Land of Opportunity? Part 4: Teacher’s Eye View

This is the fourth post in a series about educational opportunities in the United States.

So far in the “Land of Opportunity” series, I’ve spoken with students and parents about the difficulties that have arisen in obtaining quality education in the United States, from grade school through grad school. But I wanted to talk about what education is like on the other end—for the people who devote years of their life to a thankless job, for which they get little respect and even less pay, as they try to impart knowledge and skills on the next generation.

My longtime friend, Melissa Kallas, spent her first two years out of college in the Teach for America program. From 2010-2012 she taught at Fonville Middle School in the Houston Independent School District.

Some of the difficulties that she encountered as a teacher were the usual suspects: large classrooms (her classes generally ranged from 22 to 33 students), and a lack of hours in the day to get everything done—planning curricula and class assignments; grading; meeting students and parents; and of course teaching.

But, as I alluded to in Part 2 of the series, some of the problems were more a function of the community and its culture than the school and teaching. As Melissa expressed it, “As a teacher, you don’t just teach, grade, and write tests and lesson plans. You are trying to make sure the kids have enough food and a place to sleep— and to help them with anything that might come their way.”

Since Teach for America places its employees in underprivileged communities, I’ve heard similar stories from several friends who’ve participated in the program, including a friend who taught at a middle school here in Overtown.  Melissa explains:

“Education is not just about learning information, it’s about learning life skills—learning to communicate with other people, to express yourself. The issue is that students’ ability to learn all of that is impacted by their feelings of safety and security. If someone breaks into your student’s house one evening, and then he’s late to school the next morning because of that break-in, and he misses his free school breakfast because he’s late, then he’s tired and stressed out and hungry all day. And when you ask him if he did his homework, you’re not going to get a polite, ‘No, ma’am,’ you’re going to get a tired, stressed out answer.”

According to her, the difficulties that teachers face arise from a combination of cultural problems and problems within the educational system. As a society, we need to decide that education is important—not just that our children should respect their teachers and strive to get good grades, but that they should engage in educational pastimes, like video games that actually teach kids skills, not just the ones that teach them to shoot zombies. Because our kids spend an astronomical amount of time in front of screens, it would also help if our entertainment sources, like TV shows, depicted characters that liked to learn and were nerdy (without them also being shown to be social outcasts.) Basically, our culture needs to regain an appreciation for knowledge and education in order for our educational system to have any value.

Melissa was particularly frustrated by the political posturing that takes place in educational reform debates. “Maybe it’s just how the media portrays it, but it seems like everyone thinks there’s just one way to ‘fix’ education,” she says, and it’s always a zero-sum game. “It’s the parents vs. the teachers, or the reformers vs. the traditionalists. Everyone wants to reform the system, but they’re too busy disagreeing to actually accomplish anything.” Any real solution to our nation’s educational problems is going to borrow from lots of different theories and ideas, and will require compromise. Most importantly, “it will require lots of elbow grease.”

For most teachers, especially new ones, exhaustive effort and endless hours are a given. With four or five classes, each with 25 or 30 students, grading assignments alone takes many hours. Add planning lessons, writing tests, and actually teaching to that list and many teachers find themselves working 10-12 hour days, plus weekends.  As Melissa put it, “You are a teacher 24-7.” She once had a root canal at 7 am on a Saturday, and even though she was completely exhausted and her mouth was full of novocaine (and she therefore couldn’t eat), she still went to school to get work done for her students.

At the end of the day, it’s that devotion that many teachers have for their students that makes me optimistic for the future of education.  Because if things don’t improve, and we raise generations of ignoramuses, there will be consequences. Melissa argues that the housing crisis was caused in large part by an educational failure. Simply put, the people who signed loans and agreements that they didn’t understand suffered from a lack of reading, critical thinking, and math skills. They didn’t fully grasp concepts like interest, for example—and the entire country (and the rest of the global economy) suffered as a consequence.

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