My story is not unique. But I thought I would tell it here, as one simple voice among many. As teachers, we are consistently demeaned and undermined because as individuals who understand the power of free thought, of knowledge, of wisdom, we pose the greatest threat to those who are determined to control the nation through ignorance and fear. I tell my students that the greatest purposes of education are for one to be able to think for himself or herself, and to express himself/herself so that others will respect him/her.
When I speak about the students I teach, I can break down their information into specific percentages and statistics. To steal a line from Dr. Brene Brown, stories are mainly data with a soul. Truthfully, I cannot speak about the statistics without seeing each and every face and hearing each and every story I have collected over the years. This year, my classes are made up very much as as they have been in the past; they are made up of different races and ethnic groups, including Hispanic (53%); African American (14%), white (11%), and Asian (2%). 11% of my students are from other countries, including Iraq, Uganda, Tanzania and Turkey. 17% of my students have IEP (Interventions to Education Plans); these IEPs are for gifted, twice exceptional (gifted and with learning disabilities), autism, learning disabilities, and behavioral needs diagnostics.
50% of my students are bilingual and have proficiency in English skills. 17% of my students are English Language Learners. One student speaks only Spanish; two students' native language is Swahili; one student grew up on the Hopi Reservation and is Limited English proficient; one student's native language is Arabic and has a very small understanding of English; one student's native language is Vietnamese.
14% of my students are reclassified, meaning that they did not complete requirements to successfully be in the grade appropriate to their years spent in school.
The subjects I teach are World History and German. Since World History is a core curriculum subject, I will say that I teach primarily 10th grade students. When all 10th grade students were given a school wide English Language Arts pretest the first week of school, it was determined that many of the students had a limited understanding of English mechanics and comprehension. Written work and textual analysis continues to be addressed from the ninth grade to the tenth, with a focus primarily on expository and compare/contrast writing.
Those are the statistics. The children, on the other hand, are who I strive to reach every day. How can I blend educational learning into the needs these children have each and every day? These are the questions I face when I wake up at 5:45 in the morning when I get ready to go to work, and I actively strive to answer throughout the full day of instruction when I see them from 7:30 in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon. I teach 5 classes a day, with about 36 students in each class. I do not have any assistance at all, even though I teach students with learning disabilities, autism, and behavioral needs all in the same environment.
My first need in the classroom is to ensure that every student knows that s/he is in a safe environment. I greet each student at the door when they file in during the passing period. After saying "Good morning" or "Good afternoon," I ask each student if s/he has eaten. If they need something, I keep an electric water boiler, instant oatmeal packets, and hot cider packets on a table near the door but out of the way of traffic to avoid spills. I also have bowls, cups, and spoons so that if a student needs something, there is always something warm for them to eat. On hot days, I keep granola bars and Crystal Lite packets in my room so that students can still get a nourishing snack if necessary.
In my classroom, I focus on the standards and benchmarks of History instruction (or German instruction, as the case may be), but in a way that involves hands-on opportunities for the students. When we were learning about the ancient world, for instance, I brought in several blocks of air-dry terracotta clay, and students got the chance to write their names in the Cuneiform alphabet on clay tablets they made themselves. They made board games based on Ancient Greek mythology, which included making 125 trivia and challenge cards based on the myths they had researched. Students worked in groups, but also had the chance to play each other's games as well. Students remarked later that they didn't realize how much they could learn from research, or even just playing a simple game. As questions were repeated, their recall and analysis skills were also tested.
I made egg tempera paint with my students when they were learning about the Italian and Northern Renaissance, and I was even able to get students to join me on an optional field trip opportunity one Saturday morning to a nearby library where they have a 16th Century printing press that has been restored.
I met the groups of students at school and we rode the city bus. Because it was an optional field trip, those who were with me were able to actually use the printing press and display their work in the classroom. Since the library is free, it was possible for me to take more and more students on Saturdays to the library. By the end of the month nearly two-thirds of my students had done some kind of work on a printing press.
