Reflections on a Practicum

Earlier this evening, I was struck by the fact that the students I taught in my spring practicum would be ending their school year fairly soon. I taught five sections sporadically over the course of several months. Two sections were made up of seniors taking AP Literature; two were made up of sophomores and juniors taking Honors English 3; one was made up of mostly sophomores in CP English 2. Because of the number of students in each class, close to half of the students I taught for any amount of time (because I am not yet certified to teach, much less certified to teach Advanced Placement, I only had autonomy over the AP kids for two weeks) will graduate in the very near future. To the best of my knowledge, they’ll all be attending the universities that they’ve been dreaming on since somewhere around November, when they claimed that they gave up on school. The other half, as they are, will be advanced. (At least, I fervently hope that no one is held back. The research on holding students back is, frankly, not in favor of doing so unless the student is in totally dire academic straits, and even then it’s more likely to encourage the student to drop out than to help him or her improve.) Since I’ll be the teacher of record in a classroom at a different high school in the same school district, the chances are not particularly good that I’ll see those students again. I don’t claim to be a particularly happy person, but that realization — a realization that I have been pacing myself through since April — has made me sadder than any other thought or event, excepting only my graduation from university.

There’s been a lot of talk about what the role of a teacher is in the mainstream media. Common Core State Standards is taking root. Signed off on by almost every governor, CCSS is the next piece of legislation meant to prepare students for the workplace instead of teaching them to become independent citizen-thinkers under the guise of “rigor.” It is just the latest piece of legislation which is poisoning American schools (lookin’ at you, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top). Would-be reformers like Michelle Rhee and Wendy Kopp, instead of actually advocating for better education for students which encourages them to become critical analysts and agents in their learning, are guilty instead of instituting a “New Taylorism” which means to make unquestioning and silent workers who will accept oppression at the hands of whichever capitalist slumlords see fit to levy it (lookin’ at you, Bill Gates). Michelle Rhee and I agree that there is something like a crisis in the American education system; what Rhee and I agree on from there probably includes factoids like “the Pacific Ocean is the largest in the world” or “human beings need oxygen to live” and little else. To me, crisis is signified when it’s a victory when some Seattle teachers can stand together to make MAP testing optional, even though MAP is a relatively unimportant  standardized test. Crisis is signified when Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel furthers the cause of destroying public schools in his city; the Windy City can’t catch a break from Democratic blowhards, apparently, as current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did a pretty good job at replacing public schools with charter schools (in effect, private schools which receive public funding). Crisis is signified when twenty-five percent of American children live in poverty; it’s a matter of common knowledge in the field that out-of-school factors (parental income and education, housing, diet) are vastly more important than in-school factors (including, yes, teacher quality). However, there is a strong belief in the minds of those like Rhee and Gates that teacher quality is everything, and that the “bad teachers” (divined through the capricious measurement tool of high-stakes tests) must be culled. This is the field I’m entering. I enter it knowing the differences between my position and the position of the politicians who, as far as I’m concerned, have the blood of the public school system on their hands.

Let me be clear: teacher quality does matter. Being a high school student at some point in your life doesn’t make you qualified to speak intelligently on pedagogy, but most people can usually figure out who’s a good teacher and who’s not. Several experienced educators in different states have told me that they can look in on a teacher who they’ve never seen and know if they’ve got what it takes within five minutes at the longest. Students know when a teacher is passionate and when s/he’s mailing it in. But teaching is not about throwing facts and figures at students (presumably via lecture) and then expecting them to tell you about it later. Paulo Freire, arguably the most important educational theorist of the twentieth century, referred to that as “the banking concept” (note the Brazilian Marxist’s wording there). The banking concept is deeply flawed not just in efficiency (it doesn’t effect actual learning, plain and simple), but in the beliefs behind it. It implies that teachers have nothing to learn from their students, but that students are meant to react almost slavishly to their teachers’ instruction. Good teaching doesn’t work that way; good teachers are facilitators, guides, coaches, mentors. And those folks manage to effect/affect learning through creating a healthy classroom environment and implementing rigor through emphasis on critical thinking, analysis, and independent thought.

I don’t claim to be a good teacher. There’s no such thing as a good new teacher; heck, there may not  be such a thing as a good teacher who’s been in the classroom for less than five or six years. I know that I’ve worked hard to improve, and that I plan to work harder in the next few years than I’ve ever worked in my life. So far, that work has been perhaps the greatest joy of my life. I may not have done particularly well, but I have loved doing it. And in the future as far as I can forecast it, I mean to place only one personal love ahead of this professional one.

When people ask me what I teach, I tell them that I teach English. That’s not a lie, but that’s not the answer I’d really like to give to their question. I know what they’re asking me: “What subject do you teach?” Depending on how sassy I feel, I tell them what I actually think: “I teach children.” That’s my goal. Of course I’m trying to get certain things across about the study of the English language and the literature written in that language, but good teachers don’t walk into their classrooms and think to themselves, “Man, I’m going to teach my subject area really well today.” They come in prepared to teach children, and not just any children, but their students. From my own experience, as sadly limited as it is at present, “their students” almost immediately becomes “their kids.”

I only got to teach full time from February through part of April. I had been coming in to visit with some frequency since August, but I didn’t really get to know my students until I started my practicum in earnest that February. I came to know them relatively quickly, knowing their strengths and foibles, their personalities, their desires, their willpower, their handwriting, their voices, their names. No teacher can be intimate with his or her students, but s/he can be friends with them. I found myself gaining friends in this way. I tried to bond with them in the fifty minutes I had with them each day, all the while trying to maintain order when it disintegrated, to go through Macbeth or war poetry or To Kill a Mockingbird and help them understand the considerations in the each text. At some point, they began, by and large, to become more comfortable with me. They began to see me as a person (most of the time). I tried to advocate for them from my limited position. I welcomed waking up at an hour I was largely unaccustomed to because it meant that I would be involved in doing what I loved most.

“The first class is always special,” I’ve been told. And they are. Ever since I was a child, I have been more careful not to bandy the word “love” around than I was to use “hate” indiscriminately. So when I say that I came to love those students, and that I came to love them quickly, I hope you will recognize the gravity of that statement. I may not expect to see them again, but I haven’t stopped loving them with a fervency that I never really thought I was capable of. Being an educator, especially in high school, is an exercise in offering love and knowing that it won’t be reciprocated in the way that it was offered. I don’t expect my students to love me with the fullness with which I love them; honestly, I think I’d be weirded out if they did. “The first class is always special.” It’s not as if I won’t love my students in the future; if I don’t, then I’m wrong and I need to find a different field. But I don’t expect to be surprised by that love in the future. If you had told me in February that I would be hopelessly devoted to about 140 kids in April, I don’t think (knowing me as well as I do) that I would have believed you.

More than anything else, maybe this is why I can’t buy what Rhee and Kopp and Gates and Geoffrey Canada and John Legend and Sal Khan and Kevin Johnson and Cory Booker and so many others are trying to shill. Where, in the pages and pages of standards, do they note that a good teacher loves his/her students? Where do they recommend, suggest, or acknowledge that little tidbit?

Those five sections of flawed but ascendant young men and women will forget about me. I will fade from their memories, and some will not regret that in the slightest. Others may find some sadness in my absence. I know, however, that I have found a significance in them which is abiding and beautiful. Because I’m a teacher, I don’t expect them to find that significance in me; because I’m a teacher, and because I love them, that’s okay.

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