"I have a VERY different job than you, Richard, but I DO TEACH. I just teach different things, and in different ways."
Date: Thu, 17 Jun 1999 10:21:25 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: Form Submission from www.rjgeib.com
EMAIL_SUBJECT: Feedback and or Questions
Name: Susan Ameson
You failed to mention the one reason all people are jealous of teachers -- summer vacation!
I teach 5th grade in suburban Detroit, and due to the clouds, I've spent my first three days of summer break glued to your words on the computer screen. Your web page is a black hole, sucking me in! I've never sat in front of a computer screen so long!
It seems you are quite an intelligent, well-read person. I've enjoyed reading all about you, your thoughts, and your heroes.
I have to say that the tribute to your mom was breathtaking. I took a break yesterday, from your black hole, to go visit my grandmother in a nursing home. I've watched Alzheimers ravage her mind, and now it's taking her body as well. The passages you wrote really touched me.
Ok, no more Mr. Nice Guy. I do want to take issue with a couple of things.
1. Ugh, you're a republican teacher??? At least in Michigan, Republicans do not have a wonderful record in supporting public schools. Our governor has been out to destroy teacher's unions since he got in office. In Detroit, as you can probably imagine, unions are extremely strong. Not that I agree with everything they stand for, but they do keep my wages well above the poverty level - at which most private school teachers are paid.
2. The letter you wrote to the woman about teaching in inner-city Chicago -- I happen to teach in the suburbs; however, most of my students are living in housing projects, and/or at very low-income. My school has a population that is about 85% minority. So you see, it's very similar to most inner-city schools.
I LOVE my job. Yes, that's easy to say 3 days into my summer vacation! But, seriously, I find it extremely rewarding.
You mentioned in your letter to her that "Even in the very rare chance that your administrators and parents give you the support and tools to actually teach -- an instructor in such a place is always going to have a hard time, the test scores are always going to suck, the students often will be violent, etc." How pessimistic can you get! Granted, I teach 5th grade. However gangs, drugs and violence encompass many of their lives. Do our test scores rival those in affluent suburbs. Hell,no! Do I have a peaceful, quiet classroom in which all children turn their work in on time? Absolutely not! Do my children talk out all of their conflicts without resorting to fists or weapons? No! But who do you suggest teaches them? Their parents are too caught up in their own problems, and often don't have the parenting skills they need. These children are desperate for love and success in their lives. It is reward enough for me to give just a bit of that to them.
You then go on to say, "If you really want to teach, I suggest you do what I did: go someplace where you are able to do so." Oh my goodness!!! Do you suggest that we teachers in at-risk schools do not teach?
I have a VERY different job than you, Richard, but I DO TEACH. I just teach different things, and in different ways. You're right, most of my kids do not come from homes where college education and great literature are priorities. But who are we, as college educated people, to say that these things should be a priority to everyone. I want my students to succeed in LIFE. I want them to be good, thinking human beings. If they never pick up a book by Dickens or Faulkner, or listen to a piece by Bach (which they do, by the way, in my classroom) their lives will be no less meaningful than mine or yours. Just different.
I have read enough about you to believe you are a well intentioned, caring person. I just think you are misguided in your views about teaching at-risk children.
3. I don't have a problem with the naked women, and I do consider myself a feminist. Surprising?
Three days of your webpage...I feel like we're buddies now! Enjoy your summer.
How is life treating you?: Wonderfully. Three days into summer vacation...I think I'll fix myself a margarita!
City?: Grosse Pointe Park
I am glad you liked my pages. Next week my vacation begins and I have planned an adventure of biking from Santa Monica to San Francisco and hiking in the mountains of Oregon. Before I leave in the middle of July, however, I have much work to do to prepare for improved lesson plans I have planned for next year. Only during summer vacation can I find the time to make significant changes and improvements in curriculum. *sigh*
I am no big fan of Republican educational policies, but I absolutely hate and mostly blame the Democrats for what has happened to public schools in the past 30 years. And I think the best thing you could do for public schools is get rid of the teachers'' unions! (I had to join one whether I wanted to or not in Los Angeles, and I had no say on whether my money went to them or not. What does that say about public schools?) I believe in public education but it will never change unless the comfortably mediocre (at best!) unions and administrators get their cages rocked. For example, I voted for school vouchers here in California not because I really agreed with them but to register my voice in opposition to the pathetic status quo. I really believe that in a place like Los Angeles almost anything is better than what we have now.
