Thursday, April 30, 2009

"No one said teaching would be easy or without disappointment"

Last week, one of my students disappointed me.

The funny thing about disappointment is that it is actually worse than being angry. It is a feeling that hits you so deep in your soul, that there is no other word suitable for expressing it. It is disappointment and it is the worst feeling in the world.

I give my kids journals (that I bought myself) to complete every week. They contain daily assignments that are given in class and are all due at the end of the week. This systems seems to work for about 40% of my class. Last week's journal was the source of the problem.

I have this one student who is chronically irresponsible and seldom at fault. Things are always being done to him as opposed to things happening because of him. I tried lecturing him on taking responsibility for his actions. This, clearly, is not applicable when one is never at fault. I know this now.

One of my star pupils was absent the day this student saunters in late with the journal "someone stole" from him two weeks prior. He said he would work on his journal and come back with it the next day. He refused to let me write down what he was missing. At this point, he had taken my star pupil's journal saying he was going to give it back to her. I give all of my students the benefit of the doubt. I believed him.

He took her journal home and copied it. Word for word. Including typos and scribbles. He had already completed the last assignment in the journal on a separate piece of paper. I told him not to worry about doing it, and he still copied it. Word for word.

I had no idea until my star pupil came in the next morning and asked for her journal. It was that moment that my little teacher world came temporarily crashing down. I apologized to the student and she left to find him to get it back.

I sat there. Not mad. Not upset. I was disappointed. Thoroughly disappointed. This kid lied to my face and stole his classmate's journal. I believed he was going to give it to her. I truly did.

When he arrived later that day, he turned in his journal. I got the star pupil's journal and sat there and calmly compared the two. When they left, I RAN to the copier room and photocopied both his journal and the journal of the kid he copied. I wrote a note home and CCed his advisor. I gave him a 0% for the work he still did not complete. Then, I sat.

Before that day, I'd never experienced the utter defeat that comes along with being disappointed. It hits you at the center of your being. Throws off your equilibrium. Reduces you. This student, whom I love so dearly, lied, cheated and stole to make up missed work. He lied to me and I didn't see it. He stole from his classmate who works HARD and has done all of her work. He cheated. Blindly copying word for word and really thought he was going to receive credit for it.

When I told my supervisor, he said to me "No one said teaching would be easy or without disappointment." He's been in education for 40 years and I am sure he has had his share of disappointments, but this was not something I was prepared to handle.

For as much as I love them, some students will cheat. I have to make sure I am ALWAYS on top of my game. I know this now. When it happens again, I'll be ready.

Monday, April 13, 2009

ABC has failed me with the Cancellation of "Eli Stone"

Ethnocentrism Rears Its Ugly Head in the Cancellation of ABC's "Eli Stone"

Last year during Christmas, ABC had the genius idea to cancel "Eli Stone." And by cancel, I mean completely phase out mid-season. The show was in the primetime line up and it aired before Boston Legal.

"Eli Stone" was set in a San Francisco law firm. It was cleverly written and extremely progressive. Like San Francisco, it had a gamut of diversity. It featured Black and Asian actors cast in roles of doctors and lawyers. The lawyers handled cases with gay, lesbian and trans issues. There was a strong social activist element to the firm where ethics and humanity were prevalent in the all too cut-throat world of lawyers.

Most importantly, the show dealt with issues of spirituality & alternative medicine. Eli Stone, the man for which the show was named, was a prophet who was struggling with the gift of sight. He saw the future and his third eye chakra was off the chains.

His gift was nurtured by a Chinese acupuncturist herbalist who studied and expounded on Ancient Chinese healing practices. He had to adopt the stereotypical "ching-chong" accent to get his white customers to believe his practice was legit, which only added to the cleverness of the show. The Chinese acupuncturist turned the stereotype on it's head by adapting the voice of what "someone like him" should sound like.

Of course, there was the obligatory Black mammy secretary who served as a mother figure to Eli, but she was far from the happy slave type. Naturally, she was a single mother and former alcoholic of a pre-med daughter who succumbed to cocaine to stay awake during rounds, but she kept Eli in line and guided him toward making wise decisions. Decisions that would save many lives in the process. Often with a LOT of attitude.

All of this was set to the tune of George Michael. Micheal's songs were the catalyst for his visions. Visions that came at morbidly embarrassing times and usually featured characters singing and dancing in vaudeville like musical numbers.

It was witty, clever and full of diversity, which is exactly what I'd expect from a company who is notorious for their support of the GLBT community. (Hello, Disney Gay Days!)

However, in the area of being advocates for racial and spiritual diversity, ABC failed. They phased out the show mid-season. I will NEVER know what becomes of Eli's brother's ill fated marriage to the woman who took Eli's virginity.

I simply will never know because the powers that be at ABC decided to cancel "Eli Stone" and replace it with yet another cop show featuring all white characters set in NYC with zero people of color in the cast al la "Friends" and "Sex and the City."

Another gem they've been airing is the horrendous podunk shit program "Surviving Suburbia" about, well, I don't know what it's about. I know a Caucasion blond haired, blue eyed character on the show said she "hopped the fence like a fugitive slave" to gain access to the family's backyard. *Cue laugh track* That is not, nor will it ever be, funny.

