Saturday, February 28, 2009

End of a Teaching Stint

Ear - by Julian Horner

At the end of December, just before the Christmas break, I was hired as a temporary substitute librarian in an inner-city charter school. The job involved providing library classes and activities to 28 classes of elementary school students K-6th grade, each visiting the library for a period of 40 minutes. Does that sound easy? Hard? Impossible? I don't know what I thought when I arrived, but by the time I had been there a few days I had to ask myself: is this really as hard as it seems, or am I missing something? The teachers would drop their groups off for a much-needed break, and of course, the students had little incentive to "behave themselves" with a substitute. Not that they had much incentive in any case. The main activity of these children, in my class or any other, as far as I could tell, was talking to each other. The great imperative: socializing! But the great feature of the library, the student computers, did allow for some merciful (relative) quiet at times, although there were only 8 computers, and sometimes as many as 26 students... The students liked playing games and looking at fashion shows, when they could get away with not doing "Study Island."

I really liked the school, the staff, and I liked the students too - overwhelmingly African-American. It's just that no one was teaching them how to refrain from expressing impulses, or to keep still, or maintain quiet. The school was doing all these tests, tests, tests, and the students worked at something called SFA ("Success for All") which I gather was some sort of language arts program. The library was a large room, pleasant and well-stocked with juvenile literature; but the school had no playground (it was a reconstituted shopping mall) and the students had almost no recess or organized games. No wonder they'd rather play tag or hide-and-seek in the library than read print-outs of stupid little stories. I can't say I blamed them!

I suppose we spend our lives learning how to pay attention. Learning to listen, to hear, follow directions, obey - it comes from the ear, this "obedience," this learning-to-hear. In this respect the students I met were already severely disadvantaged. Only in America, where everything is the opposite that you would expect, a "disadvantaged" child is a child who expresses himself all the time. I did not meet any vicious children, and some I met were loving and affectionate. But they could not learn, or did not want to learn, or what they were being given to learn lacked relevance for their lives and consequently was dull. I grew weary, day after day, of shouting at them to be quiet. I was not a great teacher. Maybe I was not the worst. But I was glad when my stint ended - yesterday. I decided to leave; the administration decided to hire a man who had taught in a reform school. It seemed like the right conjunction of events, arrived at mutually and independently and simultaneously by both parties. So it was.

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