My perspectives about teaching evolved as time went by. I started out excited about teaching, energetic, and wondering if perhaps this would be my career for life. While I genuinely enjoyed the first few months of teaching, it did not take long for me to realize that I would not be a teacher for more than the two years to which I committed. Several things contributed to this conclusion. 1) Too many students do not value education, and it’s like the teacher has to battle them to get them to learn anything. I don’t have patience for that. 2) The students have been trained to expect something for nothing and do not understand the concept of EARNING what they get. This feeling of entitlement is part of the downfall of our community. 3) I think too much emphasis in school systems is placed on trivial matters that have little to do with whether our schools are actually preparing our students for life (e.g., state test scores). I feel that in many ways teachers are required and expected to do things that do not contribute to the bottom line – equipping students with an education that will help them succeed in the workforce and/or in college. All this reviewing for the test, and the practice test, and the test to practice for the practice test leaves little time for teaching, learning, and mastery.
What is the most important thing I have learned? My MTC experience has taught me more about my community than I ever wanted to know. Perhaps I was just refusing to look, but prior to teaching, I didn’t have a good idea about the warped mentality of the young people (including many of the parents) in the community. I didn’t know the extent to which the culture of the community needs to be changed, somehow. While there are some noble qualities that are a positive part of the culture such as loyalty, there are SO many community “values” that need to be abandoned altogether and replaced with traditional qualities such as discipline, self-respect, respect for others, especially older people, pride, etc. For example, the students place so much emphasis on fashion that they are willing to work numerous hours per week so that they can buy the latest fashion trends, name brand clothes, and Jordans. Yet, they claim they can’t buy a ten dollar calculator for math class. If we don’t find some way to teach ALL our kids about the different between items that appreciate and those that depreciate, and how collecting every Jordan is not a way to accumulate wealth, I am going to scream. Could we PLEASE try to find a way to give them an understanding of investment and delayed gratification. Guess what students, if you buy a calculator today, do well in math (and other classes, ACT, etc.), you may be able to get a scholarship that is worth tens of thousands of times more than some Jordans!!
So we say that the issue is one of poverty. I agree. But, poverty has not always meant a lack of value for education. In the fifties and sixties, many black people lived in poverty situations in rural and urban areas. Although many parents didn’t have education themselves, they valued it and instilled that value of education into their children. My parents, aunts, and uncles were such students – reared by parents who did not graduate from high school but yet pushed their children to do what they could not themselves do. So, while poverty is an issue, apparently the culture of poverty today is markedly different than the culture of poverty decades ago. So how do we get back to our old values, despite poverty?
Perhaps one of my most enjoyable experiences as a teacher was serving as an assistant basketball coach last year. I love the game of basketball and enjoyed being around it and the players. Through extracurricular activities, teachers have the opportunity to be around students in a nonacademic setting which allows the students to see that the teachers are just people too. It’s amazing how students’ attitudes towards a class improve just by virtue of the students feeling that they can somehow relate to the teacher.
Also, I find that sports is one of the few areas where discipline is emphasized. For example, basketball players are expected to run plays, execute the coach's directions, and not just randomly run around the court and shoot from half court. There is a certain degree of discipline that is expected. In the classroom, on the other hand, it is almost as if we are sending the message to students that they aren’t expected to demonstrate discipline in class. Oh, the students can’t sit and be quiet in class for 90 minutes. We need to move them around and play games with them to break the monotony. While of course I do understand that sentiment a little, at the same time, I don’t think we are setting high enough expectations. The above type of thinking is part of the reason 16 year-olds act like they are too fidgety to sit down and be quiet in church for two hours, and college freshmen are getting kicked out of classes because they are talking while a professor is lecturing (yes, this happens). We have fostered an environment where many students feel like they are incapable of exercising discipline, or that it is not required or expected of them. This is detrimental to our kids in the long run.
As I have mentioned in previous blogs, the main token of information that I will take from this experience is that the bulk of the work that needs to be done to improve education in high poverty areas must be done in the community, not in the school buildings. Of course there are many things to do within the schools to improve public education, but those things will have little effect if the students are not motivated to learn and don’t want to learn. Until our parents and students look at education as they did decades before – as an opportunity that has not always been available to black people and one that is too important to take for granted--we will continue to have high drop out rates, high school graduates that can barely read, and high school graduates that are ill-equipped for the workforce or college of any kind. This is what I’ll take with me to my next stop, whatever it may be. And perhaps one day I’ll be able to affect education from outside the school building; just because I am leaving the building doesn’t mean I will forget about it.