What do you think? (long!)

I’m an upper-middle class white girl. A lot of my friends fall into these categories, but more importantly, most of my friends share the same political viewpoints, religious perspectives, and artistic interests as I.

We all like to stay in similar groups, and normally those groups are based on interests and passions. As I get older, my group has shifted from the white, middle to upper-middle class and moved more towards those who share what I share. It was never a question of exclusivity or a narrow point of view when I was younger, I just didn’t have the same outlets I do now. I think that’s similar for a lot of young adults.

I bring this up because I have been doing a lot of work at a nearby public school to wrap up my state-mandated observation hours before student teaching. This school is on the north side of the city, and it’s in a pretty nice neighborhood. The school is fairly small too, with about 360 students in a Pre-K to 8th grade environment. About 85% of the students are black, 5-10% are Asian, 5-10% are Hispanic, and the remainder are white. The school is about to get bigger, however, as Chicago city officials have shut down 50 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) in the area. These “failing” schools are going to be completely closed, forcing all the students (and teachers) to migrate to other schools, whether they have the desire or not.
This particular school is also performing well below the norm. Most of the 7th graders in the class I’m observing are reading at a 3rd-4th grade level and are just barely passing.
These same students are also acting out in class, and when I say “act out”, I don’t mean they raise issue with the material. They yell at the teacher, call her names, throw things, stare her down, and swear to her face.
“This is chaos.” That’s what I wrote for my observations today.
After I leave the school, I sit in my car and just think. How can this be? How are these students so far behind, yet so disrespectful? Is it the school’s fault? Is it the teachers’ fault? Is it the parent’s? The student’s? The city’s? What is the root cause of this failure, and how do we fix it? Can we fix it?
Then I look at my own educational background. I went to a prestigious private school in the South, where I was prepped for college before I was 15 and was given a wonderful education, more or less. But, I was completely sheltered and never exposed to real-world issues. My school limited our experiences to that of a textbook, something current-generation pre-service teachers are being taught to dismiss in exchange for interactive, engaging lesson plans.

Did I come out on top because of my private school education, or did I miss out on opportunities that would really prepare me for a practical and beneficial career?

I am not an expert by any means of the CPS system, nor am I an unbiased, objective voice in this debate. But I’d like to share some of my experiences from my own days in private middle school and high school and how they’ve shaped me as a future educator.

This might not win me any popularity. In fact, I’ve never written some of these thoughts out. But, I have to be true to who I will be as a teacher.

So let’s go back.

When I was 10, my mom and I moved from Chicago to St. Pete, Florida. My parents divorced, and my mom drove from Chicago to Florida the day the court finalized the papers. I don’t remember this, but apparently I was furious at her for moving me. Makes sense.
I started 5th grade in a school vastly different than the one I’d been in up to that point. It was a small, private, religious school, with about 30 kids per grade. I had a bit of trouble making friends, but I made a few with those kids I would call “outcasts”; the ones who weren’t already in cliques, who hadn’t been at this school since kindergarten. I went to one girl’s house a lot, and we would play in her pool and watch Disney movies together in the afternoon. I didn’t stay friends with her for the rest of my time, there, however. She eventually was moved to a different school, and we lost touch. Her parents weren’t big fans of me anyway. They were intensely Catholic and often tried to teach me about God and the right way to be. My friend’s mother chastised me for smelling like cigarettes (my mom was a smoker) and would put my personal belongings in a different room.
I also made friends with a boy who was always picked on for having a vision impairment. Thinking about it now, people bullied him a lot. In 6th/7th grade, he often had to eat in one of the teacher’s rooms, I believe because he had just had surgery and needed to be extra cautious. A few girls and I would sit with him and the teacher.  I talked to him the other day, actually, and he’s going to be a Special Education teacher and might move to Chicago. I’m pumped.

I’m the slightly chubby girl on the left. I’d also like to point out that we had one black student in our entire grade. In fact, I remember there being maybe 3 or 4 black students in the school, though I’m sure there were a few more. I was friends with her too. She lived on the south side of St. Pete, near me, which I lovingly remember being referred to as “the ghetto part of town”. My mom and I always laughed at that. If living in the ghetto is having a bay-front townhouse in a mixed-race neighborhood (that was safe and friendly), I didn’t want to live anywhere else.

So that was 5th grade. I made a few friends. Towards the end of 5th grade, I started becoming friends with the one girl who I’ve consistently kept in touch with for the past 14 years. She’s the one person who I always felt kept a fully level head on her shoulders and made it out of our private school world with a real-world perspective (although I should note that I have lost touch with many of these people and don’t know their situations fully.)
7th grade: She’s the girl in the overalls. I’m the girl on the right. The girl in the yellow was also a great friend of mine. I believe she lives in Pennsylvania now. Actually I was pretty good friends with all these girls.

In 6th grade, I went through a severe and devastating personal trauma that doesn’t need detail. It caused me to have severe separation anxiety from my mother, panic attacks in class, stomach aches nearly everyday, and depression. The worst part was my friends couldn’t relate to what I was going through. They did their best to help me through it, but they had no idea what to do. How could they? I was 11.

At this time, I had four primary teachers; a math teacher, an English teacher, an Earth science teacher, and a geography teacher. The first two were female, the latter two were male. The female teachers were very supportive and allowed me to take a lot of my work home, allowing me to go to my weekly therapy and court-appointed psychiatrist visits and take time to sleep during the day. I became a massive insomniac, and school just wasn’t feasible everyday. They created a net of support for my mom too; one of my teacher’s daughters even went through something similar to me. She shared this with my mom openly, putting her at ease that when I was in school, I was with someone who was compassionate and trustworthy, while still challenging me academically in the classroom and out.

