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We Can't Get No Educashion: A Critique Of US Public Schools

Down In The Trenches, Anecdotal Evidence From The Classroom

 
By Emily Spence
 
 
08/26/07 "ICH" -- -The first day that I substitute taught for the "T" * school district, it was in a special education school during the winter. I was elated to have been called up the day after I completed my paperwork for the position! So, I could barely wait to meet my class of eight and nine year olds, who had severe dyslexia compounded by other problems (such as legal blindness, ADD and other afflictions).
 
All was going fairly well except during rest hour before which I had placed the children on the floor around my chair. Suddenly, after settling them down, one of the boys abruptly arose from his blanket and stomped on the head of a smaller boy whose glasses, then, shattered while his face got all bloodied from the glass and the blows.
 
After checking the hurt boy, I told the children to keep lying still, grabbed the aggressive boy with one hand and the victim with the other while moving quickly to the intercom button where I asked for immediate medical assistance from the nurse. (At the end of the school day while I was filling out the accident report, the principal kindly told me that I handled everything perfectly and that this sort of incident frequently happens. Therefore, I shouldn't view it as an inadequacy on my part.) 
 
At the same time, he invited me back to his school the next day to substitute for five days in a classroom for emotionally disturbed teenagers. I replied that I would be glad to do so and returned the next day to find that the room's educational supplies and attendance book had been locked in a closet. Meanwhile as I was checking the storeroom's locked door, a thirteen year old, who had been raped during which time one of her parents was killed, was trying to climb through the second story window to commit suicide (an action which she frequently tried, I was later told) while two boys, larger than I am, were trying to stab each other's eyes out with pencils. What should I do under the circumstances?
 
I grabbed the girl with one hand and, with her in tow, I physically placed my body between the boys while commanding them, in the most officious tone of voice, that I forbid such behavior and  they WILL sit down immediately at their desks so that we can sort out their argument.
 
Other than a few further potentially perilous incidents, the week went fairly smoothly as I managed, despite the lack of unavailable educational materials, to engage the students in a project involving writing instructional booklets about various subjects that they were learning for which they took out books from the school's library. Then I let them take turns teaching each other about these topics that they'd been studying during the week before my arrival. It all was slated as a review of sorts.
 
In addition, I had, on the first day, brought my own educational supplies and lesson plans, which I also used with the students. Indeed, my class time went so well that the principal told me that he hated to see me go, but had to tell the school district scheduler that I was one of the best teachers who he'd ever seen and I, therefore, should be given a permanent assignment.
 
The next morning at six AM, I was offered a long-term post to teach a combined fifth and sixth grade class in X school. The building, itself, was modern and, to save money in its construction, it was an "open space " institution, meaning that there were no walls between classrooms. Moreover, all of these were located on the second floor except for mine, that was on the first and had, originally, been slated to serve as an art center.
 
Initially, I wondered about this arrangement of having a separated class and the assistant principal staying in the room most of the first day that I taught. However, I figured that the school had run out of classroom space and he was just being overly conscientious. Besides, he spent increasingly less time in my company as the week wore on. By then, though, I'd pretty much figured out (supplemented by information from other teachers) about the overall arrangements concerning this particular group of youngsters.
 
They went like this:
 
All of the fifth and sixth students who were deemed unmanageable were put in the isolated room. This was in lieu of sending them to a special education division in that the city managers had run out of funding for special education and were even sending some children out of the city to other public and private special education schools due to lack of sufficient accommodations in "T." In addition, the backlog for evaluating students in dire need was two years + as there were only two psychologists for the whole district evaluating a student body comprised of over 20,000 students.
 
At the same time, all of the teachers preceding me had abruptly quit the class (so that the youth had had no steady teacher for the whole school year except, occasionally, the assistant principal),  Meanwhile, the last two had walked out due to quite unfortunate circumstances.
 
