Saturday, September 17, 2005

In defense of my usefulness

Two posts below I described my experience at Back-To-School Night. I got a comment that I have decided to respond to in full-blown-post fashion instead of simply adding a comment.

In response to my super parent post Mrs. X writes:

Good schools don't need you. Those kids will get into college and 'succeed' with or without you. Challenge yourself! Go to one of the schools with the problems and succeed there. Then you'll know what being a life-changing teacher really means.

Wow. Okay, so it is 4:45 on Saturday afternoon and literally the only thing I have done for myself is a quick Starbucks breakfast. Otherwise I have been working on school things all day. Since the standard U.S. History course I taught the last two years begins with Reconstruction, I have been scrambling every day to refresh my colonial and revolutionary history knowledge from my freshman year in college and then organize it so that I can teach it at a college level.

And then I get a message that tells me my work is not valuable. It stings a little. In Mrs. X's defense, I understand her general point. While I was in school I poured through Jonathan Kozol's books and had every intention of teaching at an inner-city school. And then I moved to a big East Coast city and suddenly I felt all the insecurities of being a 5 foot 4 white girl from the south. But it wasn't just the fear that kept me from taking a high-needs job. I can't afford it. Remember than I am married to a PhD student. He makes less than half what I do and deals with twice the stress. One of us has to be sane. I just decided it wasn't time for me to do that.

Secondly, my kids most certainly DO need me. Teenagers are teenagers wherever you go. They all have insecurities, they all face peer pressure, they all have lousy families. Oftentimes, I see myself as a protector of the students whose parents are overly involved. My students are stressed to an unhealthy level because of the pressure their parents put on them. They see themselves as failures when they can't score all A's in a load of 6 AP courses. They engage in risky behaviors because of it. While I challenge my students, I try to convince them that it is about learning itself and not the outcome. I try to convince them that I think they are valuable and worthy of my love, even if they can't pass my tests.

I face a significant challenge in trying to help my students define what "success" is. Unfortunately, many of them see it as Mrs. X defines it -- getting into a good college. I try to teach them that success if much more complicated than just academics. I also insist that success is not always the ultimate goal. Sometimes doing the right thing is more important. I have had very frank discussions with my students about using dishonest means and cheating in order to achieve success. I have worked to open up a dialogue and I am glad I have because what I have discovered is that many of my students see any means as justified if they can get that 'A'. People like Martha Stewart and the Enron executives needed to have a teacher like me.

In a school as competitive as mine, there are still students who don't fit in. The students in my standard classes KNOW they didn't belong at this high school. I am there to insist that they still challenege themselves, that they still strive for excellence, and that they still respect themselves.

My students have eating disorders, drug addictions, health problems, overachieving siblings, and pressure to look, walk, and act the right way. If I don't help them, who will?