For the past seven -- almost eight years, I have tried to make the most of public education. I kept pressing on, like a true believer. I even wrote a celebrated piece for my local paper about the incredible improvements at a local high school. Really, I liked working there, as long as I got away with doing very little.
If there is one common denominator in public education, it is the abysmal level of boredom, failure, and passing in name only that had dominate the hallways, scuttled students chances at a good education, and has set up a growing number of students for barely getting by in a challenging world of dwindling options.
Special ed, Alternative Ed, public school, charter school. Private and after school. Tutoring. Black Brown White, rich and poor.
But the rate of reform in our public schools is simply Sisyphean at best. A better word, I believe, describes the plight and fright of parents, students, and teachers, especially substitutes: "Kafkaesque".
Based on the morbid characterizations of Czech-German novelist Franz Kafka (a dual ancestry which I share, eerily enough), public schools are the site of "nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical" qualities," or they are the source of a complicated, confusing, and threatening atmosphere that scares a good deal of new teachers out of the profession every year.
For the sake of alliteration (for I am an English teacher), let's break down the menacing character of public schools to the following
complicated, confusing, and
threatening-- how about "chaotic comminating, or communiting"? Or how about calumniating -- for all would apply!
On many mornings, I woke up, wishing that I was a bug who could crawl into the floor. At least twice a week, I would rage at the piled-up traffic along the 105 on my way to South Gate. I was a wreck, trying to put together lessons in a school running according to the "4 x 4" block. I worked with one class for an hour and a half every day, but I had to teach them an entire year's of curriculum in one semester! Stressed, pressed, and depressed -- those three words capture the glaring and growing failure of trying to get by in a school in which no one could do well.
The students were predominately immigrants, recent arrivals into the country. Many of them barely spoke English, functionally illiterate in Spanish, but I was supposed to teach them French! I wanted to connect their knowledge of Spanish to the third language that they were pressed to learn, but to no avail, I guess.
I wanted to crawl into the cracks on some day. The secretarial staff sure made me feel like a bug on some days. One afternoon, the dean laughed me to scorn as I sent two students who were fighting in class. It was an uneasy mix, to say the least. Most students had no idea what they were doing, it seemed. And then there were the students who had resigned themselves to failing, and there was nothing that i could do about it.
Most public schools resemble impassable fortresses, unassailable and overwhelming. I felt like the near-nameless protagonist K. in "The Castle", one of Kafka's many unfinished works, much like the sense of incompleteness that dogs at a teacher day in and day out. The main character in that novel is assigned to survey a castle, yet the moment that he arrives in the surrounding town, No respect, no understanding, arbitrary rules and expectations, no idea what is supposed to be happening, no clue as to what the students were supposed to be doing, going or thinking.
I have twenty weeks to teach forty weeks of content. I have gang-bangers, pregnant minors, chollos, haters, and race-baiters telling me what to do, where to stick my show, and I barely learned the bell schedule, which is off-kilter as a slanted bookcase.
I was a really frustrated teacher, then. I was so turned up on the inside, and I could not explain to myself why. This eerie sense of judgment, of low expectations from others, plus the high expectations that were crippling me, and I thought that I would have sunk into the floor, or at least crawl across it like a insurance-salesman turned grotesque beetle.
In public education, teachers feel like they are on trial all the time. Now, with budget cuts reducing teachers who banked on their longstanding in tenure to protect them from the ax, no one is safe from getting let go. I have lived the life of a first-year teacher, one who spent half of his brainpower trying to keep one step ahead of teacher, student, and parents complaints. I was juggling an impossible array of information, state and federal standards, declining return on the efficacy which I expected to receive from teaching young people. To fill the void of dissatisfaction, I enrolled in a Masters in Education program. I went from tedium to tension in one week. I was now doubly under the gun, unable to keep up with the demands of teaching, counseling, conferencing, and wading through the increasingly dirty, murky politics of public schools.
The principal finally caught up with me, after two parents, egged on by their bright and immoral daughter. He chewed me out at length, ranting about the nasty reputation I had "earned" at the school. I could not remember some of the nasty details that other students had alleged. He then accused me of usurping authority way over my head, anyway. I was trying to keep up with the mess, only to find that the mess of bungling educators and administrators overtakes everyone.
The principal, a tall and congenial man in the beginning, had gone from warm handshakes and greetings, to growing concerns, to leering looks, to outright rage. He was quite a schizo! The kind and saintly teacher who had taken me under her arms to complete my BTSA training told me in very curt terms: "He's an a--hole!" I had always assumed that butter would melt in her mouth, but she was breathing fire that night when I was on the phone telling her of my plight to get into another school.
The change in mood, in personality, in trust that turned into betrayal, I never rested in the knowledge that someone was watching out for me. Instead, every day felt as if someone was watching for me to fail or fall. This relentless pursuit of perfection was the worst condemnation I had ever endured yet.
On Trial, in a Castle, Metamorphosing into a insect of a man: this is the fate that awaits a growing number of instructors in the public school system, a lingering fate which I endure in South Gate for a little over a year.