Friday, June 06, 2014

Confessions of an American Teacher

Written October 14, 2006
Slightly revised June 6, 2014
Another minor revision January 19, 2018

I’m tired of saying the right thing. I've taken too many bullets for the team. I've been a Pollyanna with my head stuck up my ass… and a visionary that changed kids lives. I've walked picket lines, exposed evil, compromised my integrity, and given freely with all my soul. I've ranted across the desks of more than one superintendent, and rolled over for others. I’ve charmed, trashed, ignored, sympathized with and bullshitted hundreds of parents. I’ve gotten up and faced surly classes and then flipped them into open minded learners. I’ve missed as many teachable moments as I’ve caught. I’ve helped some kids gain 4 years on the reading test and ignored others because they were hopeless punks who pissed me off. I’ve hung around in the computer labs and classrooms of my school weeping with inspiration and happiness for simply being part of a learning environment I’d dreamed of building, and I’ve hated the deep rut of driving back to school every morning to participate in the systematic destruction of joy and trust that small minded inane administrators and school board members call education.

I’ve been an American Teacher for 41 years and I’m sick at heart about public education. I want to tear the system down and let the ferrets run free. I want to teach skepticism and critical thinking and create a generation that will fight for their minds, fight for freedom, but I’m so scarred by tilting at windmills that I’ve learned to choose my battles. I’m not sure how much fight is left in me.

Sometimes I just want to scream and tell it all. All the good, all the bad, the lunacy and the laughs and everything in between. Instead, I’ll just blog.

I got my credential in 1974 in spite of a system that kept trying to talk me out of wasting my life in the classroom. All my neurotic friends in the graduate English Department at Berkeley thought I was nuts.

“You’re too good for teaching. Why waste your talent in a classroom?”

The application committee at the CSUN asked me the same thing (after beating me up for misspelling the word professional in my writing sample). “You don’t want to teach. There’s no money in it. You wont’ be able to get a job, there’s too many teachers already.”

But I was stubborn and burned out by the life I’d been leading and looking for direction. I’d gone up to Canada found a spot deep in the woods and thought about it all. I spent a lot of time on mountain tops and in the wild thinking about it all. It gets old talking to fish and sitting on the high ground with a rifle. Ultimately, you are left with the questions only you can answer…

My career choices came down to law or education. I could be a lawyer or a teacher. I could make a living working with people at their worst or helping kids learn. I chose teaching and despite 44 years of classroom joy and pain, I don’t regret the choice.

It was Mr. Pinto in the 8th grade that sealed the deal. Mr. Pinto saved my mind from the terror.

I was living with the gut grinding terror of getting nuked out of existence. Northridge junior high had me cringing under my desk, conditioned like a rat in a Skinner Box by institutionalized drop drills.

"Drop" the teacher would shout.

Every time I curled up under that pitiful flimsy little wooden desk I imagined the flash and blast of a hydrogen bomb taking out downtown LA. The pressure wave rolling over the hills to valley where I’d be toasted alive. I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis and the afternoon when everyone thought the button would be pushed. That feeling is always there.

I remember the sincere horror of thinking the screaming air raid sirens were for real. I remember just wanting to ride my bike home so I could die with my family. Instead I cowered on the floor, weeping, huddled on the dirty linoleum of the overheated classroom, backs to the wall under the windows so the flying glass wouldn't shred us.

The teacher was crying, she wouldn't answer when we begged, “Is it real? Is it the bomb?” Hell the teacher was crying, kids were running through the halls screaming…it had to be real and I was going to die, away from my mom and dad and brother. After fifteen minutes the moron who was principal got on the P.A to announce it was all just a drill.

I learned a lot that day. I learned that faced with certain death I was too afraid to get up off the floor. Nice lesson.

That’s the lesson of mainstream American education: just curl up in a ball and wait for it… lay on the floor and pray… let’s spend lots of money to train kids this way… "...children, when it comes to fiery death, STOP! DROP! and wait for it like sheep."

In my day it was the Russians and ICBMs, overkill and nothing left but the cockroaches. Now it’s a Stalinist dictator with a nuke or a Jihadi hoping to pack a bomb in a suitcase…or an FBI agent breaking down a door and dragging out an 8th grader for threatening the president on Facebook… and let’s not forget the twisted 15 year old in a trenchcoat shooting kids in the head while they lay on the floor praying.

After the phony air raid, Mr. Pinto gave me a tool to deal with my fear. We were debating nuclear war in his Social Studies class and someone asked him what he’d do if the air raid sirens went off for real. Just thinking about this 55 years later makes my stomach knot… but it makes me smile too.

I can still hear Mr. Pinto's voice, “Kids, if the bomb gets dropped we’re all finished. We’re so close to prime targets.. there’s nothing we can do. I’m not hiding under my desk. I’m getting a six pack of beer, and a folding chair and climbing up on the roof where I can see it all. It will be one hell of a light show."

We cracked up. “The teacher said hell!” Nuclear annihilation suddenly seemed funny. Mr. Pinto with a little smidgen of honesty, helped me vent the paranoid steam of the arms race. He gave me a way to confront my fear and begin to stand. His fatalistic and funny advice gave me a game plan.

I was 14 years old. That’s when I started thinking seriously about being a teacher. I could say things that might help people… and get summers off!

Now after decades as a teacher, it seems right that my career choice was founded on visions of Armageddon laced with fatalistic humor. My years in the public school classroom have been sublime and mediocre. I love it and I hate it. I’ve gone farther and done more than I ever dreamed and I’m still dissatisfied with what I’ve accomplished. I’ve met some of the finest people on the planet and I’ve uncovered power corrupted evil-doers. I’ve fought the good fight and lost.

I’ve stood up for my principles and been cut off at the knees.

I’m not done. I still want to break on through to the other side. If that means taking another beating… I’m going to punch back.

I’m still standing… maybe I’m standing on stumps, but I’m still upright.

Post Script

I came across this piece and was reminded of the passion I felt at the time. This was one last vent that apparently worked. The anger is gone. The memories mostly good. More sweet than bitter.  The past decade of teaching online and working with American Teachers yoked to the nonsense of NCLB have sharpened by empathy and reinforced the wisdom of my decision to leave public school behind.

For many years now I've been a teacher of teachers.  Working online has allowed me to look through the windows of so many brave and dedicated teachers. It's good for my soul.

I still like being an agent of disruption. At the same time I'm happy to report I'm much more optimistic about the future of learning for kids and adults!

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Last Days in the classroom (then and now).

Came across this as I sorted through my old papers in preparation for another move.  Gratifying to recall that my last days in the classroom had sweetness and light.  Thank you Christina for the kind words (then and now).