(The following is a letter to a fellow teacher from Florida
with whom I developed an e-mail project.)

          Dear Pat,

          .....There is a thing going on at my school where certain teachers are being pressured to give higher grades. I am not among the teachers that give the worst grades, but I think it is known that I think we ought to expect more from our students than we do. Today we had a meeting with all the teachers in the school in which one of the major themes was "standards" and raising student achievement. This theme could not be more important to us in the context of the present situation. Stupidly, I raised my hand and asked, "And what if the students do not meet the standards that we teachers set?" She then went on to talk about how it is the responsibility of the teacher to ensure that a student learns and if you have a student in your class for a whole semester, it is your fault if they don't learn anything. She then went on to threaten reviews, etc. of teachers who do not pass the vast majority of their students.

          With so many hardcore and/or illiterate students in my school who pass with minimal effort and achievement and care not one jot, I am sure what she was saying sounded ludicrous to many in the audience. She claimed middle school should be a "nurturing" environment that does not hurt the "self-esteem" of students. She said if a student fails it is the fault of the teacher. As a noted Polish-immigrant teacher from New York told me recently, "I have taught in nine different countries, and the United States is the only country in the world where if a student fails a test they blame anyone else but the student." The LAUSD is the biggest enabler of failure I have ever seen. And failure is important for young people; sometimes they need to fail and then try again with more success. In my own life, I have needed to fail. In my opinion, this lack of consequences for failure has a lot to do with how we end up with "C" average students graduating from high school who cannot read their diplomas. I felt kind of insulted and embarrassed, and was pretty steamed for all of an afternoon.

          I could see some of the veteran teachers looking at me with a look of, "That rookie teacher should know better than to open his mouth like that - even if he is right. It won't help anything and is a no win situation." These other more experienced teachers look at the principal's speech as just more hot air that means nothing in reality. They think me unwise for putting such an impolitic question to her, even if it was highly relevant. I can see them with their years and years of encrusted cynicism saying to themselves, "You can try talking to these administration people. Of course, you can also try talking to a barnyard animal for all the good it will do you." Of course, I should have just shut my mouth and said nothing.

          I know this situation is a disaster. The public knows this situation is a disaster. I think the only people who don't know this situation is a disaster are the people in charge. They allude to it at times, but (in my opinion) they lack the courage or means to make the radical changes necessary. They are invested in the status quo. It is hard on my integrity at times to work for such a system. I often do not have a comfortable feeling, or that gumption that this is "good" or that I are involved in something positive. After all, we are talking about the education and futures of these young people! However, I know that this job is serving my ends for the time being. I also know that I will not be here forever. And when I leave to some better place I will some day look back and contemplate the sorry state that Berendo Middle School will (of course) still be in and know that I was right and they were wrong. Let the school remain in a state of heavy duty denial where nobody says what they really feel.

          So my principal is a little rude to me and does not think me a "team player." She embarrasses me in front of all the other teachers. I can at least take a step back and take a look at the more important bigger picture and my place in it. As an adult, I can do my job the best I can for a few more months and then leave. I can finally walk into my principal's office and give her my notice, wish her luck in the future and go someplace else. If something is just not working and you gnash against it constantly, you have the obligation to your own health to just take a step back and walk away. I would resist the temptation to get mad and tell them off. I would not get real upset about the shortcomings of academia and academic institutions. When you think of your professors and their displeasure with you and their bruised egos, just see the situation as not working and then walk away and find something better.

          I doubt anyone is ever totally satisfied with their jobs or their place in the world. I, for one, am not looking for perfection from an employer. But I also know that I am working for a highly dysfunctional system with the Los Angeles Unified School District. During the next ten years I plan to work very hard to get to a place in my career (a better school district, "AP" classes) which is superior and then really do some teaching. Now I am almost doing as much parenting and social work as teaching. I became a teacher because of my love of learning and the life of the mind; this inner-city school is not and never will be a center of intellectual ferment. The average verbal SAT score at our feeder high school (Belmont High) is an abysmal 298 out of 800 (signing your name gets you a 200) and what does it mean to teach English in such an environment? I don't need perfection, but neither do I want to keep on working with the lowest of the low of whom so many have very little going for them and so much stacked in their disfavor.

          I could keep working for the LAUSD for the next twenty years. But as one teacher told me recently, "I have too much respect for myself to work here for the rest of my career." And yet I can see exactly what happens to many teachers: they become more or less comfortable at their school, move up the pay ladder and gain some seniority, buy a house and are stuck where they are. And then they sit and listen to well meaning but naive professors and administrators give in-services year after years and think to themselves, "This guy is so full of it!" As a young man why would I want to stay in such a situation? Why would I not become another of the more than 50% of new teachers who leave the LAUSD within their first five years on the job?

          As I am no longer upset in the heat of the moment with my principal, I look at the larger picture and see that today and what happened in the ends lacks much importance. This will all be a part of my past soon enough and I can look back and feel happy that I am no longer a part of it (or proud that I endured it). All I have to do is plan my career well and hustle my butt to get where I want to be.


          Dear Richard,

          Your principal sounds like a certifiable idiot. She is probably so frustrated by test scores being low and a lousy student body that she doesn't know how to cope so blames the teachers. What is weird is that our principal stood up in a faculty meeting about 2 weeks ago and told us to keep our standards high, and flunk them if they don't meet them. He didn't want kids getting high school diplomas who can't read, etc. Out of 160 some kids I gave 59 F's on the last report card. These are kids who could have passed but chose not to by not handing in the research paper, biography, interviews, etc. It's not that I am teaching over their heads, so I have no sympathy for them. Kids who try and turn in their work I give D's to, just for trying. I called 22 parents of kids who didn't turn in a research paper that I spent 5 weeks on in class. Of the 22 I got 3 horribly incomplete papers as a result. I will never bother doing that again. I also called 5 parents of kids who went from A the first 9 weeks to F the second, and four of them blamed me for the change. Yeah, right.

          To keep my spirits up, I try to talk to and look at the students who care about what I am teaching when I am in front of the class. The rest I try to ignore if they are quiet enough to let me. I just got this new batch of 160 so I don't know names yet, but have learned a few real quick, if you know what I mean. I don't think my situation is nearly as bad as yours though. You definitely need a new job so that your quality of life is good. We only come this way but once -- don't waste your life being miserable.

          Kids are coming soon. Gotta go. Cheer up, now I'm worried about you. And I don't think you should be embarrassed about what happened in the faculty meeting. At least you had the guts to point out the stupidity. I would have to, I think.


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