ABC failed me by canceling "Eli Stone." I was, for once, relieved to watch a show where Black men with natural hair were lawyers. I thought it was very cool that there was a Chinese doctor who knew enough about spirituality and divinity to school the pasty Eli. I loved watching the episode with the female to male trans minister who was wrongfully terminated for having SRA surgery. Watching said Black lawyer walk side by side with him to rejoin his now diminished congregation was heartwarming.

The show was entertaining and I was moved more than once at its themes. It gave me something to look forward to in primetime. But no, ABC decided ethnocentrism was the way to go. To ABC, white characters in positions of power are the only way to go. Good Bye "Eli Stone" and your queer diverse smart cast of characters and Welcome back, Kotter!

I taught my kids about Ethnocentrism before teaching them Octavia Butler's Kindred. What kind of lesson is ABC doling out by canceling shows like this one?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Your Reputation Precedes You

One of the main reasons I became a teacher was because of the title of this piece. When I first started teaching, actually before I walked into the classroom I was briefed on my students. I was told warned of diff personalities, behaviors, ticks etc. I took this info and ignored it as I didn't think it was fair or warranted to give it much thought before actually meeting my students. I don't think many teachers do this. Actually, I know they don't.

In an unforgettable conversation I had with a dear friend of mine, she told me about a student she had whose reputation preceded him. He had an older sibling who was a bully and a real hand full for his teachers. When the younger bro started school, his teachers took one look at his last name & labeled him. Just like his brother. Problem is the kid was nothing like his brother. My friend, a 7th grade teacher, saw this and his potential and tried to help him see this in himself. She never had a problem with him.

By the time he got to her, however, he,d started to believe his predetermined destiny and he became like his brother. He spent years being labeled and instead of fighting to prove his teachers wrong - he epitomized what they believed he was based on his brother's bad behavior.

My dear friend ended her story by telling me that a few years later the kid dropped out of high school. "He didn't make it," she said. I was dumbstruck & heartbroken.

Teachers have the power to change and mold lives for the better and, unfortunately, for the worse. This kid had one teacher who believed in him, but after years of conditioning, he chose the path of least resistance & proved his teachers right. They saw in him a bad kid and so that is what he became.

I was warned that some of my kids would be more challenging than others, but I was unwilling to believe it until I saw it myself. True, a lot of what they told me was accurate, but I know it now because I know them, because I have spent time with them. I love them & accept their limitations and their laziness.

There is nothing I can do about the kid that didn't make it. I can, however, make sure that I do everything in my power to never perpetuate a label given to my students without giving them a fighting chance to prove me, and the rest of their teachers, all wrong.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

What measures success?

I was insulted by one of my ninth graders. They often throw mud at me and most times I don't give them the satisfaction of a response, but in this particular instance I did.

I was attempting to do a lesson based on No Name Calling Week because their class has had issues with bullying. I was in the process of the painstaking task of getting them to respond to lessons they don't care about when the insult occurred.

I was trying to start the ball rolling by telling them my experiences with bullying. Somewhere in the story I mentioned how I have a hard time relating to people my age because of how I was raised and because most of them aren't where I am. So this little bugger turns to me and says, "and where are you? Teaching here for minimum wage?" I fired back by stating that her comment was coming from someone who values being pretty over smart and asked her what she was going to do when pretty ran out. Bad, idea, I know.

The kid got me thinking: what is the measure of success? How is my teaching position at my small, independent school a success? I will tell you how:

I am the first person in my family to graduate from college. As of May 15, 2009, I will be the first person in my family with a graduate degree. I have held down a job since I was 14. I have not been without work since. I graduated from a vocational school where trades are valued over academics and managed to get into one of the best public institutions in the North East. I found and applied to schools myself because my guidance counselor was off adopting a Russian baby my entire Senior year. (I got into every school I applied to save for one.) My father is absent and during my adolescence I have very little recollection of my mother. When I started college, she had a breakdown and moved across the country to stay with her brother. Thanksgiving break. 19 years old, I was left in a dorm room with all of my worldly possessions, ravished credit and nowhere to go. Since the age of 17, I have purchased 6 cars. 4 were lemons, one was sold out from under me, and the 6th is brand new - in my name and no one touches it but me. I could go on, but I won't.

I survived. I persevered. I made it because failure was never an option. By my own standards, becoming a statistic was also not an option. I had a best friend in high school that had a baby. She and I don't talk anymore because, like most people my age, we don't have anything in common. After she gave birth there were lots of awkward silences only filled by questions I could have answered myself with running a simple Google search.

At this point in my life, I have never worked a full time job. (My temp stint does not count.) I have held down three jobs to keep myself in school and properly fed. I have never made above $12k in a year, but I have done everything I need to do to be able to succeed.

In the Fall of 2009, I will be gainfully employed on a full time basis as a High School English teacher. I will have medical benefits and a 401k. As a teacher, I will never make "a lot" of money. But last year, I made it work on $9,586.32.

I wake up every morning knowing that I should have failed. I should have become a statistic. I should have chosen the path of least resistance and become a "product of my environment," but I didn't.

I get up every morning and know that I am headed to a job that I love. I love my students, even the rude ones. Especially the rude ones.

I worked hard. I kept my eyes on the prize. I am still arriving at my goals, but each heartbreak, each abandonment and disappointment has made me the person I am today. And that, ladies and gentleman, is the measure of success.