The first, when the whole class had run out of the building, decided to chase them and she got buried in a snowbank. (Luckily she was uncovered before there was a need for an ambulance crew). The second was duct taped to a chair which was dragged to a broom closet where a janitor found him well after the school had closed for the day. Deeply ashamed of the whole affair, he helped the custodian clean up his urine puddle before leaving the school for good.
 
My own defining moment, during which I decided that I would not continue with this class, occurred after I got a contact "high" upon leaving the bathroom attached to the "art room" at the end of the day. I had gone in it to make sure that the facets were turned off and that the stalls were not trashed.
 
Afterwards, I floated down to the principal to tell her that I was sure that I knew about which boy had smoked in the bathroom and explained my evidence. I also asked whether I could wait on school grounds until I felt normal as I didn't want to drive under the influence. Likewise, I asked whether I should call or visit the boy's parents to discuss his bringing marijuana to school.
 
In reply, she stated that she'd once met the boy's mother and, in an uncontrollable rage over a non-confrontational comment by the principal, the mother swore and threw a chair at the her. In addition, the boy's older brother had thrown Molotov cocktails out of the apartment that he shared with the boy and his mother. This had occurred during a raid two weeks previously due to a prostitution and drug dealing ring operating out of the household coming to the attention of the police department.
 
Molotov cocktails aside, the officers, eventually, broke down the apartment's door and overwhelmed the brother by force. (He was currently in jail awaiting trial.). So now the boy only lived with his mother. Therefore, all looked pretty good, the principal alleged, if the boy were only using marijuana. Besides, it would be dangerous to tangle with his mother. Therefore, I should just let the incident go.
 
Besides, she continued, I couldn't definitely prove that it was him, anyway, and she could positively guarantee that I did not want to get on the mother's bad side since she could hunt me down using the telephone directory. Then my life would be in utter havoc. Therefore, she emphatically repeated, I should just let the whole affair go.
 
Indeed, I did. I let it All go because the class was just too tough to manage on top of which I didn't need any possible altercations with violent parents.
 
I gave a two day resignation and, after my final day of teaching, I bid farewell to the whole class, which had been so hard to teach that I had a stomachache each day while driving to work. I also wished the two pregnant girls good luck and sent two other children to the nurse due to evidence of ringworm and head lice (both of which are highly contagious). Then I, literally, washed my hands of the whole matter.
 
The day after leaving, I was again called by a "T" dept of education official and asked to become a long term substitute in, I was assured, a far easier class. The assignment had come up, she added, due to a teacher's death.
 
So, this new position was for a forth grade at a different setting and I decided to try out the next offering as the staff member was so adamant about the new group of children being a breeze to handle.
 
After arriving at the new school, I found out that my class had thirty-two students. Two thirds of them had remedial classes outside of my classroom at various points during the day, which made it hard for me to teach a lesson to the whole group. However, I was assured, by the other fourth grade teacher at the school, that this was the bright fourth grade class, amongst two in existence at the school.
 
As she alleged to me concerning their intelligence... They may seem smarter than my children and they are. All the same, they are really quite stupid and cannot learn. Therefore, don't bother to teach much. It's a waste of your and their time. Instead, simply let them play most of the day and then you'll have only few disciplinary problems in your class.
 
Therefore, my recommendation is that you just write up your lesson plans as stating that the value of some games are that they teach problem solving, strategy in competition and so on. Then you will have a soft time in the classroom and you can easily stick it out, as I am, until you retire and get a pension.
 
Another teacher, a sixth grade teacher, had a different plan about his own future in lieu of hers. Indeed, he told me that he had had too much of "T" teaching and was totally burned out. On account, he was planning to leave instruction forever at the end of the current school year despite that he had been an educator for almost fifteen year. At the same time, he hadn't a clue about whatever he would do for work instead.
 
Then he went on to related his reasons for choosing to leave. They are as follows:
 
 He was tired of constantly having to keep his eyes on the students at the back windows. Since they didn't have screens and these pupils always stole scissors from the supply closet, there was a constant problem involving their shooting the implements like arrows out of the window when anyone was going into the school building. (His room's windows were directly above the entrance door, although several stories above.)
 
