More specifically, I teach life science at an inner city high school. Over the past few months, I’ve spoken with a number of people about the job. Quite a few of them have suggested, either subtly or directly, that I should be doing something else. Teaching at a more affluent school. Teaching at a safer school. Going back to work in the computer industry. Going even further back, to the medical industry. Going back to school and getting my masters in education, so I can move into administration. Working more closely with administrators, for the same reason.
In every case, I appreciate that the person took the time to offer me advice. In some cases, I haveto force myself to that appreciation, but it’s the right thing to do. I’ve come to realize that Jim Butcher is right; you don’t realize the fine details of something until you try to teach it to someone else, and lately I’ve been trying to teach students about character. At any rate, since I’m not going to be taking all that advice, I thought it might be good to explain the reason why. Maybe they will see it, maybe they won’t, but again, that’s not the important thing. Character is who you are when no one is watching.
Let me start by stating quite firmly that the most important people in the school are the students. It’s not the teachers, although by number of contact hours we might come in second. It’s not the administration, although the Dean of Students might come close for the same reason as the teachers. In some schools the guidance counselors might come close; I’m not sure, because I saw mine about four times in my high school career. Without the students, a school is not a school.
According to Dr. Clarke, one of my Alternate Route teaching certificate professor, the task of a teacher, especially a High School teacher, is to prepare young men and women to become contributing members of society. Whether this is by teaching them to communicate (Language Arts), to apply basic logic to life (Mathematics and Science), to understand the world around them and the people in it (Social Studies and History), or to perform the basic functions needed at a job (Career and Technical Education, which is the current name for what used to be Industrial Arts), the end goal is still the same. Take a young adult and teach them what they need to know to contribute to society and find their place in it.
Now, some of you know I don’t watch the news. It’s depressing, and rarely has an impact 0n my daily decisions. This isn’t to say it doesn’t impact my life, but after four layoffs and extended periods of unemployment, I don’t have the luxury of as many choices as some folks do. I don’t have the option of going away for vacation, or choosing what car to buy, or taking time off to go sit on the sidewalk in New York, or dig a survival shelter and fill it with supplies. I admire the folks who have the options and do the right thing with them, but that admiration doesn’t change my options. Watching civilization crumble on the news doesn’t expand my options, either. But that doesn’t mean I don’t see it crumbling.
Two and a half years ago, I walked into a classroom in Camden New Jersey and saw a girl trying to take notes with her left hand. This was a girl who rarely interacted with me, and was close to being dropped from the roster for non attendance at the time. She was writing with her left hand because she’d broken the right one on a wall, because someone had been mocking her. I sent her to the nurse, and when she got back with a cast, set her down next to another student who I knew kept good notes, and had him take notes for her.
Three months later, the pair were at the top of my class. Three months after that, they’d banded together with a small group of students determined not just to graduate, but to do so with honors, at the top of their class.
This June they’re going to.
They’ve overcome personal tragedies, parental apathy, and a system which pours resources into supporting the students least interested in education at the expense of those most interested. They’re not perfect, nor are they saints; they’ve colluded on almost every piece of work any of them have handed in. They’ve got a reputation for ignoring rules if they feel they need to in order to reach their goals. They’re snarky and full of themselves and don’t take constructive criticism well.
But in a city which earns its nickname of Murder City, They’re going to graduate at the top of their high school class, go on to college or trade school, and at least some of them intend to come back to Camden with the intent of Making Things Right.
And maybe they will make things a little less crumbled.
And in some tiny way, telling a young woman that she was more important than the paint she’d knocked off the cinder block helped that.
That’s a nice story, in and of itself, but it’s not the whole story. It’s not even the most important bit. Anyone can look at success and tell himself that it’s why he does things. But when you do that, you begin to focus on the ‘good kids’.
There are no good kids.
Let me say that again.
There are no good kids.
At the same time, there are no bad kids, either. There are just kids, who make good decisions or bad ones. None of them make all good decisions, and none of them make all bad decisions. Some of them tend towards wisdom, others tend toward self destruction, but it’s about the decisions they make, not some kind of inborn quality. Worst of all, there is absolutely no way to tell which kid will make which decision.
That’s why, as an educator, no matter how much I want to, I can’t just come to school for the good kids. I can’t just come to school for the borderline cases, the ones who might succeed with just a nudge in the right direction. I have to come to school for all the kids, including the ones that hate my guts because I demand that they learn to read and write, not just sound out words and shape letters on a page.
So every day I go in, I show the students by word and by deed what it means to be a civilized adult. I talk to them as adults. I show them how to teach themselves what they want to know by teaching them what they have to know. No matter whether the kids are polite or rude, whether they are the best and the brightest or have a list of learning disabilities longer than my arm. No matter whether they show up every day or once a quarter.
Changing the world isn’t about making plans to save ten million children.
Changing the world is about making a plan to save one child.
Then doing it ten million times.
I’ve been told that it might not be the healthiest thing for me. I already knew that. Leonidas knew that at Thermopylae too. This isn’t about healthy for me. This is about the fact that here, in this spot, I have a chance to make a difference. If I walked away from this, I couldn’t let myself forget about that fact.
I can’t walk away and stay the person I am. Everyone comes to that point, sooner or later, where they say ‘this is where I make my stand’. I never thought my stand would be in a drafty room with peeling paint and questionable electric. I never thought my stand would be made on mismatched, broken tiles, in a room where no two desks are quite the same height, and at least one leg of every table is loose. But this is my windmill, and in the end, all I can do is couch my lance and charge, or become something else, something less than I am now.
I’m a teacher.
A few thoughts in closing:
Teaching is the fine art of lying to students in order to show them the truth.
In the real world, bloodymindium replaces narrativium.
- Paraphrases of Terry Pratchett in The Magic of Discworld
There is only one thing all great teachers have in common – they care about their kids.
- Robert C Roman Sr, teacher. retired after 48 years. returned to the classroom the following year.
Robert C. Roman is a high school teacher in Camden, NJ. He is also the author of The Artifice Series and Iron Angel Series. Click here to go to his blog and find out more. (or if you just want cheer him on in his effort to change the world!)