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High school teaching provides lesson in futility

Melanie Hubbard first taught at the college level.

Melanie Hubbard first taught at the college level.

I should have put the year I took up boxing on my resume.

It's sixth period, my first day teaching high school, and my regular Junior English class refuses to settle down. I give them a brief talk, amid the jostling and visiting (and the walking, and the love taps, and the food trading, and the vaulting over desks) about respect. I will respect them, I say, and they will respect me.

For about 30 seconds, they like the idea of my respecting them, and then they're up again. I move toward the busiest knot of them. I am, at not even 5 feet tall and 100 pounds, the tiny center of a group growing rowdier by the second. I mention that I can get help, if I need it. "I'll help!" a young man offers, and begins skipping, unhelpfully, to the front of the room. I have to do something fast. "Step outside. That's enough." And the class roars, "Oooooh!" This is not what I had in mind.

Earlier this spring I decided to try high school teaching. After six years teaching at the college level, with no permanent full-time job in sight (given the state's headlong dive for the bottom in higher education), the possibility tantalized. Besides, there's a shortage of qualified teachers in Hillsborough County, perhaps because the teaching demands increased and the pay stayed low, even after a raise. I wanted to learn what I could before deciding whether to apply for a permanent position on Teacher Interview Day this week. I ended up with a temporary full-time spot at a Hillsborough high school (I was asked not to identify which one) for the last six weeks of the term, and I was welcomed with open arms. By my fellow teachers, at any rate.

You can't go home again, but you can go back to high school. In fourth period, the girls in the back hate my guts because I grade their vocabulary for accuracy instead of giving them full credit for completion. One girl throws her weight around, muttering up and down the aisles about her grades and "this teacher." The class is listening to me at the board, so I decide to ignore the behavior and go on with my lesson. But I am shaken. Last week, Adam raised his voice to me over a grade, and he has been audibly dissing me to his peers. I've had him suspended over it, but he's back. Between the girl bully and the boy bully, I feel so bad that the next day I am reluctant to give back graded work to any students. So bad that, in consultation with my chairman, I do not record zeros for make-up work that the girl bully has clearly had a fellow student complete for her. I just can't take the grief.

The students are, in effect, my co-workers. I see them six hours out of eight, and most are good-natured enough. Doug in sixth period, for instance, has worked out a dance involving rapid, minute vibrations of his hips. He shakes most days before taking a seat, and often he's challenged by Dwight, who puts some Latin action into his smooth moves and chants his own pop lyrics on the side. They beg me to judge. They want me to bust a little move myself, but I just nod my head, and Cee Cee shouts excitedly, "Oh, look, she's trying to dance!" But I am not allowed, really, to dance.

On my one day off I drive down to a private prep school for an information interview. I feel like a traitor: I believe in a level playing field for all, and it irks me that some can pay for what all deserve. I visit classes, and the students are orderly and prepared, attentive and engaged. The teachers design their own courses and have courtly conversations about the intellectual synergies they've created. It's heaven, and as I leave the gates I am unaccountably in tears — tears, I decide, of outrage.

Back in public school, some of the juniors in fourth period just voted with their feet to have a study session in the foyer outside of class, to read to themselves beyond my line of vision. But they get loud, and I visit to quiet them down. I tell them that if they get loud again, I'll have to sit with them — and they don't want that. "I love you, Miss," says Benjamin as I go back inside. He's messing with me. Minutes later they're boisterous again, and I return, saying, "You must really love me, because here I am again." I sit with them awhile. They grow quiet. I get up to go. "Miss, do you love us?" Benjamin again. He seems to be serious. They all look up. They want to know.

"You know," I say, "Respect. I respect you. And believe it or not, I have affection for each and every one of you." I have a lump in my throat. Adam briefly looks me in the eye, as in, "I apologize." Something has shifted, and I feel light and honored.

But three weeks later this same group of boys writes a short story together and reads it to the class — a short story featuring a tiny "new teacher" with sweaty armpits and vampirish ways. As Benjamin sniggers through the increasingly unprintable exploits of a character they clearly despise, I ask him to stop. He doesn't stop. This is not a roast or a ribbing; it is all-out disrespect. I sit for a long moment, ever the educator, attempting to work out an appropriate response. I would like to teach them through this. I do not want to have to discipline them. After all, I have a sense of humor, even about myself. But they have handed me a steaming pile of crap, and it will not do to turn their efforts into a lesson on "indirect characterization" or narrative conflict and resolution. "Wait for your assistant principal." The bell rings, and half of them flee to lunch. I fill out a referral. The next day, they're in public school boot camp off campus, learning, I hope, something.

Okay, let's get on to the lesson: They don't really want to be there. As it once again dawns on me that Flannery O'Connor is the goddess of the short story, I don't have time to show my students why. We are doing well if they can comprehend basic plot and motivations, but none of it really matters to them anyway, and I'm just a functionary.

I suspect that since my students are "regular," not honors or AP, they're content to slide by. Many are working 30 hours a week at McJobs to support a car or their families. Regulars don't get homework — I was told that they just won't do it. Besides, most cheat. There's no honor code, and cheating isn't considered a behavioral infraction. It's simply a way of life, even at the Honors level, so teaching has to design itself around it. Cheating and teaching share the same letters, like a rabbit/duck picture shares lines.

Since there's no homework, all reading is done in class, nearly always aloud, even by the seniors. (Some have yet to pass the 10th grade FCAT, without which they cannot graduate.) Most don't bother to do the assigned reading (or pay attention), and they copy the answers to the study guides from their neighbors. I decide I can't count these compromised worksheets for points. I decide, after I give the seniors a test on the novel at hand, that their abysmal performance days before graduation could prevent their walking, so I dump the grade. Yes, this is what's wrong with public education.

I can't do this. I can't parent 150 kids a day, much less educate them. The schedule is relentless. I come home exhausted. I spend the weekends napping. I go to bed at 8:30. I cannot imagine sustaining this pace all year long. I guess this means I've graduated, and now I get to decide what to do with my life.

Melanie Hubbard, who has a doctorate in English from Columbia University, is a frequent contributor to Sunday Journal.

High school teaching provides lesson in futility 06/07/08 [Last modified: Friday, June 13, 2008 3:26pm]
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