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Philosophical Crossroad

*****I originally wrote this post last school year after I took a mid-year position. I am still at the same school and plagued by the same issues and concerns. I feel like I’ve made a small dent in the non-reading culture of my classroom but change is slow. I am still looking for ways to battle the apathy that seems to control, not only the students, but also the faculty and staff of this school. If I’m being honest, I have been feeling the siren-song of apathy myself. It is exhausting to get up each day and know that it will be a fight just to have everyone prepared with pencil, paper, and reading material. I welcome any suggestions and motivational strategies you care to share. *****

I have thought and thought about what to post. I started two other posts before this one and couldn’t finish either of them because my mind is consumed with this right now. My newest teaching job is at a rough school – in more ways than one. We’re dealing with many of the plagues of an inner-city school without the uber-urban setting. Poverty, crime, violence, uninvolved parents, drugs, learning disabilities, illiteracy – we’ve got a lot of all of it. As I spend more and more time in this environment, I am coming face to face with some of my professional demons.

At this point, I’m not even sure I could say that most of these children want to learn. From what I’ve seen, it seems that over half of them are content to be passive participants in life. Even those who seem moderately interested in school are happy to join in with the crowd when things begin to get rowdy. This is completely foreign to me. I am having a difficult time adjusting – or am I? That’s part of the problem. I am a guilt-aholic. I consistently blame myself for things that any logical human being would know is not her fault. So as 20 of my 30 students devolve into arguments about whose haircut is “lamer” and throw pencils into the ceiling tiles while two students dangle another student’s binder out the window, I see 10 other pairs of eyes lowering in defeat as, yet again, their chance to learn has been hijacked. I blame myself. I should have more control. I should engage them better. I should kick those kids out, I should, I should…

But the more I think about it, the more I begin to question this. What has happened to our schools? What has happened to our STUDENTS? When did learning become a chore? When did school become optional in the environment of socializing? When did it become acceptable to blame the person providing the instruction and make excuses for the people who walk out of the classroom when they “don’t feel like listening to this crap today”? And before anyone mentions that I should be stopping them from walking out, please consider that there is a definite possibility that I would be shoved out of the way if I tried to do so. All of the assessment systems in place that I know put the majority of the onus on the school to perform and produce results rather than the student. In many districts and states, there are no repercussions for the students at all. Their scores are confidential and there are no consequences for underperformance or even LACK OF performance by the student. What is this telling them? Their actions have no consequences. Their lack of ownership in their own education is someone else’s fault. They can skip the work, blame others, and still be rewarded.

So what do I do? My training and the things I’ve come to know to be true about teaching reading and writing say that these kids are in desperate need of reading/writing workshop, student choice, and immersion in a literate environment. How does one accomplish this when the librarian won’t let students check out books sooner than the two week check-out period because she doesn’t believe they can read that fast? When a prescriptive reading curriculum is monopolizing more than half of my teaching block? When other teachers tell me not to bother bringing students to the library because it’s too much work to monitor them all and because half of them can’t check out books due to fines dating back to 6th grade? When it has been recommended I leave my purse in the trunk of my car instead of bringing it in to the building? When items disappear off my desk only to reappear in pieces? When the desks have offensive language and drawings on them and all books (textbooks and trade books) are missing pages or covers or are set on fire in the bathroom? (I have nightmares about my classroom library going up in smoke in the boys’ restroom.) When students throw punches for accidentally knocking a pencil off a desk? HOW do I give them what they so desperately need when they seem to have no respect for authority or learning?

I feel defeated most days when I come home. I count it a good day if there wasn’t a fight in my room or if no one walked out on my lesson. At the very least, I want to change the culture of my classroom but I don’t even know where to begin. And so I stand at a crossroad and really have NO IDEA which way to turn. Philosophically and pedagogically, this is what it’s about, right? These students need me. I could really make a difference for many of these students. If they let me. But I’m not sure I have what it takes to keep this up for an entire school year. And yes, I know that a handful of weeks does not mean I’ve lost for the long-term. It’s just hard to see past the defeated eyes of students who so desperately WANT to learn and yet I am unable to do that which I KNOW is my gift – to simply teach.

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