Grant Us Slack!


It's the Hardest Job You'll Ever Love

For a few years in the 90s, I was a high school American History teacher in Cambridge, MA. I will change some of the names to protect the guilty, but it was an interesting experience.

The first thing I'd have to say is that as someone who's worked probably a couple of dozen different jobs, ranging from driving a forklift to running a retail store, teaching is by far, no exceptions, the hardest job I've ever had. And anyone who thinks teachers are overpaid goof-offs who get long vacations in the summer should try doing it for a week. Just one week.

The number one fear of most Americans is said to be public speaking. As a teacher, you're speaking in public for several hours a day -- before a potentially hostile audience that may actually hoot and throw things at you if you screw up. Or if they just happen to show up in a bad mood.

And if that isn't enough, you also have to figure out what to say. It's a little like having to appear five times a week in a 6 or 7 hour long play that you also have to go home and write every night in your "off hours."

Are there lazy and incompetent teachers who get away with doing very little? Yup, you bet, just like there are lazy and incompetent people in every other profession I've ever been in. But the job, done even half right, is amazingly time and energy-intensive. The only thing I can imagine that might be in the same league is being a nurse, a combat infantryman or a big-city cop. At least when you're a teacher, people aren't bleeding on you or shooting at you. Usually.

And all this for a starting salary that in 40 states is less than the starting salary of a garbage man.

I have no intention of ever going back into teaching, although there were many things I really loved about it, so I can say without any self-interest... we oughta pay teachers about twice what we do. I'm not holding my breath, though. It seems that for every person I meet who thinks teachers deserve more, I meet another who's convinced that it's an easy job for pampered dummies.

To which I say try it -- for just one week.

A Fairly Rough Lot

I taught in a vocational school (since, I hear, re-organized out of existence). Before describing my students, I will say that I loved teaching them. The only reason I left teaching was because I had to leave that program. If I could have kept teaching "my kids" I'd probably still be there.

That said, it is a time-honored American tradition to use vocational programs as a dumping ground, and our program was certainly just that. In Europe, they do it a little differently. If you are judged to be an idiot, they either push you out of school in 8th grade or stick you in a program where you learn to be a janitor. In America, if you are judged to be an idiot, they put you in a program to become a highly skilled manual tradesman.

There are a number of reasons for this, I think. One is that American educational thought tends to be dominated by extremely privileged intellectuals who wouldn't know a pipe wrench from an entrenching tool and who honestly believe that being, say, an electrician is a suitable job for a complete idiot.

Another is that we like to think, like Father Flanagan, that there's no such thing as a bad (or stupid) boy or girl. When we put kids we have judged to be idiots and losers into vocational programs, we convince ourselves that we are doing something useful for them and for society.

And of course, we never admit to ourselves that we are creating dumping groups for kids assumed to be morons. Instead we talk about "likes to work with his hands," "tactile learners," etc.

But I think it's fair to say that nearly every kid in my program was there because he or she (and we had a few girls) had been judged to be stupid, crazy, antisocial, or just plain useless.

So were they?

Well, in a few cases, sure. I typically had about one sociopath per year -- more about how I dealt with them later. And I had more than my share of kids who weren't that bright, had serious emotional problems, and/or lived lives of total chaos due to family problems. But I also had some kids who were plenty bright but had gone to the wrong elementary school, grown up in the wrong zip code, or hung out with the wrong crowd. I guess overall, I'd say I didn't get too many rocket scientists, but neither did I find that I spent a lot of time talking to brick walls.

What most of my kids had in common was two things:

  1. They were poor.
  2. They didn't know shit.

What they didn't know was a constant source of amazement to me when I first started teaching. A lot of them didn't know how to read and write at more than a very basic level (I was teaching in 10th grade). But even beyond that, a lot of them had never been to Boston (a 10 or 15-minute walk from most of their neighborhoods). They couldn't find the U.S. on a map. When I gave them a quiz on the first day, I discovered that they thought the slaves were freed in the 1970s, the telephone was invented in the 1400s, and so on and so forth.

They often had a very good picture of how different historical eras looked and some of their basic characteristics (from watching TV), but it was all a big confused mess.

Dealing with the Loonies

One of my first challenges was figuring out how to deal with the true sociopaths and loonies. Like I said, about one a year. One thing I figured out pretty quick is that like any somewhat dysfunctional bureaucracy, the high school contained people who were happy to solve your problems — if you would help solve theirs. One such was Tony Carnabucci, now sadly dead from the cigs he constantly smoked in violation of school policy. He was our vice principal, in charge of discipline, a tough-talking, gravel voiced product of "the neighorhood," which in his case meant Revere, a town out on the shore by Logan airport just as tough as Tony.

