Wednesday, July 20, 2011

My Turn to the Daily Breeze: Hawthorne and Lawndale

I was a long-term substitute teacher for Centinela Valley Union High School District during the 2010-2011 school year. In spite of the "tectonic shifts" that have apparently disrupted the educational status quo at Lawndale and Hawthorne, not enough has changed. I ought to know. Attempting to be part of the solution, I ended up being one more cog in a dysfunctional wheel seemingly designed to grind students and staff.

My first day teaching in the district, the class broke out in rude, disruptive behavior. When I called security, three officers, two assistant principals, (and later one dean) showed up. Students continued yelling, even at the dean!

One of the administrators asked me if I wanted to go home. What kind of a message does that send? I thought to myself. Why let the students prevail when they raise hell? I look back and ask, "Why not send the most troubling elements home, reprimand the rest, and send a clear message that teacher abuse will not be tolerated?

That should have been enough to force me out. Yet in my pride, in my design to try and make this thing work, I stayed on.

The next day, I was transferred to a US History class whose first teacher quit after one week, only to be replaced by one of the coaches for a day or two. For the next six weeks, I endured one of the worst experiences I have ever endured as an educator.

Repeatedly I was questioned by the students, "Are you our new teacher or not?" The administration was trying to fill the empty positions, and they told me I had a small chance at getting the job.

For the next six weeks, I dealt with disruptive students who would not do their homework. Some threw things at me; others repeatedly mocked me; many times the lesson was interrupted.

One student had a terrible reputation of cursing at other staff members on campus, including myself, as well as bothering other students -- nothing was done about it. I was forced to send certain students out of class every day, yet nothing was done about that, either. I called parents, some of whom resorted to blaming me, telling me that I had to get control of the classroom. Where were they when their children were growing up?

Students arrived routinely late, sometimes by thirty minutes. Most teachers allowed it, apparently; students complained repeatedly because I did not.

After nearly two weeks, aside from the hopeful support from a handful of students, most of the kids began to snidely ask: "Have you been fired yet? Did you get fired yet?" It is very difficult to be motivated and to motivate students who are more interested in messing with a teacher than commanding any self-respect and doing something rigorous.

Why did I hang on for six weeks? I had fallen for the fallacy that has deceived many teachers: if the student does not learn, it is the teacher's fault. So I screwed up my courage and kept trying to make it work, mostly out of fear for the future and pride that maybe I could take on five classes with a confirmed majority of unruly students.

It was terrible. I just could not muster the faith or the courage, tried as I could, to make the whole thing ultimately pan out. It takes a village to raise a child: I cannot be the parent, nutritionist, social worker, probation officer, psychiatrist, psychologist, punching bag, and martyr for every troubled young person.

To say the least, I did not get the assignment, and for my part, I am glad. I was fired, yes, you could certainly say that.

It was a terrible six weeks, one that revealed to me why public education is in the toilet, especially at Centinela Valley Union High School District.

Honestly, there were some bright moments, some students who liked me, liked what I was trying to do. When I returned to Hawthorne later that year to cover classes day to day, some of my former students said that they missed me. They told me that the teacher who replaced me was boring. Yet I wonder: did they actually learn anything from me, or did they like me because I was easy prey?

What did I learn from that awful experience? Do not minimize failure or abuse in your life. If you do not like what is happening in your workplace, do something about it or get out. At Hawthorne High School, a change of attitude simply was not enough.

If your have to strive without any real success at something, then that is something that you should not be trying to do, and there is no shame in admitting that. When I accepted that teaching just is not my bag, I could look back on what I endured, and say, "I made out like a bandit, compared to those kids. . ."

I also learned to trust my intuition, to stand up for myself, since for so long I used to question myself.

Earlier this school year, I ran into some of the students whom I had taught for those six weeks. I was no longer the fearful teacher who would grudgingly take abuse. When one of the students began joking about the abusive and disruptive behavior that I had permitted during the previous year. . .

"Poor Mr. Schaper," he started. "We got you fired."

 I cut him off right away: "You will not talk to me like that! You treated me poorly in the past, and you have no right to bring up my shame! It was wrong what you did."

After about a two-minute tired, the student sank in his seat, trying to disappear. He said nothing for the next ten minutes.

I had also learned to forgive myself and them; but I was not about to let one person prevent me from moving on.

That young man had enough dignity to cover his mouth in shame. He then quietly asked me, "Do you want me to leave?"

I answered, "Do you need to?"

Right then I demonstrated a powerful principle in assertiveness and self-respect: Respect is NOT something you earn, nor demand -- it is something that you command, that you demonstrate, that you draw out of yourself, regardless of how people treat you.

Now, I can look the world in the eye, not afraid to go with my internal flow, to speak (not scream) my point of view.

I do not regret the past of Hawthorne High School, nor do I wish to close the door on it. Yet I would not repeat it for all the money in the world.

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