are in America,” another piped in.

“It’s sad, but their culture is very different from ours.”

I was flabbergasted.  Instead of discussing the discrimination and ethical crimes being committed, they towed the P.C. line.  They did not want anyone to think they were intolerant of other cultures.  They have been so brainwashed by cultural relativity, that they could not see the difference between accepting cultural differences with accepting crimes and atrocities.

I looked at the clock.  The bell was near ringing; I told them we would finish the discussion during the next class, knowing that I would not bring it up again.  I do not know how to deal with ethical and moral apathy brought upon by a society that labels it as tolerance and cultural relativity.  In a world where having a differing opinion will get you labeled a bully, a bigot, or a racist, our children do not know how to stand up for what is truly right.  Someone needs to hold up a moral compass and point it in the right direction once again.

Day 378: I Struggle With the Tough Decisions

I over think everything.  When Tom and I were celebrating our fifth anniversary in 2003, I called my mother and asked her if she could watch our kids on our tenth anniversary so we could go to Vegas.  At the time we only had two kids, and I thought I was being so smart booking my parents five years in advance.  Sadly, they passed away three years later and all of that planning and dreaming and hoping was for not.  Life changes on a dime, but I always seem to find something new to consume me and cause me panic.

My newest uneasy angst deals with the education of my own children.

I am a Catholic school brat.  K-12, I walked the halls of schools with statues of Mary and Jesus.  I learned from nuns, and I was properly bestowed with Catholic guilt. When I had children, I immediately started to plan for their Catholic educations.  I was fully brainwashed into thinking all of what I believed: Uniforms make life so much easier; you spend less money on clothes; the children in school are so much nicer because religion is part of their day; the teachers are tougher and the kids learn more.

After eight years, I do not know if any of this is true. So why not pull them and send them to the public schools?

My second issue is that I live in a community that people consider “blue-collar”.  In a blue-collar community people think that the schools are run down and the students are rough.  I have been made to believe that if I send my children to the public school that they will get a sub-par education.  I have had friends and family move out of this community because they worried their children would not be successful attending these schools.  What if it is true?  But then I remember, I am a public school teacher in a district that is not much different from the community I live in.  I work very hard every day to challenge my students.  I strive for critical thinking and analysis, and I expect nothing short of brilliance.

I know teachers who teach in the community I live in.  I know these people to be just as dedicated as I am.  I know these teachers to work just as hard as I do.  Why would I believe that any of these teachers would not want to deliver the best education possible?

The more I research the core curriculum, the changing face of education, and the advanced level that students will be expected to reach, I worry that my quaint little Catholic school is actually not giving them the tools they need.  I worry that they are actually behind in their math curriculum.  I worry that they are not being challenged enough.  Our school does not differentiate, and thus, all children are lumped together.  The students with special needs– either gifted or struggling– are not given the attention that they need.  I know this.  I see it, and yet I cut the very big check every month and swallow hard.

Part of my anxiety over making a move to a new school is the idea of putting my children into a brand new environment and making them “start over.”  It’s hard to be the new kid, and I don’t want any of my children to feel stressed.  However, I switched schools in fourth grade, and I do not remember it being hard.  I went to high school across town, and I literally did not know a soul.  Somehow, I made friends and flourished.  Nonetheless, it is hard to pull them from something that is comfortable and that they are used to, even if that comfort may not always be a “happy” comfort, they know what to expect day in and day out.  Switching schools is entering the unknown.

Right now, I am grappling with the notion of sending my children to the public schools next year.  A very wise friend said to me, “Education starts in the home.  If you demand your children to work hard and be successful, that is what they will do.”  I know this to be true from experience.  I see the students who excel in my own classroom, and they are the students whose parents expect them to succeed, who expect them to go to college; who expect them to be the best that they can be.  I demand no less of my children, so won’t they be successful no matter which school they attend?

Oh, and as far as the uniforms go, they still have to have clothes to wear outside of school.  And as far as children being nicer?  Yeah, kids are kids– those statues in the halls and the prayers at the beginning of the day do not make them angels.  I know this from my children’s tears.