I made friends with Tony by not pretending to be anything other than a college boy and by not minding his smokes. And I quickly learned Tony had a problem I could help with. He got kids all the time in search of a classroom. Referred by the courts, just out of juvie, thrown out of other schools... Boston, like most big cities had a population of such kids shuffling from school to school to school. Naturally, teachers weren't overjoyed to get these kids. So I made a deal: I'd take any kid from Tony, no questions asked, and give the kid a fair chance. In return if I had a kid I truly needed to get rid of, all I had to do was send them down to Tony's office (all pre-arranged of course). And those kids would be gone. No paperwork, no questions, no parent conferences. I would literally never see them again, and neither would anyone else. For all I know, Tony had them whacked and buried them out back. I didn't ask.

This turned out to be a great deal for both of us. And for the kids. About half of the kids Tony sent me worked out ok. The rest drifted on to some other location.

Once I had things set with Tony, I'd make a drama out of it. Everybody enjoys a little drama, and it helps make your point.

I would always know who the real psychos were by the second or third week of class. I'd select my yearly honoree, make arrangements with Tony, and then throw my thunderbolt. I'd wait for the kid to do something particularly stupid, stop the class and say "Joe, I want you to go down to Mr. Carnabucci's office — and I never want to see you again!"

My other students would laugh and cut up, sure that good old Joe would be back tomorrow to cause more chaos... and then nobody would ever see the kid again.

Word got around.

So here's to you, Tony. I hope you're smoking wherever you are.

Figuring Out What to Teach

Once I got all that discipline stuff figured out (and obviously, in the telling, the process is a little smoother and more logical than it was in real life), I had to figure out what to teach these kids, and how. This was all before No Child Left Behind, so it was all up to me. Which on balance, I think, was a very good thing, because I came up with some crazy stuff that actually worked.

A couple of things I hit on right away. One thing I figured out from my own learning is that it's really hard for most people (myself included) to learn something without a good overall framework. So since I was teaching history, I gave my kids a framework of dates. Like I said, they really did think the telephone was invented in the 1400s -- the world was just one big chaotic found artifact to them. Dates have a bad name in the teaching of history. I guess maybe at one time there really were lots of history teachers who made their students memorize 100s of dates without really providing any understanding of what they meant. Maybe. I never had any teachers like that.

Anyway, my guess is that the people who decided that dates were boring and a bad idea were probably not people who went around thinking that the telephone was invented in the 1400s.

Which as long as I'm rambling along here, brings me to one of my biggest complaints about ed school and a lot of the well-intentioned folks I dealt with in Cambridge. Most people with generally left-wing ideas of education are themselves middle class or affluent. They have a really hard time relating to thinking that the telephone was invented in the 1400s, or how idiotic such a lack of knowledge must make the world appear. I mean, it's idiotic enough even if you do know when the telephone was invented.

This leads them to work really hard to come up with "relevant" instruction without much rigor or substance. Whereas if their own kid came home from school and said the telephone was invented in the 1400s, they would be really upset. "What the hell are they teaching them at that school?"

I didn't aim to make my teaching relevant. I did my best to make it meaningful. I taught the same ideas and much of the same material I would have taught if I'd been asked to instruct a room full of AP history kids from the right side of the tracks. And while I thought it was very important to give my students a framework of facts, I made sure to connect those facts to a series of themes and ideas, and return to those ideas over and over again during the year.

With NCLB making my teaching experience sort of an historical relic, I guess everyone now gets their heads stuffed full of trivia, but I still wonder how coherent it all is. And I guess my opinion of the whole approach being followed now is that the whole idea was based on the achievements of Bush's first Secretary of Education and his great successes in Houston -- only about halfway through Bush's first term it came out that they'd faked all the statistics.

So anyway, I came up with this odd approach of picking about a dozen of the most important dates in U.S. history (which you can see on my Final Exam) and going on from there. The dates were subjectively selected, but they helped define eras. The Model T, the first really affordable car. The first year they showed the World Series on TV, giving you an idea of when that all started. And so on.

