22 September 2012

The Most Dangerous Game: Jeopardy?

Aside from military personnel and doctors, I’m fairly certain that teachers have the most harrowing initiating experience into their field: student teaching. You spend an inordinate amount of your college career in education courses, almost always more than in your major area of study, and you don’t really learn anything about teaching because you’re too busy making posters with magic markers and being affirmed by positive thinkers. The classroom observations and experiences in which you’re required to participate are really only vague, cloudy representations of what teaching is actually like. You have to prepare and teach one lesson for one hour; any chump off the street could do that. You need to design a week’s worth of course material and teach that; almost any chump off the street could do that. Once you get to student teaching, however, the requirements exponentially compound and you are, seemingly out of the blue, expected to plan for and execute nine weeks of teaching a full load of classes with students you've never met, and you have essentially no supervision or oversight. Granted, that is how my student teaching experience was. I had many classmates who were given all of their materials and who only taught for two or three weeks on their own with their supervising teacher flitting around the classroom like a fairy godmother; I suppose their teachers took a more loose interpretation of “nine week internship” than the ex-military, decades-of-teaching veterans who supervised my student teaching and who were moderately disappointed that they didn't get me hammered before parent-teacher conferences.
       As it turned out, I had several weeks of down-time before the third trimester, and my nine-week student teaching nightmare, began, so I spent a lot of time helping out with the classes my two supervisors were teaching at the time. One of those classes was a 110-minute long, 65-student combined American history and literature class. This class was full of low-achieving students, the bottom 20% of their respective classes, and they spent a lot of time reviewing material they had already gone over. On one particular day, I was assisting with review Jeopardy. V., the ex-military English teacher, was manning the computer near the entrance to the class and clicking off the clues as they were chosen. M., the soon-to-be athletic director and American history teacher, was out among the students, making sure they weren't carving shanks out of the legs of their chairs. I was up front reading off the clues, calling on students when they shot their answers up, and trying not to screw up the math when I had to subtract negatives.
       About twenty minutes into the game, a dark haired girl walked in through the always open classroom door. She looked a little nervous and she was scanning around like she was trying to find an earring she dropped on the other side of the room. V. casually took his feet off the desk in front of him and asked the girl if there was anything she needed.
       “Is Suzanna here?” she asked, sketchily. She was still looking around the room.
        “Why?” V. asked.
       “Is Suzanna here?” she asked again, weirdly.
       This was the moment where the nebulous feeling of awkwardness that had been floating around the room condensed into that distinct “bad feeling” you get in your gut when something is about to go very wrong.
       “Look, if you don’t have any reason to be here, you need to leave,” V. said authoritatively.
       As soon as he finished saying this, the girl’s demeanor completely changed. Like a happy-go-lucky dog on a walk who suddenly hears his arch nemesis bark from across the street, this girl spotted what she was looking for, stood up taller, started stalking in the direction of Suzanna, and took a deep breath, and I mean deep because she didn't stop shouting for several minutes.
       “You bitch! My brother is in prison because of you, you whore…” and so it went. A stream of constant white-trash slurs just kept coming and introducing new, convoluted twists to the already unintelligible drama of their lives.
       V. immediately got up and physically restrained the girl, who struggled and writhed as she tried to get loose and, presumably, claw Suzanna’s eyes out. V. dragged her out into the hallway while she, literally, clung to the door with the tips of her fingers, screaming all the while.
       M. didn’t just sit by and watch either. Even though she was only about eighty-five pounds, as soon as Suzanna realized that V. and all of his military training had the intruder constrained, she stood up and started slinging obscenities and accusations back, which was shocking because she had probably said a total of three words in class during the five weeks I had been there. M. rushed over to her, forcibly sat her down, and told her to calm down, which she eventually did.
       Things got really quiet for a minute or two while the screams of the girl in the hallway slowly faded off into the distance. We eventually got back to Jeopardy, but no one’s heart was in it. Half the class just stared, wide-eyed, at Suzanna; the other half lazily lifted their hands to answer the clues, knowing they’d seen the most exciting thing they would probably see for that week.
       After about ten minutes, V. came barreling through the door in full-on drill instructor mode.
       “Everyone write down exactly what you saw. Don’t talk. Don’t fool around. Just write. That means you too VandeWaa,” he boomed.
       Paper was distributed and we got to work. I was an R.A. at the time, so I’m sure my report, which ran about two handwritten pages, was ridiculously thorough and detached. I constantly wondered what the students, who often struggled to complete a sentence, were writing. I never got to see their responses.
       As it turned out, the girl who waltzed into the classroom didn’t even go to the school. She was sixteen, she had dropped out a long time ago, and she just walked into the main office and asked what classroom Suzanna was in; as far as I know, she didn’t even make up any elaborate story about dropping off spare keys, delivering birthday surprises, or working for the yearbook. The people in the office didn’t ask any questions; they just told her exactly where to find Suzanna, and I don’t think any major policy changes were made as a result of the incident. Fortunately, V. and M. didn’t have any trouble with lawsuits, and no further incidents like this one occurred in that class or, really, any of the other classes I have taught since.
       What struck me at the time was the humor and absurdity of the whole thing: teenagers spewing foul language; the girl clinging to the doorway like some sort of cartoon character; the tough-talking, eighty-five pound Suzanna; and the wide-eyed looks of terror and amazement on everyone in the room. It was a little scary (what if she had come with a weapon?) but mostly funny.
       The things that strike me now are different. I am confused by the lack of security in the school. It was a completely open campus and almost all the exterior doors throughout the building were unlocked for most of the day. Despite the relatively constant prevalence of shootings in the most unexpected places, I have not once heard a murmur about changing security in or around any of the places I've worked. In fact, most doors to all the buildings I've walked in to are open all day and all evening.
       I am also troubled by the unreliability of the staff. The office staff obviously had no protocol to follow and no intuition about the girl asking for a student’s location. V. had very little faith in the support he would receive even though he took what I consider to be necessary and appropriate action in a threatening situation. Every day, I keep realizing that very few people have as comprehensive a definition of “educator” as I do; in fact, most teachers are content to punch-in when class starts and punch-out the minute class ends, and their pay stubs both reflect and encourage this attitude. As a result, I get students in my classes who never should have passed the class before mine, who have forgotten or never learned the most basic concepts in my subject, and who rarely have even the most essential skills for succeeding in a classroom environment.
       Lastly, I am troubled by the complexity of students’ lives and the unique challenges they face. Nearly every semester, I have one student who comes to class regularly, struggles to do well in the course, and who, when I sit them down to ask about it, reveals astonishing and unfortunate details about their personal life that I could never in my wildest dreams have guessed or imagined. Every student in all of my classes has so much more going on in their lives than I can ever really comprehend. I only see them an hour a day with twenty or more other students, and I am tasked with trying to teach all of them the skills they need to become competent and successful individuals both in and out of school, at least as far as my subject goes. It is an impossible task, and it becomes more and more difficult every day as students don’t get the support they need outside of class, I don’t get the support I need in class, and the world we release our students into becomes more and more difficult to navigate and understand.

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