Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Mrs. K and Student Teaching at Dana Middle School

Student Teaching was tough for me, as it remains a challenge for every new teacher.

One thing that most veteran teachers forget is how hard it is to be a teacher. My mentors acted as if they had it all figured out, although they seemed to make the same elementary mistakes which I fell into, just more often than they. Many days, I operated almost like a robot, just going through the motions, not puzzling myself about the feelings that come with trying to teach a bunch of students, many of whom cannot read or who have no support system at home to keep them in line. Some of these students endured years of trial and hardship, only to slip into more trouble. On any given day, a student would be escorted off-campus in handcuffs. Fights were a regular occurrence, and in some cases students would get beaten down severely.

The first year and a half are grueling for most educators. They have to serve through the baptism by fire of student-teaching, in which most students either regret your presence, because they like the mentor teacher better, or they look forward to messing with the student-teacher because he or she is less experienced in the ways of the school than even the students themselves.

Either way one looks at it, student teaching is a demanding ritual for anyone who wants to be  an educator. Serving without pay for a semester -- in some schools, an entire year -- student teachers are expected to learn the ropes, learn the tropes, and  ferret out the dopes in a short amount of time.

It is a demanding venture, to say the least. At the school where I was assigned, there were originally two student teachers, besides myself a P. E. teacher. He eventually quit, but I do not know what happened to him afterwards.

My student teaching went awry the first week, in which the assistant principal, who was responsible for assigning me, did not even contact me until one week after the school year had begun. It was not too late to start, though. I was fortunate enough to receiving one section of Sixth Grade History as well as two sections of Eighth Grade U.S. History.

The elderly lady who taught the sixth graders was not as organized as the eighth grade teacher. He was a real squirrel, full of energy and tricks of the trade. I learned more from him, although the sixth grade teacher was a grandmotherly type at times who comforted me in some darker points. Still, she would make a point of trumpeting her own prowess as a teacher, when oftentimes I would walk into her class and witness a number of students talking over her. One time, the class was so unruly, within two minutes students were jumping out of their seats, sharpening their pencils, talking out of turn. She just smiled at me with a dismissive grin, as if I would not notice the chaos ensuing.

I bring up this mentor teacher's conduct in part because she could be a nasty gossip. This I learned, with undue disdain, when she shared with other teachers in the faculty lounge that one of the science teachers was going to quit. I remembered what they young lady had endured, but I did not take it to heart at the time, so consumed was I in trying to present to teachers, staff, and students that I knew what I was doing.

I will call her Mrs. K for now. She was a bright, lively young lady, and she had just transferred from a nearby district, which had  refused to grant her tenure after three years of service. As a new hire for LA Unified, she was automatically granted tenure. She also received more pay working at Dana Middle School. I met her briefly during the student-parent back to school night.

Over the next few weeks, though, her mood dipped considerably. Sometimes, she would curse in the teacher's lounge. She seemed to have a hardened aspect about her at that point. Later that week,
I paid a visit one time to her class, in part because I was record to visit certain classes and take notes as par of earning my credential. That day, she showed me her course syllabus, including three boxes, where she could record when she contacted students' parents. "CYA, I always say," she informed me.

But I will never forget one conversation that she had with another teacher. See, Mrs. K was an Asian lady, and the students were of a different ethnic background, to say the least. They had little qualm for harassing her because of her race. She admitted that she had briefly debated one day within herself whether to write a referral or not when one kid began pulling at the sides of his eyes, making a racist gesture. The other teacher congratulated her for summoning the courage to throw the student out. I was glad for her, too - although that was not the end of that sad story.

However, a few days later I found her once again in the faculty lounge. "I have never had to put up with so much disrespect," she confided to me, more out of despair than any regard for me, as if I were a worthy confidant for her or anyone else's woes. I was definitely not worth confiding in at the time, since I was barely learning the ropes, and I was convinced that any trials I was enduring were just par for the course. I should have paid closer attention to what she was going through, because when I had served as a teacher for a few years, I would find myself enduring the same hardships, the same shock of mistreatment at the hands and voices of students who were immune to any sense of compassion, so it seemed.

Mrs. K. began to weep. I was surprised. "You know what they gave that kid who mocked me?" She posed this question to me, very rhetorically. "Just a detention!" She was certainly disappointed with the lack of respect not just from the students, but also from the administration, who did not respect the frustration which she was enduring. For such a racist gesture, she had expected at least a suspension -- I would have certainly agreed.

Eventually, word got around that Mrs. K was going to resign after the Christmas break. My sixth grade mentor teacher pressed her about it, and Mrs. K. just lost it -- and I for one did not blame her for it. "Who told you that?" she snapped back, as reported by my sixth grade teacher. Of course, most of the teachers were not surprised that anyone snapped back at her. She was such a nosy, snoopy, even fractious gossip, that she had something to say about everyone. At least once a month, so it seemed, some teacher would be leaning into her about some petty remark or breach of privacy.

But Mrs. K. I really liked her, I just wish that I had honored the pain that she was going through while on the job. This lady was an experienced teacher, yet she felt harassed, threatened, and demeaned on the job. If I had not been so busy with barely keeping one step ahead of my own mess, I may have taken the hint and stepped away as soon as I could.

Her story was not the only teacher tragedy which I witnessed, nor would she be the only teacher whom I would hear about who quit before the school year ended. It is amazing the limits that some teachers are expected to go to when teaching. The amount of disrespect can be intolerable. Either a teacher has to put up with, or do what I have done, and throw two or three students out on a routine basis, which becomes a tired joke very quickly. Yes, the teacher is there to teach, no questions about it. But if students have not learned respect, then there can be no learning, and certainly no teaching.

Mrs. K., for all her learning, for all her experience, for all her self-respect, would not tolerate the rampant abuse which she was forced to endure. I have not seen her lately, but I certainly hope she knows that she did the best that she could, and that her choice to resign was not a defeat, but a win for a teacher who refused to put up with disrespect.

No comments:

Post a Comment