Likewise, he felt terrible that he had an a seventeen year old in his class, a slow minded boy who'd been retained for many years in grade after grade. Although papers had been filed for four years to track him toward special education, the boy was rejected for special education provision. So he remained in "regular" classes despite that he didn't, in terms of his emotional and physical maturity, fit in with eleven and twelve year olds. All in mind, the teacher suspected that the boy was not removed from regular education as he was mild mannered.
 
Lastly, he felt that he really couldn't make a difference in the lives of his students given the lack of teaching materials, the difficulty of controlling aversive behavior and other factors. Demoralized and anxious much of the time, he simply was waiting it out until the end of the year when he could be done of this madness, as he called it, once and for all. Enough was simply enough, he concluded.
 
He certainly did make some valid points, I thought, while surveying my classroom. Let's see -- my twelve history books, the ones I was supposed to use to teach that subject, were from 1953, were not age appropriate (i.e., were made four high school students), were missing pages and parts of pages, were written upon and were supposed to be sufficient for a class of thirty-two students, all of whom read below grade level except for two children.
 
These books existed on broken down shelving with a few other well-worn books ranging in reading level from preschool (i.e., the inexpensive types that one sees in supermarkets and buys for toddlers) to college level, including an esoteric text on a botany topic written in the 1930's. The information in it was technically written and way out of date.
 
At the same time, these books were supplemented by a few others -- teacher's texts and a supply of overly used ditto masters -- that were kept in the supply closet with scissors, paper, busted crayons, chalk and glue. In addition to these, I had one stapler and two erasers, forms for accidents and other needs, as well as a bunch of pencils in a cup on my desk.
 
The pencils were ones that I bought for the class, myself, and collected at the end of each day as I quickly learned that the writing tools, a seemingly treasured item, would disappear homeward never to return if I didn't gather them before the children left the school grounds.
 
At the same time, there was no school library. That fit in with the fact that there was no gymnasium either as the building only consisted of a cafetorium (a combination of cafeteria and auditorium space with folding lunch tables and no stage), an administrative office, one bathroom per floor, a small teacher's lounge, classrooms and a small play yard covered in asphalt and divisional metal fences.
 
The latter location is where Physical Education classes took place after lunch -- during recess period at which time I tried to involve any willing participants in games. (This seemed necessary since the State had on the law books that the only class necessary to be taught in the State was PE. I'll add that this State was in the Northeastern US.) Consequently, I earnestly tried to teach PE and felt bad that the only teachers supplemental to the regular classroom ones were the remedial aides to whom I sent children in batches each day. In other words, there were no music teachers (nor instruments), no art teacher (nor art supplies besides the notorious scissors, paper, crayons and glue), no class trips except to picnic spots within walking distance, and no special all-school programs for enlightenment and a change of pace.
 
Meanwhile, the students, themselves, were varied and problematic. For example, there was John, the twelve year old. Held back two consecutive grades in a row, he was small for his age as he had lacked adequate nutrition at an earlier point in childhood. In addition, he had lived in five foster homes (including two group homes) and had been in five different school districts during the past two years.
 
Separated from his mother and siblings (the latter of whom were also in various homes), he'd only learned of his father's identity two months previously. In addition, he was legally blind and had to have his nasal passages cleaned out from cancer at a children's hospital in another state every two months. This history was imparted to me by his social worker, who also asked that I "cut him some slack" on account of his dire hardships.
 
Unfortunately John couldn't make it in my classroom and often spent the day at the principal's office as he would race around the room screaming or sit in the supply closet methodically rocking and sucking his thumb all of which I documented for the school records and his social worker, whose case load was far too large to pay adequate attention to the boy.
 
Eventually, though, he was removed from my classroom by three husky policemen. It took all three as he was so wild and strong during the moment that he was trying to bust his head open on the corner of a desk during which time blood was splattering everywhere, including on my clothes as I tried to single handedly stop him prior to the police arrival...
 