Without a good educational base, we cannot sustain our economy or preserve our democracy; and we need to get our priorities squared away and demand excellence from students and schools: the op-ed columns of the newspapers and the speeches of politicians are filled with this kind of talk. But rather than being in favor of Republicans or Democrats and their educational policies, I have a different approach. Turn off the damn TV! Clean up the crumbling schools and fill them with books! Fire incompetent teachers! Flunk students who fail classes instead of simply passing them to the next grade! Abolish the teachers' unions and education departments in the universities that expend so much money and energy on agit-prop social activism instead of helping teachers to teach! Although these institutions see themselves as central to educational reform, they are as much a part of the problem as anything else! I would devolve as much money and power as possible directly to the parents and teachers involved at the local level and demand results and hold everyone accountable. No excuses! But neither Republicans or Democrats really want such a revolution in the schools and so I pay little attention to education in the political arena.
I now teach in a select private school (although I hope to return to public schools eventually) in Bel Air where I make about the same as public school teachers but (unlike in public schools) am strongly supported by both teachers and administrators and held accountable by them. Bad teachers get fired in this school! That is how it should be. I have no tenure, but I really don't need it: I earn my next year's contract year by year. If I didn't do my job well, I would be fired -- as I should be! And if a kid is really bad in my school, they kick her or him out! That is how it should be. The whole point of a school is that students should learn and teachers should teach -- all else should support that dynamic! And if anything gets in the way of that, they should work to remedy the situation and if that does not work remove the source of conflict. Schools today are way too tolerant of both students who will not behave or learn and teachers who cannot teach. The teachers' unions protect teachers who are inept, and political forces usually protect students who are out of control -- since they are most often "of color." If you hold high standards and punish those who don't rise to the high expectations, you will most likely have more "people of color" being penalized. And so there is a stink. And the public schools collectively suffer. Granted not all students in high poverty areas want to learn... but couldn't we at least teach those who do? They are the ones who are willing to work for it! And we let them down in catering so much to the unregenerate few.
Clearly there are as many types of teaching jobs as there are types of school. Working in a high poverty area a teacher, as you described, a teacher does as much parenting-policing, citizenship-acculturation work, and crisis counseling as do they teach subject material. If that is what you like, then all the more power to you! Especially if you work with elementary school students who do not yet threaten you or bring weapons to school, it can be very rewarding to help those with not much going for them in terms of the academic richness of their home lives or in extended opportunities to learn. On the other hand, if you love the subject material you teach is the reason you went into education, then you are most likely never going to be thrilled by students who are unenthusiastic students and more often than not several years behind grade level. I belong to that category. Teaching high achieving students currently, I often get excited about school (as do the students) and wake up ready in the morning to teach or to learn; and since everyone is already at a high level, we can hit the ground running and then go even faster along the year. I remember teaching Anne Frank to sixth grade Chicano students who did not know where Germany was on a map and had never met a Jewish person other than one of their teachers. Ugh! We never did get into much depth in that unit. But now I have teenagers who already are world travelers and who chances are had their parents introduce them to Dickens or Faulkner before they entered my class; and so the teaching moves much faster and the learning goes much deeper.
I am very much happier in such an environment than one where students are worrying more about the lack of food in their homes or security in the school and neighborhood. I did not teach elementary school but both middle and high school! I taught right there near downtown Los Angeles! Jesus! What a mess! In having so many students who wrote and read so badly in the L.A. city schools where I worked, I always felt I was part of a train wreck in progress! And why would I voluntarily go work as a teacher in an area where school and reading and writing are low priorities? (It is like being a dedicated soldier in the Italian military famous for losing wars! Being an honest politician in Mexico responsible for cutting down on official corruption! A near oxymoron!) You talk about the importance of teaching a student to be a good person and of course that of all things is most important. I would anyday prefer a good-hearted "C" student to one mean-spirited who, blessed with superior intelligence, has learned to use it as a weapon. But if a student does not learn to read, write, and think critically, they are going to have major problems later in life: a person who cannot communicate effectively in standard academic prose is de facto eliminated from the larger world of literate humanity. As a teacher you want to be a positive influence in a child's life, but your main job is to give him or her the academic tools with which to succeed in life. (Reading, writing, and thinking!) One of my biggest problems with public education is that so many teachers today are more counselors or community activists than they are lifelong learners and scholars in the subject material they teach. Look at all how many fail their teacher qualification exams! Who cannot pass basic skills tests for minimum competency! And these are the "teachers"?