Students were also involved in textual analysis, and how to develop higher-level thinking into well-written responses. With each abstract concept I introduced, however, there was a hands-on, concrete example that the students could actually work with in order to make a stronger connection to the material.
Feedback on written work always includes positive feedback, and also shows opportunities for further growth. I always end my feedback with encouragement, saying that either a student is on the right track, or to keep up his or her efforts because everything is really paying off.
What have I noticed in my techniques? My students still struggle with the barriers that they face coming into my class. As the year progresses and they get more support in their writing from other teachers aside from just me, I do see improvement in their ideas. I do have an electronic translator, and if I scan my students' work into a PDF file, my translator will tell me what they wrote. In this way, I can have students write in their native language, if it will help them better express to me what they know about the assignment. In this way, I can grade them on content and mastery of ideas and analysis, as opposed to English mechanics and comprehension. I will always correct spelling and grammar, but I do not grade against spelling and grammar errors. I do always look for improvements from assignment to assignment, and will hold lunch study sessions for students who show little--if any--improvement in their writing.
My attendance, however, tends to be more consistent than it is in other classes. One student who consistently ditches, for instance, had nearly perfect attendance in my class until he dropped out of school to get his GED. I asked him why he would show up to my class (especially since it's first thing in the morning and starts at 7:30) and not to his others. He said, "Are you kidding, Dr. P? I know that if I don't come to your class, I'll miss something I'll regret later. And you let me eat in here." Another student I have has to work to support her family. Sometimes her schedule keeps her at work until 2 in the morning. If she oversleeps and is late to school, she always knows that she is welcome in my classroom. We also set up a system where if she came in the room and handed me a slip of paper, I would count it as her pass and not even count her tardy. She is not the only student I will do that for, either. My students know that they are always welcome in my class, although they are strongly encouraged to be on time.
I arrive an hour before the school day starts so that I can get my water kettle boiling, write the agenda, objectives, and standards we will be meeting for the day, check my email, and get any and all materials for the day's activities in order. Even note-taking from a PowerPoint presentation or interactive Promethean Board presentation still has components that are hands-on, including making books or fold-out activities for vocabulary, small discussions with a partner, and sometimes even music and simple art projects.
I have one preparation period during the day on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, but I have no preparation period on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I teach straight through from 7:30 to 2:25. I have my classroom open for the clubs I sponsor on Mondays and Tuesdays (The Gay-Straight Alliance and the Humanist Club respectively); Wednesdays and Thursdays, I hold lunch time study sessions and on Fridays, I close off my classroom during lunch so that I can have a little bit of time to myself. I teach about 160 students a day, so having some time to remember who I am is also very important.
I do not stay after school for very long, but that's because I have to pick my own children up from their schools. I have two in middle school and one who attends a charter high school (his choice because of the focus on college and service learning). Since their days start later than mine (8:00 am), I do not see them when I leave the house in the morning. In the afternoons, however, I do all of the pick-up routines. My youngest is involved in competitive ice skating; my middle is involved in volleyball, and my oldest has a garage band he practices with. So after school, I take all of the kids to their various activities. At the ice rink, I will grade papers, and set up my next day's lessons. On Friday nights, I will make phone calls home.
All in all, in any average work week, counting the hours I spend planning my lessons, grading my students' work, establishing opportunities for community involvement in my classroom, and making sure that my students are taken care of first and foremost as human beings and also as students in my classroom, I can work approximately 90 hours. And since I'm also like 60% of all teachers nationally, I have to have a second job in order to support myself. So I also work part time at a local university, teaching Humanities and Communications courses to working adults who are either starting or going back to higher education.
During the summer months, I am involved in professional development and planning activities I cannot do when my students are in the classroom. And those who complain about teachers having too much time off in the summer, consider having to go on unemployment every nine months. The money I am paid over the summer is money I have already earned throughout the school year; it is simply broken down into chunks because the state didn't want its teachers to take in unemployment at the beginning of every summer like we used to do in the '80s and '90s.
