Friday, December 13, 2013

I don't hate teaching, I don't!

I'm reminded this morning of the end of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom when in a cold night in New England, as they prepare to go to sleep, Shreve asks Quentin, "Why do you hate the South?" Immediately, defensively, Quentin replies "I don't hate it," then thinks to himself over and over: "I don't! I don't hate it! I don't hate it!"

Last night at my daughters' school concert, a woman said it was a shame that I don't love teaching. I imagined myself shouting "I don't hate it, I don't hate it!" but said only that the troubles of the system I work within make it difficult to still love teaching.

Faulkner's novel captures the madness of the South trying to justify slavery and its almost genetic racism. I remember reading it in college, thinking it was a metaphor for everything, that it grafted onto any situation. Here it is again, a good allegory for teaching in many school districts.

The woman said that she still loves almost everything about teaching. This is what is wonderful about teachers and the profession. Her kids, she said, are so great, they fuel her with their passions for learning. I smiled imagining her classroom as a wonderful place in which real learning happens light lightning in a terrific storm. I could happily send my kids to her class.

But she works in a suburban district while my kids are in the Syracuse City Schools. Last night, we stood in the combination cafeteria and auditorium of an old building so overheated that teachers leave windows open all winter. There the superintendent requires teachers to follow scripts written by the state rather than explore their own creativity. Outside there are no athletic fields, inside music is relegated to an old basement room, and the whole place (despite the best work of the people at the school) is rundown and tattered. This pales in comparison to the modern, clean, well-heated place at which the woman teaches. That school has music spaces, an auditorium, athletic fields that stretch seemingly to the horizon, a heating system that works, and new carpets. No wonder she likes it.

As for me, I choose to work in alternative education in another district that is--how shall I put it--not in line with all my philosophies and theories about education. It used to be, but a new administration set us on a course. We are ruled by testing and data points. The policies of my school and my good judgment approach one another at right angles and come into conflict.

I didn't tell the woman last night that I am rated ineffective by my school system and the state or that my administrators haven't expressed understanding of my unique situation or sympathy. I didn't say that if rated ineffective again this year, as I expect to be, I face the prospect of losing tenure and my job. I didn't tell her any of this because we were there to watch our kids perform.

Still, like Quentin in Faulkner's book, I find myself thinking that I don't hate teaching, I don't hate it, I don't! When I close the classroom door and talk with kids, it's a wonderland. Yesterday, three guys  who had sworn they wouldn't read spent half an hour happily reading I Know What You Did Last Summer, Into the Wild, and a sequel to Hatchet. They read because I know how to teach. They read because I am anything but ineffective despite the state's rating and my administration's silence.

The concert was about to get underway, so the woman and I went to our seats. My daughters sat waiting to play. The crowd quieted as the principal stepped forward. He spoke into the microphone but it wasn't on. He switched it and spoke again, finding his voice. "Welcome!" I could see that he is a teacher, though he has moved up to become a principal. There's something in the eyes, a light perhaps. You can tell a teacher as they begin talking about children. I saw it on him, I had seen it in the woman, and, though I'm not looking into a mirror, I see it in my own face and in the light in my eyes that no school system, reform movement, or teacher rating can quite put out.

Write (and teach) on.