Along with dates, I thought that rote learning had been given a bad rap, so I started giving weekly quizzes. Each quiz contained the entire last week's quiz, plus a few new things. So throughout the year, it kept getting longer and longer, and it went all the way back to the first week of school. Finally at the end of the year, it had all the most important stuff from the entire year on it, and that was the final exam. And it wasn't all just facts either. One of the main themes of my class was concepts of authority, and that stuff got woven in as well. Plus I threw in a few things that I thought were just useful -- like a self-diagnostic test for alcoholism, and some information on people with personality disorders and how to avoid them.

The great part of this approach for my students, who were mostly average or low IQ, was that if you stuck to it, you would get it, because the material got repeated on every weekly quiz. The stuff at the beginning you'd see 30 or so times before the end of the year. At one point it occured to me that it didn't even matter if you cheated (not that I encouraged that). Even if you copied the date of the Model T's introduction from someone else's paper, by the time you copied it 30 times, you'd learn it anyway.

Some Random Insights

Make Standards Clear

One thing I learned about teaching poor kids who have had a lot of failure in school is that you have to make grading very clear. Most of them believe that whether you pass or fail depends on whether the teacher likes you. So I told them first day that there were only two things they had to do to pass my class: show up and do the work. If they wanted an A, they'd have to do more than that, but no one who showed up and did the work would fail. Of course, that's pretty much any teacher's standard, but I don't know how often teachers say that to students, because they assume of course the kids would know that. Nope. So throughout the year, whenever anyone asked me if they were passing, I'd say "Are you showing up and doing the work?" And they'd know. Of course if they wanted more specifics, I'd show them. And again, very simple. I kept all my grades on computer, which was uncommon then but I'm sure universal now. And I'd go through it with them, grade by grade. If you're teaching poor kids -- and I don't mean poor but underachieving kids with IQs of 130 -- you want to keep your grading system really clear in terms of how the math is set up. You want them to be able to look at it and see how you arrived at the grade, even if their math skills are rudimentary. Kids who have had terrible experiences in school with lots of failure really need to feel that you're fair and that the grading system is very transparent. You've kept good records, you can show them where they stand at any time, and it all adds up, figuratively and literally.

Super Teachers

Which brings me to a pet peeve: the miraculous success of the "super teacher" who grabs a bunch of poor kids and teaches them Latin, chess, calculus, string theory, whatever... Contests are won. Scholarships are awarded. Maybe even 60 Minutes or Hollywood comes calling. Now these folks are invariably first-rate teachers -- they're great, they're impassioned, they're usually utter workaholics. Can we transform our educational system simply by finding 100,000 "super teachers?" Nope, because they are all working with poor but really bright kids. You want to show dramatic improvement -- get yourself a bunch of miseducated, demoralized poor kids with high IQs and walk into that classroom and knock their socks off with great teaching. If you're good, and work like a demon, they will respond and achieve. And it's a great thing. But it's not going to work for the kid with an IQ of 101, which is why no matter how many "super teachers" there are, there never seems to be a way to make the magic spread.

Why I Quit

I actually got one or two gifted kids every year, just like I got one or two crazy kids every year. But for the most part, my kids ranged from a bit below average (and sometimes more than a bit) to a bit above average. And that was the gig I wanted, silly me. The main reason I quit teaching is that I got laid off from the po' folks program and to continue I would have had to accept a job at a program teaching mostly gifted kids. I figured those kids already had lots of great teachers. And educated parents. And in many cases lots of money. They were more fun to hang out with (I student taught at that program) -- the brightest ones were more or less peers to whom you could relate to almost like adults. But I didn't figure I was getting paid to hang out with interesting adolescents and cover advanced material that would amuse me intellectually. I was already amused. I was getting paid to teach, and it seemed like I was in a place already where the need was greatest. So I quit.

And that's what about half of all new teachers do in their first 3 to 5 years.

The best compliment I got from one of my students, ever, was the year I quit. This guy was a classic "back bencher" who was certainly not a genius. He had a long record of poor performance in school going all the way back to elementary school and read and wrote several grade levels below where he should have been. But I guess he took my "show up and do the work" slogan seriously because he showed up and did the work. At the end of the year, he had an honest 59 point something -- just enough to earn the minimum passing grade. And he knew it was no gimme, because he'd shown up and done the work. When he came up to get his grade on the last day of class, he told me that he didn't think he could learn anything before he took my class, and now he knew he could.

As a teacher, you know you make those kind of differences in people's lives now and then, but it's not often someone walks right up and tells you on the spot.

Would I do it again? I dunno. The sad truth is that I don't see how I could afford it, and I'm not sure if my style of freewheeling creativity would survive in the post-NCLB world. But maybe. You never know.

Last Updated July 11, 2007