My male teachers were not as understanding. Well, that’s not fair. My Earth Science teacher was pretty supportive, but he was fairly passive in the whole affair, not really taking much care to help, but not deterring me when I missed class or was too tired to read. My geography teacher was very unhelpful. He neither took my issue into consideration, nor did he attempt to help me when I was struggling.

I’ve learned a lot about IEPs (Individualized Education Program), aka a revised and catered curriculum for students with special needs. In this case, and later on in my high school career, I was a special needs student. Did my math and English teacher recognize this? Were they working on an IEP and getting me through 6th and 7th grade? Why was I not receiving this type of benefit from my male teachers? As teachers in a private school, were they not required to work towards these standards? I’m not even sure Florida had these standards, as we were 49th in the country in educational excellence…thanks Jeb Bush.
I never knew this picture existed, I am rocking a fantastic face.

So, on to high school. High school was equally the best and worst time for me at this private school. I had a few teachers that really taught me the importance of literature and critical thinking, and I had a few teachers that were neither capable nor qualified to be educators.

Let’s start with the positives.

My 10th grade English teacher, Ms. B, was a new teacher. She was mousy, fairly quiet, wore big glasses, the cliche image of what you’d expect of a young yet bookish teacher. She wanted us to love the world of literature as much as she did; it worked. I remember vividly our reading of Waiting for Godot, which is my favorite play to date. None of us had any experience with absurdism, and only a few of us knew much about theatre (I put myself in the “knowledgeable” category, as theatre was one of my big passions). She had us take turns reading the parts as if we were onstage, really pushing us to get into the characters. I was Lucky, and I still count his monologue as a true epitome of absurdist humor.
Ms. B pushed us to really think about the material. She didn’t just give us a quiz and sit at the front of the classroom like my 9th grade English teacher did (in honor of Arrested Development, I’ll call her Ms. B #2). As a matter of fact, when I was in 9th grade, we took a quiz in Ms. B #2’s class and no one received higher than a C. I challenged her, saying, “If none of us got a good grade, doesn’t that mean that none of understood what you were teaching?” She responded, and I’ll never forget this, with, “That’s your responsibility, not mine.”

I want to stop there and let that sink in.
This pretty much concludes the positive moments from this high school.

I’ve heard multiple professors say, “when you become a teacher, you’ll remember your negative experiences more than your positive ones. Try and incorporate that into your curriculum and create a learning experience for yourself.”
This next part will be pure gold for me.

Because my school was private and religious (I won’t even get into how uncomfortable that made me), teachers didn’t need a state certificate or teaching license to work there. In fact, many of my teachers weren’t certified, but they had the capability and capacity to be good teachers.

Not Mr. M.
Mr. M was a 22 year old college graduate from a nearby state college, majoring in marine biology. He had no teaching experience. He’d never taken an education course. He had no experience with high schoolers.
And he was in charge of teaching AP Chemistry and AP Biology.
Our honors classes were pretty small, consisting of about 9 or 10 of us who were able to keep up with the material up to this point. My best friend (the girl in the overalls above) is now in graduate school to be a physician’s assistant, and she certainly understood these concepts more than I did. Mr. M had no ability to properly teach. He would go through the lessons far too quickly, he wouldn’t answer our questions effectively, he gave us exams we routinely failed or did poorly on, and he was unable to fully explain the materials, as it was not his specialty.

I was mean to Mr. M, probably meaner than I should have been. But, I was angry. I was getting a C- in his class, and I was working my ass off to keep that C-. I didn’t know any of the material, and his lessons were poorly taught at best.
But, I remember some positive things about Mr. M. He loved the show Survivor and would always engage us in conversation about TV, he offered fun activities outside of class, and he was approachable. He would often stay after school to see if we needed help.

So why was I so angry?
In retrospect, I wasn’t mad at Mr. M. I was mad at the school. Why on Earth would they hire him without any qualifications and not help him? If I were in his situation, I would likely have left. My students defy me and mock me, I can’t properly teach these lessons, no matter how I try, and I’m not receiving any support.

Here’s how I know he didn’t receive support.
One day, close to the end of my 10th grade year, I actually went to both the Dean and the Headmaster to complain about Mr. M. I was 16, rebellious (as rebellious as I could be in a rich, white private school; this often included wearing Queen T-shirts and being ridiculed for it), curious, and I actually wanted to learn.
I asked both of them, “Why is Mr. M teaching here? We’re having such a hard time with the tests, and I am not the only one getting a C-. I don’t understand why you would hire him.”
I felt pretty ballsy standing up for my education. I expected them to respect my viewpoint and calmly discuss the issue at hand. That’s how I would handle it, so they should too.

The headmaster looked me dead in the eye and said, “Mr. M is a wonderful teacher. He has all the experience he will ever need.”

The dean said, “Oh, you won’t really understand. You’re just a student.”

I never told my fellow classmates I did this. I never told them the heads of the school’s response. I told my mom. Within three weeks of my completion of 10th grade, we were packing up and heading back to Chicago.

Did I come out on top because of my private school education, or did I miss out on opportunities that would really prepare me for a practical and beneficial career?

I don’t know.
What do you think?

One comment

  1. Christie Jackson · June 6, 2013

    I have to say I completely agree with everything you said. There were great losses in education at that school between the religion pressure and the fact that the heads of the school never listened to anything any students said I always felt stuck and have sworn no matter how my mother pushes I will never put my child through the same hell I went through there. Just in case you have gathered I graduated from there many years ago. There were some major issues which occurred and we’re ignore by everyone we told I did learn a lot from some teachers as you stated but for the most part it was a all about the social aspect for the teachers and not what they were teaching.

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