Thursday, January 8, 2009

Student Teacher, Part 4

The din of the high school hallway subsided, the last student in closed the door and melted into her chair, and suddenly I had my first view of a class from the front. A jury of 28 awaited the opening arguments.
This was different than the view from the back, where I sat the previous day watching Miss Tygart conduct the two classes, the first composed of the smartest kids, the second much slower, but both taught at the same speed with the same materials. That first day, I was regarded with furtive glances and giggles from the girls, and totally ignored by the boys. Each time Miss Tygart slowly and painfully swiveled on her good hip and turned to write something on the board, I watched the boys punch one another in their arms or swat each other on the back of the head, and the girls pass notes and sticks of gum.

The view from the back was of behavior; the view from the front was of personality. Taking attendance, I began to learn their names, but I learned much more from eye contact, posture, dress, and demeanor, and in just a few seconds I had most of them pegged. Going down the rows I thought I could capture each personality in a single word: Sneak, Brown-noser, Cheerleader, Bully, Bullied, Slut, Spaceman, Brain, Dreamer, Smoker, Jock, Prude, Trouble, Pet, Lonely, Princess...

On that first day, I felt somewhat protected. When I turned to write on the board, Miss Tygart had my back. "Keep your hands to yourself, William!" she interjected sharply.

I had spent most of the previous night reading the first six chapters of "Great Expectations," so as to stay at least a few pages ahead of the students. But it quickly became obvious that the only people in the room, in either class, who had read Chapter 5 were Miss Tygart and her student teacher.
"So when the convicts are captured, one of them tells the police a lie, that he had stolen the food when Pip had actually brought it to him," I told my class. "Why did the convict lie?"
No response. The mouth-breathers stared at me as if I had been speaking Icelandic.

This was going to be even harder than I thought.


Anonymous said...

Except for maybe a very advanced class of pupils who intend to major in English in College, I suspect that High School might be a little early to expect any semi-normal kid to enjoy, let alone put up with, Great Expectations. When I was in 6th grade, in what was touted as a very good public school, I was assigned Wuthering Heights- my budding interest in Literature was stifled and not to be rekindled until many years later. By the way, that's why God gave us Cliff Notes.

Park Burroughs said...

This was 38 years ago, when school boards, administrators and teachers had greater expectations for their students. Maybe we have lowered our expectations, and our standards, since then, or maybe we have just moved on to teaching more relevant material of more interest to teenagers than 19th century serialized literature.
As you'll see in coming chapters, I was able to teach more interesting and relevant literature for the rest of the year, but had to jump outside the curriculum to get some of it.

Park Burroughs said...

By the way, if you're interested in reading a great book about teaching English, by someone who spent a career doing it, read "Teacher Man" by Frank McCourt.

Anonymous said...

I am going to read "Teacher Man."

Do you think that the teachers' union and standardized testing have had a positive or negative effect on public education? And, if so, or if not, will you please briefly summarize your thoughts?

Great story so far. Carry on.

Dale Lolley said...

I remember trying to read many of the "classics" when I was a kid. They just couldn't hold my interest. The funny thing was that some of the classic lit that I did enjoy - The Illiad and the Odyssey – were required reading. But some 20th Century lit surely did. Tolkien's stuff, etc. Thank goodness.
Had the same problems with my kids. They read everything they can get their hands on - unless it happens to be one of the so-called "classics" of yesteryear. They just didn't hold up well.

Park Burroughs said...

Standardized tests are hardly new; I took them as a public-school student in New York in the 1950s. They are necessary, because the results give the state and indication of where students are falling behind and where resources need to be applied. You can't do that unless all the kids are taking the same test.
There is abuse in everything, and with this it has been "teaching for the test." That is the ugly distortion of education, not the standardized tests.

I have lots of thoughts on teachers unions, both pro and con – too many to detail in this space. Briefly, public school teachers in Pennsylvania are well-paid, among the highest paid in the nation; but they never would be where they are today without unions and the ability to strike, without which they would be making what social workers do, which is pathetic given their responsibilities and level of education. And the high level of pay means there is no shortage of qualified teachers. However, the negative aspects are many: bad teachers are paid the same amount as the best teachers; unions make it very difficult to get rid of bad teachers; strikes are enormously detrimental to education; union demands for pay increases and benefit that are out of sync with the rest of the community and the resultant tax increases cause animosity and a rift between teachers and the community.

It saddens me that there are some really great teachers in our schools who don't get the respect they deserve from the community because of the unprofessional history of their labor unions, over which they have little control.