One can only imagine the mayhem that resulted for the rest of the children during this incident for which, I was told the next day, John blamed me in his police report, saying that I was pounding his head into the desk. I was relieved to learn that no one believed him and, therefore, I would not be charged and brought to court.
 
Then there was Ronald. Ronald was an obese boy who liked to deeply daydream and draw doodles all day. So, I had to remember, throughout the day, to loudly say "Ronald" every five minutes to get his attention and bring him mentally back into class. In addition, he occasionally smelled of liquor and I was not surprised when his father stumbled into the class one day while rip-roaring drunk during which time he declared in thunderous, slurred yells, "I love my son, Ronald" and "that's my boy" over and over.
 
Of course, Ronald was all huffed up with pride with these public declarations! How important he felt in front of his peers to whom he kept repeating over and over, "That's my dad! He loves me!"
 
In addition, there was Anna. She seemed to be afflicted with some sort of pronounced autistic problem. As such, she barely spoke except to mimic others in a singsong voice while copying their behaviors. She also would spend the day making spitballs and eating them, as well as chewing up pencils for which I constantly tried to stop her. I, also, had to protect her from the other children as they detested her and mercilessly   tormented her.
 
Furthermore, there was Reg. Reg liked to lift up the skirts and dresses of some girls and grab their chests. Therefore, I had to be sure, when I had them in line to go to the cafetorium for lunch, that he was not near Mary, Sue or Lynn as these three liked his touching their bodies and would wiggle their hips provocatively when he did.
 
Then there was Dave, who'd seemed like one of the more responsible boys, until the time that his mother brought him to me during recess while relating that he had run home a few minutes before and had been in a psychological evaluation process prior to, recently, moving to his current school from another one in different township.
 
I apologized to her for his leaving the grounds, but mentioned that, while counted all of the thirty-two children frequently, it was hard to keep track of them dashing about amongst the (approximately) two hundred and fifty other children also milling about the playground. This was compounded, I included, as I was also trying to run a PE class for anyone interested in it.
 
In response, she indicated that she certainly understood my dilemma and told me that it was an impossible task to keep track of them all during every single minute. I appreciated her understanding.
 
However, not all the parents were so supportive. Reg's mother certainly wasn't as I soon discovered.
 
I found out because, one day, I'd ask Reg to get back to his seat during a math lesson that I was teaching using the chalkboard. He, meanwhile, was trying to sneak up behind Lynn's desk to, I presume, try to raise her dress yet another time.
 
Yet, instead of doing as he was requested, he flipped over three desks and started erasing the entire chalkboard. As a result, I sent him to the principal with Ronald escorting him, along with a note stating the actions that Reg had done. In addition, I wrote a note to Reg's parents for him to take home in which I, again, stated about his behavior in the classroom  and my wish that they would talk to him about expected classroom standards.
 
All considered, I was elated the next day when his mother showed up shortly before the children. I thought that she must really care about her son and wanted to share with me about what she told him regarding his misbehavior.
 
However, she simply said this, "I don't want you ever sending my son to the principal again. I don't want the mark on his school record about him having to visit the principal. It is your job, not the principal's, to make him behave. Therefore, if you ever send him again to the office, I am coming into this classroom and see that second story window over there? I am going to shove you butt first through it. And I really will! I mean it."
 
The next day, four girls refused to leave the classroom at the end of class, went to the supply cabinet, for which there was no key, took all of the scissors and started out the door. I said for them to put the scissors back and one of them said, "Make me" and made a very threatening gesture with one of the pairs when I blocked the room's one exit door. The other girls surrounded me and did the same, but eventually put the scissors back. Meanwhile, I was trembling.
 
I always felt, though, fairly safe for the most part as I thought that the principal, a towering man, would always help me in the end if I ever got in an impossibly bad moment. That is... I thought so until the day that, during recess, I saw him being chased by running adults of which some were smoking something while screaming, "We're going to get you, you bas%#&*!" They were, at the same time, swinging chains, bats and plumbing pipes.
 
