Public vs. private: Part I

My entire education (including college) came from public schools. I volunteered in public schools from my junior year in high school until I graduated college in 2008. I’m even a North Carolina Teaching Fellow. I always imagined that I would teach in public schools and I still strongly believe in free and accessible education for all people. (I’m a big ol’ socialist – also, dumb people are not so good at running things.)

It's got what plants crave...
It's got what plants crave...

Then I taught two years in Durham Public Schools at Lakewood Elementary School. Initially, I thought it was great. Sure, they were bogged down by Reading First, but everything else seemed perfect for me. The student population was overwhelmingly low-income, which was exactly the kind of school I wanted. In my interview I got the impression that the principal, Cornelius Redfearn, was enthusiastic and liked my background in science. He hired me right away and let me choose the grade level I would teach. It was his first year, too, so I also expected some sympathy and understanding regarding the challenges I would face as a new teacher.

It was the worst job I have ever had. Redfearn didn’t understand children, specifically the children who attended the school he was supposed to be running. He didn’t understand teachers, either. What did he understand? Office politics. He understood how to make himself look good to his bosses, and that was all that mattered. He refused to suspend children from school, even when they threatened or fought with each other repeatedly, such that we were celebrated for having a low suspension rate. He and the assistant principal were inconsistent with behavior management and showed no appreciation to the students, parents, teachers, or staff.

Our theme for my second year there was “No Excuses” – a reference to student test scores and how there are no excuses for low scores. Half of your class has documented learning disabilities for which they receive inconsistent, minimal support? That’s an excuse. Some of your students have only studied English for one or two years? Excuse. You should have tried harder, stayed later, managed behavior better – all while administering daily, weekly, quarterly, and semesterly assessments. I didn’t even have control over my lesson plans – everything, down to the page number of the math book, was assigned to the teachers from the district. I argued that it wouldn’t work; some of my students needed extra time on a concept. Excuse! I should have taught it better the first time. We effectively deleted the Social Studies from the curriculum, as well, to make room for a two-and-a-half-hour block of language arts time. This infuriated me, and I said so. I was the one who always asked for sources when we were presented with “data” on why this method of language arts instructions works. I questioned our testing methods. I suggested we have some flexibility with our lesson plans to tailor them to our students. I was a squeaky wheel – I dared to challenge the way things were done. I cared more about whether my students were eating, safe, and loved than the score they achieved on a single test in April. I kept work samples to show student growth in the inevitable event that a kid failed the End of Grade test and I needed to prove that they had actually learned something that year. Nobody trusted the teachers to actually determine if their students were learning.

Caring about your students was unappreciated – sometimes punished. You could not advocate for your students, have an opinion, or question authority. I was absolutely miserable, and there was nothing I could do about it. The economy was shit, so I couldn’t even quit and go elsewhere. Teachers in North Carolina lost their yearly pay increase my first year, and no new positions were opening up anywhere. Many schools were losing teachers and struggling with larger classes. At the end of my first year I considered applying elsewhere to see if I could find something better, but I decided to stick it out.

If I hadn’t been fired, I would still be there. I said the wrong thing to the wrong person who was buddies with so-and-so and didn’t like me, which resulted in me hearing the dreaded, “I’m going to recommend you for non-renewal of contract.” Non-renewal of contract. Fired. I was fired, for the first time in my life, from the job for which I had trained in college and planned to have since I was a middle school student tutoring my best friend in math. I couldn’t believe it. I fought it, but there was nothing to be done: I was a second-year teacher with a yearly contract that could be canceled for any reason. I refused to sign my final evaluation and wrote a rebuttal that I submitted explaining my unfair treatment. I cried in the hallways and cursed Redfearn’s name at every opportunity. Students of parents offered to go to bat for me, some of whom even went downtown to make my case. It didn’t matter, the result was the same. I was jobless in the midst of a recession and had no idea what I was going to do about it.

The saddest part? I actually started to believe that maybe I was the problem. I thought maybe I had screwed up. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a teacher. I considered being a secretary so that I could file papers and answer phones. I couldn’t screw that up. I felt like a failure; I deserved to be fired. The summer after I lost that job I barely even looked for another teaching job because I didn’t think anyone would want me. I wasn’t sure I could sell myself to a principal even if I got an interview. I was depressed and I felt completely worthless.