How can teachers be supported? A simple thank you, or a letter to the editor to say what a difference a teacher has made in your child's life--or even in your life makes a huge difference! There is not one successful adult who has been able to achieve so much without the guidance of a brilliant teacher, coupled with a supportive family. Those students of mine who have sporadic family existences, however, tend to generate their own families at school. They find the support wherever they can, and they are the ones I see changing the face of our society for the better.
I am not alone. I am just one teacher in one inner city school with nearly 2,000 students and 300 teachers. I know that many of my students will be seen as failures because of the school they attend, and the pronunciation of their last names. I know that they are not failures. They are starting to realize that they are not failures as well. Their grades may be failing grades, but that isn't who they are all of the time. They are brilliant, powerful, strong-minded, and willing to question the values around them that hold them back. They struggle and strive, and in the end, they learn. They learn much more than what can be measured on a standardized test. They learn the true value of self-expression and free thinking. Each and every day, I continue to ask myself, what can I do to further their own journey?
To that end, what will best support me in supporting my students? A simple replenishment of pens will do just fine. But even more than that, the work that we teachers do in the classroom needs to be validated. We need to feel as though we have value, and it is difficult in a society that continues to vilify and challenge the worth of public education.
When everything is directed toward privatization, I look at my students. I look into their eyes, and I hear their stories. I break their stories and who they are down into small statistics for the census. Those statistics continue to support those who would rather not waste time on public education. They use the same cries from the Age of Enlightenment and the onset of the Industrial Revolution: "Why are we even bothering to try and educate these street kids, these working class children who are incapable of learning to read and write? Why are we wasting time and money on this?" I know the answer every morning and throughout the day when I greet my students and welcome them into the classrooms. The idea of public education was revolutionary at its inception, and truly the voices that I hear in my classroom will continue to make this world a better place.
Every time you hear someone wonder about the worth of public education, tell them about the refugee students in my classroom who were forced out of their country because of their desire for education. Tell them about the refugee student in my classroom who had to leave his home with his mother and brother or face the terror of becoming a boy soldier. Tell them about the beautiful young woman who would have given everything to travel with my classes to Germany over the summer, but who would never get a passport because of her undocumented status, and who spent every possible spare moment she could obtaining sponsorship so that she could take part in the processes of the DREAM Act and obtain full citizenship status. Tell them about the dreams that each of these children has: to go to college and become a surgeon, a lawyer, a social worker, a Navy SEAL. Without public education, these children would have never found themselves in a safe place where they could not only gain academic ability, but also re-learn how to be children--where they could feed their curiosity and explore what it means to live this world as themselves and not as anyone else.
By telling your own story, or about any other story you have heard of absolute excellence being formed in the environment of public education, you can help others to question how we can even put a price on such invaluable assets to our society. But if you feel like a thank you is only lip service, consider this: By providing even one teacher with an extra set of even two pens, you are guaranteeing our consistent positive guidance through grading and feedback. You are allowing further communication to take place between students and their teachers. You are allowing a student the opportunity to sign a form that will provide permission to take part in rocket building (a program we have on our campus through Skills USA), crime scene investigation, a field trip to a public library, and opportunities to further skills that enhance analytical and critical thinking skills. You are providing opportunities to bring back job opportunities to a nation that is starving for them. You are providing a stability that will outlast any bizarre political environment.
By saying outright that you know that teachers are assets in our community, and you value what we do, it gets back to us. And we know that we can withstand this storm, this seeming witch hunt, and will have the strength to go back in and do the jobs those who criticize will never want to do...especially for the pay. That is what we need. That is how you support teachers, regardless of what we face in a day. What we face in a day is something that really can't be described unless you've been in it. And just sitting in a classroom and learning is not "being in it." Just a simple thank you is fine. Just a simple smile in our direction as we enter or leave the campus is more nourishing to our psyches than you could ever imagine. It doesn't take much; just let us know that what we do has some kind of value to you.
We do what we do because we love our communities, and we love the children whom we serve. Thank you to all of you who continue to love us back!