As my students hadn't noticed the scene, I immediately asked Lynn, the child closest to me, to do me a favor and go to the principal's office and tell his secretary that I said for her to look out the window. Then I quickly assembled all of the children while yelling after Lynn to meet us all back in the classroom..
 
Then I told my class to hurry up as I had a big surprise back in the room and, consequently, I wanted to cut recess short.
 
The replies were predictable: "Please, we want to stay outside." "Aw, do we have to?" "You're mean!" "Boy, the surprise had better be really good." Meanwhile, I was racking my brain so as to try to figure out some surprise that I could give them for obeying me in lining up so I could get them out of any harm's way.
 
I learned later that the incident was all about the principal facing retaliation for shoving a twelve year old up against the wall by her neck while yelling at her that he would kick his black shoe up her black assh*%# if she ever misbehaved again. Apparently, her parents and their friends didn't take too kindly to his blatant threat.
 
(For him to act so extremely, the girl must have done something really awful -- whatever it was. Maybe she was the student who'd clogged every toilet on all the floors except for one in the building. I didn't know. It was not my business to inquire about her details. However, the day that he was chased and due to which his secretary, yet another time, called the police, I no longer felt safe at all. All the same, I managed to make it to the end of the school year.)
 
At its close, I had forms that I could fill out to recommend children for psychological evaluation. I really wanted to fill out the papers for around twenty of my thirty-two, but was told that I'd have a better chance of having any evaluated (within two or more year's time that is) if I only picked one or two children. So I elected Anna as she had gotten more dissociative as the school year had worn on and a boy who'd acted very sadistic -- so much so that he scared everyone in class -- even the tough bully-boys. All the same, it was hard to choose amongst the many children who needed and deserved psychological assessment as I felt that I let down every single one who I didn't select.
 
In review, my experiences while teaching in the "T" schools weren't a total disaster. Indeed, I had a few very fine moment, such as the time that the mother of one of my students, a lunchroom aide, had meekly asked if she could see me during my lunch break for which she would get someone to cover her in the lunch room.
 
I'd replied in the affirmative and she, upon meeting with me, asked me to explain multiplication and division to her on account of my having sent a note home asking that parents help their children with memorizing the tables. She, though, had no idea as to what this meant even thought she was a US public high school graduate. All of this in mind, she told me, she wanted very much to help her daughter learn what I'd requested, but had no idea about where to start.
 
So I lined up pencils from the pencil cup in sets and showed her graphically. Well, the amazed and joyous look on her face when she the whole matter dawned on her for single digit by single digit multiplication and division was something to behold. It was all quite new to her and I was deeply pleased over her happiness and sense of success!
 
While this outcome and some others brought me much satisfaction, they also made me upset. Why have I come across an adult, educated in the US, who didn't know of simple math processes? Why have I, at other times, come across classroom aides who can neither read, nor write except for a few simple words? Likewise, why have I come across parents, who don't know that the Civil War and the Revolutionary War are not one and the same? Further, why have I met others who think that London is in the country of Paris and suppose all sorts of other wildly erroneous notions?
 
In the end, I gave up my "dream" of helping disadvantaged youth in a school setting. Instead, I decided to apply to a private school. I thought that I'd likely be a better match for its students. I simply no longer wanted to face the types of troubles that the special ed students, the children in the art room, the fourth graders and their parents could bring my way. I, also, felt helpless to fix an educational program that had gone terribly wrong.
 
All the same, I could still "make a difference" in the lives of children. Yet, I, like the sixth grade teacher, had simply had enough of dysfunctional schools for now, I firmly decided. I felt ineffectual and overwhelmed by the day in and out of them. After all, I cannot be responsible for everyone everywhere despite that, in many locations, the need for dedicated teachers is critical, especially in settings such as I just described.
 
