MAY 27, 2011 10:12PM

"Dangerous Minds" is Ruining My Career

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In his blog, Reflections on a Shallow Pond posted a video of George Carlin discussing the continued and future failure of the public school system, and wrote an astute post about the rightness of Carlin's assessment. I have been walking around and thinking about this post all day, after sharing a short comment. The thing I keep thinking about is not so much education, but the way the movies have changed and distorted our idea of what makes a good teacher.

As an aspiring educator in the 90s I consumed a variety of popular takes on the "exceptional teacher movie" -- Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, Mr. Holland's Opus... I read Up The Down Staircase and the Frank McCourt book on teaching. And what I discovered there seemed, at first glance, uplifting. They created an image of a teacher who steps in where other adults have failed. They have failed to care enough, to love enough, to get to know, to uplift, to understand, to bring about an epiphany, and when they come, they change lives. And not one or two lives, but dozens, all at once, in the span of a semester, seeing their students an hour or so a day. I took this to heart. And, as a young teacher, I was proud and honored to have my own little epiphanies and redemption, my own moments of transcendent joy as I reached my students, and they learned from me, and with me, and right on past me to successes I am still terribly proud of.

And then, over the course of several years, I began realizing the insiduous nature of the paradigm I had bought into. If you look at these movies and books, and many others where good teachers figure prominently, there are some assumptions about what makes a good teacher that began to disturb me. For example, it is worth noting, that most of the "good teachers" are single. Almost like a monastic order, being a "good teacher" requires the renunciation of free time and other priorities. I am not saying, mind you, that teachers in the real world cannot or should not have a life -- just that having a life often precludes being the kind of teacher that one aspires to be based on the films and literature. And this idea is pervasive -- you do not see Professor McGonagall with a gaggle of kids and a balding husband. Albus Dumbledore does not bring a partner to the Christmas Ball. Even in the magical world of Harry Potter the teachers live for their job, and are completely dedicated to their students.

The other pervasive and difficult stereotype is that if the teacher is good enough, giving enough, dedicated enough, that teacher will rescue the students from whatever morass their life had been until then. And this does happen. And when it does, it is amazing. But there are two difficulties with this perception. One, of course, is that the morass of daily horrors or even small difficulties is often stronger than the pull of even the best teacher. We cannot save all who need saving. We cannot even reach out to all of them, when our daily load often exceeds 120 students. We can love all of them -- I know I love all of mine, while I have them, and sometimes beyond. But we simply cannot commit all our resources to all of them at the same time -- even if we never eat, sleep, or have families. The second difficulty is the assumption that the morass is a given. Instead of fighting poverty, ignorance, lack of community resources, and inequitable resource allocation, we, as a society, often leave it up to the teachers to resolve the layers of issues that these iniquities have created. And sometimes everything we can do is still not enough.

There are many assumptions about teachers. Often, people imagine that teachers show up at school in time for the first bell and leave with the last one. Any real teacher will tell you that that is not the case. The majority of colleagues I have known come to school at 7 and leave after 5. While at school, despite having a period off that is supposed to be dedicated to preparation, most teachers can just barely keep themselves afloat in the daily grind of bureacracy, e-mails, meetings, urgent and simply disruptive contact with students, parents, administrators, and other teachers. Most teachers are further required to supervise students during breaks and on their lunch break. 

When teachers go home, they bring folders and boxes and laptops full of work. They correct papers, prepare lectures and presentations, contact parents, upload endless lists of grades, and try to organize their thinking about individual students. In the middle of all this, they are required to write formal lesson plans, curriculum plans, preparedness plans, and semester plans. All of these must be aligned with the guidelines and testing dates du jour, and peppered with the most up-to date jargon. Almost always, multiple sources are asking teachers to do different, and sometimes opposite things. The behind the scenes of teaching is certainly the majority of the job. The time in the classroom -- the tip of the iceberg.

I still love teaching. Even while I am staying at home with my children I cannot help taking a month-long teaching job in the summer. I love to talk about teaching, and I love keeping up with my former students, some of whom have evolved into friends. If I ever stop thinking of myself as a teacher, it will have been because the actual teaching has been replaced with the NCLB version of Potemkin villages -- the facade of improved test-scores over impossibly complex and often disfunctional daily practice.

I am a good teacher. I would love to be in the classroom again, full time, fairly soon. Yet the thought of working that hard, for so little money, with so many obstacles and so much disrespect, is a deterrent. Also a deterrent is my inability to function within the structure of the public school, where teachers, bad or good, are often stripped of control of their curriculum, their discipline measures, even their mode and order of presenting the material. Having been lucky enough to have started my career in a school that allowed and encouraged me to innovate, to find my own way, to reach my own students in ways that worked for us, I am not sure I can do it differently. And I am not sure why I live in a world where I have to.

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