What I Learned about Public Education from Subbing
For the last several weeks, I have worked as a substitute teacher in a local public school. It happens to be the school where I taught English throughout the 1990s. It has been a fascinating experience — disconcerting and inspiring at the same time.
The school is just as crazy as it was when I worked there. It is a predominantly minority school that serves the lowest income communities in our city. It faces all the struggles common to such schools — poor attendance, high dropout rates, low test scores, periodic violence, etc.The school has four full-time security personnel who patrol the hallways and remove unruly students from class. It also has a full-time uniformed beat cop who carries a gun with extra clips and a taser. The hallways are monitored throughout the day by security cameras. All attendees at sporting events must pass through metal detectors. The students in general are boisterous, disrespectful, and uninterested in education. It’s hard to imagine learning happening in a more inefficient and unconducive environment. It is borderline chaos from the opening bell to the mad dash for the exits in the afternoon. But, believe it or not, I still come away every time amazed and encouraged.
The experience reinforced my conviction that public education as an institution in this country is a giant mess. But despite the million disadvantages of the system, learning somehow still happens and young people are prepared — at least to some degree — for a productive future. This is true because within these walls are teachers and administrators with hearts for kids and a passion to make a difference. I spent time one day with the principal, a tenaciously optimistic educator, who was eager to tell me about a recently adopted program called AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination). Teachers in AVID identify young students with academic potential but any of a number of risk factors — poverty, abuse, family dysfunction, etc. These kids are given a special elective class period where they get concentrated attention by teachers determined to help them overcome their obstacles. The principal told me that after just a few years that group now rivals the students in the school’s IB program for college scholarship money!
I was introduced to a teacher whose job is “graduation coach.” All day long, she tracks down seniors to make sure they are getting things done so that they are ready to walk on graduation day. She is their friend, their taskmaster, their advocate, and their surrogate mom. The principal boasted that the school was starting to attract the cream of the crop of new teachers even though the school is still the toughest place to teach in the city, and that he didn’t care about lesson plans and red tape as long as teachers were getting the job done. He noted that in his mind, a quiet class doesn’t mean people are learning. He told me the trick is to figure out how kids learn best and find a way to make that happen. I couldn’t agree more.
I met a dozen teachers fighting the battle not just to teach lessons, but to convince students that what they were teaching is worth learning. That an education is worth the effort.
Don’t get me wrong. I have no regrets about our decision to homeschool our kids. As a system, public education is in many ways a disaster. I’m thankful that my family has had the means to do it ourselves. This is unfortunately not true for everyone, and for them, I’m glad that there are courageous, persevering, good-hearted teachers and administrators out there making the best of a challenging education system. It’s a mess. But it’s not nearly the mess it could be because it’s filled with so many good people determined to help kids make their lives better.
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