Yes, across the American landscape, there are countless villages, towns and cities with dreadful schools. These are not places where much learning can occur unless one considers learning new models of deviant behavior as instructional. That many of the children feel like running away from the school's grounds, inflict harm on themselves to avoid attendance, prefer to daydream in lieu of paying attention (passively running away in their minds) and haven't the bare minimum of adequate curriculum supplies is indicative that, even if they were to want to learn in school, it is impossible to do so for many children in the US.
 
 In addition, many of these schools are breeding ground from criminal activities (such as drug use, promiscuous behavior, and vicious activities such as scissor tossing). On top, other children and adults teach that the children are not worthwhile, such as the other fourth grade teacher, surely, exemplified. They, also, teach that violence is an acceptable way to deal with rule breaking (such as the principal at the last school did).
 
In the final reckoning, these tragic schools teach that it is perfectly acceptable to have a two-tiered educational system -- one for the wealthy and another for the poor. That this, largely, takes place along racial lines is equally lamentable and all but ensures that the lower class will maintain its placement generation after generation and, thus, be retained as a source for cheap, manual labor.
 
As stated by management at Mindfully.org.:

"We see the actions and policies of everyone from the President on down to Endicott [of the US Department of Education], and further down to the individual citizen who allows the actions and policies to pass without challenge as the enemies of the state. For the purposes of this comment — the state is any and all people who are citizens, and for simplification, excluding noncitizens.

"All people are due equal education and everything else that goes along with maintaining a healthy society. All must have equal health-care, food, water and environments to live in. 

"In short, nothing less than a paradigm shift is required to facilitate the well-being of society in the USA. All must be free or none will be free. 

"This may not agree with the reader's opinion, but as we see it, the inequality that exists presently must end if this country is to survive. 

"It really does come down to that — if the rich continue to hoard wealth and abuse the other 95% of society, then they continually make themselves superfluous. By doing so, they receive the same treatment that they dole out to the less fortunate. This effect is clearly seen throughout the US presently, as life as we know it is disintegrating before our eyes and chaos increasingly rules.

"Those to blame are everyone from the President on down to individual citizens who allow these actions and policies to pass without challenge [1.]" 

"You're either part of the solution or you're part of the problem." — Eldridge Cleaver, Speech in San Francisco, 1968

While educational standards worldwide are deplorable (i.e., approximately 70 % of humanity cannot read and write) [2], one would expect, from the wealthiest country in the world, that there would exist a high universal interest in preparing future citizens to be well equipped to benefit our country and reap rewards from having citizenship. One would think that this happening would be of paramount concern.
 
That it clearly is not is outrageous and alarming. The loss, on both the personal and the national level, is thoroughly appalling and unconscionable. As Jonathan Kozol puts it, this is truly "the shame of the nation."
 
Moreover, in that our society and government not only allows this to occur, but purposefully ratifies such an unjust, pernicious educational system as exists is unbelievable.The damage to individuals, the lack of  development in human potential and the injury to society at large is tremendous. That so many impaired lives (and, ultimately, impairment to whole communities) occur is unacceptable while the harm, itself, is simply incalculable. All considered, all of the pathetic and poorly run educational programs across the US must  immediately be radically revamped! There is absolutely no other choice than this!
 
* "T" is a capital of one of our US States. I did not want to single it out as being especially bad as I am certain that conditions in other capitals are just as bad as or worse than the ones that will, subsequently, be depicted. So, "T" should not be given any sort of notorious prominence. All in all, this is the reason that it, specifically, was not named.As such, it should be considered as just a capital city -- any capital city across our country.

Emily Spence resides in Massachusetts and deeply cares about the future of our world.

Part 1 Here

 
[2] Please see this, originating from a teacher at Stanford School of Medicine, to obtain an overview of humanity's present circumstances: [thelist] OT: "As the World Turns" URL lost (http://lists.evolt.org/archive/Week-of-Mon-20020218/104164.html.

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