Do I believe we should become so depressed in looking at the hard lives and meager academic achievement of "at-risk" kids that we do nothing? No. Do we not educate these children because their parents are poor and illiterate? Of course not. We must do all we can for them. But I will not be a part of that dynamic: I learned I am constitutionally allergic to reading essays handed in by 15- or 16-year olds that look and read like gibberish more appropriate to an 8-year old. Even students so far behind in their studies need teachers, but what I know and want to teach do not intersect with that which a ninth-grader who reads and writes at a second-grade level needs or probably wants. Do I make myself more clear now?
I don't mind playing the part of surrogate parent and adult role model for my students when appropriate with teenagers often undergoing confusing changes in their lives, but I am an English and history teacher first and foremost. A student recently wrote me, "I always was eager to hear your comments about my essays and always hoped you would commend me for my good work. I learned its not about if the teacher says it's good - it is if I wrote it well and backed up my original thought." I would that this student had a good relationship with me, her teacher (as she did); but I wanted her work first and foremost to be of high quality. No excuses! In the L.A. city schools it seemed I met very few teachers who liked what they were doing or who thought they were churning out confident, well-educated "thinking" students from their classes. I met many who were trapped with seniority and had mortgages to cover and so continued resignedly to teach in troubled schools where the "students" were not students. I am glad the situation is better where you teach. You are doing God's work in loving students who might not get much love or direction at home. However, you are doing a much different job than I am in teaching 13-year olds to compare St. Augustine and Petrarch and contrast the Medieval Age of Faith with the secular humanism of the Renaissance -- which was my culminating in-class essay this year. 80 minutes to write and pass or choke and fail! This is the stuff of scholarship! You might say I am an elitist, and maybe you are right. But keep in mind that in both as a "good-a-teacher-I-could-be" and as an "idealistic-young-man-wanting-to-help" capacities in inner-city schools, emergency rooms, and county jails where I worked for years with poor and at-risk youth here in Los Angeles that I know whereof I speak. I am talking about things which I have thought through long and hard.
Obviously we are coming from different places in our careers. You claim it is reward enough to give your students a bit of love and success. It is not enough for me -- I demand they also produce academically. You mention that if a person never picks up a book by Dickens or Faulkner, or listens to a piece by Bach, then their lives will be no less meaningful than ours but only different. True enough. But I will be damned if ever again I work in an environment so lacking in literacy and learning. End of story.
Now I am glad to stop talking about that topic. I get angry thinking about low achieving schools, and I put that entire stage of my life firmly behind me. A teacher well into my career with a resume that ain't half bad, I will never have to teach in such a school again. Enough said.
I was sorry to hear to hear about your grandmother. It is difficult to describe, but my mother's demise and death was a very special time for me. It was not altogether painful and desolate; there were many moment of ineffable beauty and great love and communication. In the end, it is something I would have greatly regretted for the rest of my life to have missed. Your grandmother is still around and you have the chance to say "good-bye" in your own special time and way; many people are not given as much, as their loved ones get run over by busses, are shot down dead in the street, or fall from the sky in airliners. There is reason to be thankful.
Please enjoy your summer and prepare for next year as a better, stronger teacher than you were last year.
I trust this message finds you well both personally and professionally. Be well.
Very Truly Yours,
P.S. It does not surprise me you are a "feminist" who doesn't mind pictures of naked women. But you would appear then hardly to be the type of feminist to hang around with Germaine Greer or Andrea Dworkin whining about the tyranny of the "patriarchy" or "objectification" of women.