I worked in a fifth grade classroom last week in a sweet little dual language school, majority Latino, also majority low income. Did a bit of research beforehand, found that it was a “turnaround school” led by a state Principal of the Year. Same principal, I’m pretty sure, whom I met a few years ago at a different school and whose name I jotted down with the note: “principal I’d like to work for.” Because he actually noticed I was there and introduced himself to me, didn’t act like a self-important ass or sleazy auto salesman, and just seemed like a good fellow. That he managed to give that impression is something, given that I cling to a prejudice about principals that maybe they became such because they were tired of the complexity of teaching and wanted to feel more important, have a nice office, and get a higher salary.
I parked, walked toward the nearest door, asked a staff member also headed that was if this was the right door. He said sure, any door will do, and that people would say good morning and be friendly no matter where I came in.
And so they did. Small Latino mothers escorting their small children to their classrooms–every one with a smile and greeting for me. Also teachers, staff, children. It was refreshingly lovely. There was a lightness, a warmth and community about the place. No ducking along anonymously feeling like an outsider and hoping for at least one welcome. Someone had been working at creating this culture.
And I had a good time with the kids–helped them practice multiplication and division, gave them a quiz, tried to help them when they got stuck or off track. The machines all worked, there were opportunities to give individual help, the students were sweet, I had some opportunities to connect with the other grade level teachers, and at the end of the day the girls out on the playground loved the game I taught them.
I didn’t come across the principal, until–I think it was him–the end of the day when he was rendezvousing with a child–his son?–to go home, I guess. He wasn’t dressed like a principal, but he looked like the news release photo, with his shaved head and wreaths of smile lines. He was talking with someone; I slipped on by to drop off my key rather than making a networking move. Already emailed him last week, just to connect as a newly available sub, with a bit of background.
Would I want to work here? A sweet school, a good principal, and mostly great co-workers (not including the one who was openly griping to a colleague as I passed her in the hall, both times), the challenge of making things better where the needs were high. Yet this school happened to be the only elementary school in the district with no seventh and eighth graders–they had apparently been shunted off to a non-struggling school–and I missed their presence. I like their dynamic, their complexity, their flux, their emerging ability to think more abstractly, to question, to challenge, to synthesize, to create. Some are positively crying out, Show me this is worth it! Why should I cooperate? When will I get to call the shots? And when the teacher-student dynamic works, when there’s mutual respect and work worth doing, they can be so receptive, so responsive, even fiercely supportive. The fifth graders were more compliant, sure–I could probably announce we were going to learn how to play Cat’s Cradle or take a ten minute nap, and they’d probably try their best to cooperate. But that’s not what energizes me, and I realized it again that day.
A few days later, I have some recent sub jobs teaching 7th and 8th graders behind me. I come home tired and happy, thinking about this or that student–one who’s a slightly pimplier version of a successful college student–devoted to learning for his own purposes, a reader, running a course parallel and apart from the juvenile pastimes of watching silly online videos, swiping girls’ pencils, trying to sneak outside, or taking a pass on doing any work with a “make my day” attitude. Another who passes under my radar without speaking any English by making her way with a tablet for online translation and a helpful seat mate. One tall, confident girl with long, wavy, golden hair who is the only one to anticipate how to isolate a variable from its coefficient in a multi-term equation. A laughing girl with short cropped hair, dark framed glasses and a bow tie, not going with the current girl fashion fads. A boy who seems unable to see a reason to try at all, who had the ultimatum last week from a teacher–shape up or else–and seems to already count himself among the misfits, the hopeless cases. Yet when he lifts his drowsy head and shares with me some of his story, seems like he’s asking for help to do what he can’t. Thought about him a lot, and the possible things that might be going on to bring him low. Kicked out of a school, by one account, didn’t go to school at all, by his, says he might have a fall asleep disorder, or maybe isn’t challenged enough with this math level. Intellectual capacity not being a problem, I gather.
I had the chance to talk over the day with the teacher for whom I’d subbed, who is trying with this and another student in particular that I’d asked about, to make a connection, find the key…or at least avoid doing further harm. Found out that in the case of the second kid, backing off seemed to be the thing, but with sleepy boy, he would have to see, maybe talk to the school counselor. This boy, when he said he hadn’t gone to school the previous year, I asked what he had done instead, and he said Nothing, as in if a kid isn’t in school there’s no existence worth mentioning. Say this to a former homeschool mom, and I say, what? Nothing?
Is that what we’re teaching kids, that school is the only way, that there’s no other plan, that if you’re not there you must be hanging out on street corners asking for trouble or zoned out on video games in the basement or sent off to behavioral camp, and of course none of that’s worth mentioning unless there’s a professional, program, or intervention team involved? If I’d had more time, and more kids that were hating school all in one room, knowing they didn’t fit, and under that delusion that the only option was to hang around the margins or kick against the goads, hang around and live like dropout was some kind of identity in itself, as if rebellion and rejection of the mainstream was good enough, I’d have a few things to say, including maybe the word bullshit, some hard questions to ask, like are you going to make a plan? Not just to stay in school, get a diploma, but look farther, look inside, what’s your dream, and what are the steps? Or what do you want to try, to explore? In my imagination I have all the wisdom, all the preachy fire and I kindle the spark of a love for learning and a work ethic, no sweat.
In some ways I’d prefer to work exclusively with the gifted and talented set, who do all the homework and then ask for more, who surge ahead and go deep and are amazing. It would be fun trying to hang on for the ride, just facilitating, providing rich resources, helping them dream up new ways to challenge themselves, create, accomplish more than I ever could, and create a glow of brilliance I could bask in a little.
But on the other hand, I think it’s time I looked into the “alternative schools.” Maybe that’s where I belong.