Thursday, December 08, 2005

Rough day

Some days teaching is the hardest job. Some days it is, simply, fun. Other days are in between fun and madness. Today, was one of those tough days. I don't know why-- but everyone was crazy today. By the end of the day, everyone looked completly fried. Why? I have absolutely no idea why the students decided it was a "free day" and complained throughout the day that they shouldn't have to "work" today. I tried to make today fun-- I video-taped them presenting their compare and contrast paragraphs. My new classroom management strategy has been to try and make the lesson so exciting and new that students would be heartbroken if they got in trouble (or kicked out). It didn't work! Today was so insane that they even ended school five minutes early and made an annoucement that all students needed to leave campus withing five minutes. For a few moments, I wondered if there was a bomb or some other horrible incident about to occur-- but I guess the principal (and everyone) was exhausted. There were a number of fights. I kicked out three students (and I am guessing a lot of teachers had similar trouble). On days like this, I have to wonder about classroom management. I mean, what would Wong do?

Sunday, December 04, 2005


Reflections: My First Year of Teaching in the Mississippi Delta


My expectations for teaching in the Mississippi Delta were humble: I imagined a peaceful classroom of engaged learners. I have always loved school: the bells, the smells, new notebooks, pencil sharpeners, and books. For me schools are romantic--large brick buildings filled with students and teachers all seeking one of the highest pursuits known to humans—education. Before actually teaching in the Delta, I knew of the problems associated with poor, rural schools. My graduating class had forty-two students, and a teacher’s salary was considered “rich.” I knew what a bad teacher could do to an already bad school. My motivation was simply to be better. I grew-up poor and I know how hard it is to slowly get through educational experiences that others have been practicing with generations of guidance. My goal was to simply “help” foster as much educational and emotional growth as possible in my students. I imagined all kinds of lovely things in my classroom. I wanted students to engage in lots of group work, develop critical thinking skills, and learn about great thinkers, writers, and historical events. I would help them apply for college and motivate those who thought college, wasn’t for them. I imagined staying late at school to correct papers and plan creative lessons. I imagined coming home tired, but happy. I imagined rewarding good behavior and politely showing misbehaving students how to deal with a situation better. I was a class clown, so I would naturally know how to get a troublesome student back in line. I also imagined being involved with after-school activities. Teaching in the Delta would be a lot of hard work and a challenge, but I thought, I am young and I have worked hard before—let’s go teacher corps!
The challenges of a new teacher are enough, but the challenges of a Mississippi Delta teacher are unfathomable. The lack of resources and chaotic administration alone could drive a teacher to quit before the first bell sounds. Not having paper to make copies, or even having access to a copy machine, drove me nuts in the beginning of the year. I asked my principal if I could make thirty copies and my polite request was denied. How could I teach without books? How could I teach without the ability to make copies? How could I present a professional and trustworthy face when I was informed of important announcements and procedures at the same time as the students? How could I create a peaceful classroom when students received corporal punishment for misbehavior? How could I have tutoring or any after-school activity if my school locked down like a prison at four o’clock? How could I incorporate technology without the presence of technology? How could I teach?
After just three months, I know I can. My goals are still as high as they were when I started, but I have adjusted my timeline slightly. I hadn’t imaged that my expectation would become my goals. I hadn’t imagined that my goals would become ideals that I will have to fight to accomplish. There are so many obstacles that I leave school everyday amazed anything has been accomplished. Despite bells that don’t ring on time, insane interruptions from janitors, erratic announcements about going to jail for fighting, and routine paddling, learning happens. Why? The students.
The students are the best and worst in the world. Their problems are a result of institutional racism and poor educational systems, but they remain brilliant and filled with potential. I wasn’t prepared to start from ground zero. I imagined enhancing existing reading and writing skills, not creating them. To some people my students may seem unruly and un-teachable, but that is far from the truth. They simply lack meaningful educational experiences and reinforcement. They have inspired me to make the journey with them.
The reality of teaching in the Delta is the reality of racism in America. I am very familiar with institutional racism, however the educational system in Mississippi is blatant white supremacy. That may seem harsh, but destroying the lives of countless, brilliant students is even harsher. The reality is that African American students are told everyday they enter the tired halls of Delta schools that they are not worth it. They are not worth good textbooks, qualified teachers and principals, new technology, or even fresh paint and comfortable desks. The racism in the Delta is not invisible. I pass a white academy everyday and I work at an all-black school. I pass shacks on the all black side of town and I pass mansions by the academy. In some ways reality has altered my expectations. In these few months, the one thing that has most changed for me is my resolve. In light of the harsh realities with which my students contend and in light of the obstacles inherent to poverty and specific to racism, my resolve to teach has deepened. Also, in light of the potential I've seen and the resilience and strength my students display everyday, my resolve to resolve is inspired. I may not feel as young as I did three months ago, and I cannot remember ever working harder, yet I now sing, Let's go teacher corps!