And then I found Camelot…

[This is the first of two posts about my journey from public schools to private schools. The second post can be found here.]

Teaching the Bible?

[Edited at the end.]

God’s Textbook

It’s been a debate for a long time, now, whether the Bible has a place in public schools. Several people agree that it does hold some very rich literature, but others try to push it as a historical resource, as well.

I disagree with both. While some Biblical stories are interesting, I have to say that they are too far-fetched for me. I’d rather read “The Iliad” or “The Odyssey”, Shakespeare, or Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. The Bible’s stories tend to be rather tedious to read, and rely too much on faith to be interesting to me as a nonbeliever. They are also a bit “preachy” at times, as well as repetitive and long-winded.

And as a history text, it is completely awful. There are no reliable resources, and the facts are skewed by religious influences – it was never meant to be a history book. Perhaps the Bible, itself, has made history, which is worthy of studying (the first printed book, the many translations, its affect on different cultures, etc). It was particularly interesting to study in my “History of Books” class my freshman year of college, but we didn’t study the content. History textbooks are inaccurate enough without adding the Bible to the list. Besides, I thought teachers and parents were pushing for more up-to-date history texts, anyway. The Bible was put together centuries ago – talk about outdated!

Even if certain stories do make it into a literature or history class, I think they should be a part of a course of a study, and should not make up the entire class. Most high schools don’t devote entire classes to studying any one particular work or author – the point of high school seems to be to get as much general knowledge as possible into students so they might go off to college and explore the specifics on their own. There simply isn’t time for a “Bible as literature/history” course in high schools. And the monetary resources aren’t there, either – we can barely fund music and art classes, let’s not waste time and money on textbook versions of the Bible and the teachers to teach it. Besides, I’m sure the Quran has some history and literature in it, too, but I don’t see anyone pushing for that to be taught in our schools. One or two stories in a class that focuses on literature in general is okay, but an entire class devoted to it is just ridiculous.

Disagree if you must, but make a good point for your argument.

21 March, 10:39pm EDT – I wanted to respond to Alan’s comment, below. This entry was pretty general, but there are groups (somewhat successfully) trying to get the Bible taught in schools; the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, the Bible Literacy Project, and Bible in the Schools, among others. According the first organization, “The Bible course curriculum has been voted into 373 school districts in 37 states… 190,000 students have already taken our course.” North Carolina is on the list.

a little introduction…

UPDATE: I am no longer sticking with this focus to the journal, but I’m leaving up all the old posts. Just FYI. (Update: 20 Dec 2010)

I need to get serious about this whole education thing – mine, and that of my future students. I have lots of ideas for things I want to do in my classroom, and I’ve seen things other teachers have done that I really like. I intend to post those things here, so that I will remember them and other teachers can find them.

I still have two years of school left before I finally get my own classroom, so for now this journal will be ideas I have for the future, peppered with education-related news (there’s no shortage of that, unfortunately it’s usually bad). There will probably be a fair amount of discussing my own education, too, but in the sense that it would relate to other teachers/education majors.

I would love contribution from other teachers, as well as comments from anyone… I want this to become sort of an education community. No one person has all the answers for how to teach every child – and as technology/communities/people change, teaching methods must evolve to keep up. Education is one of those fields in which everyone can and should be involved; if you aren’t a teacher, you are/were a student, or may possibly have children in school. And I believe that everyone should be concerned with the education of future generations of lawyers/teachers/doctors/politicians/parents/lawmakers/etc…

Something I will no doubt rant about in the future, repeatedly, is funding and the attitude some people without children have regarding funding local schools. So many times I have heard “well, I don’t have kids, so why should I be paying for schools/teachers I don’t need??” Because those kids will grow up to determine things that affect you – and if they’re uneducated and lack the resources to make informed decisions about the world around them, you will suffer. So, the point is, it doesn’t matter who you are, this stuff affects you, and your awareness of it and input to it affect you, as well.

So, please contribute/argue/rant/rave/etc… but keep it clean and respectful. Because I said so, and I’m in charge. 😉