Monday, January 7, 2013

My Life as a High School Teacher, or How Charter Schools Can Be a Living Hell

I was 25 when I decided I wanted to become a teacher. I didn’t
realize it at the time, but I was about to become one of the well
meaning, but terrible teachers going into the Texas school system. I
witnessed a charter school at work. I saw how business was done. Let me
tell you the story of the two years that showed me I was a bad high
school teacher, how I got better, and why I now instruct at the college

I’m going to argue that few of them should have been teachers. 12 meet
ups, in which your instruction is done by a projector onto a large
screen, is not sufficient to tell you just how hard teaching is going to
be. Where you’re hired also makes a difference.

With my shoddy alternative certificate, I was picked up at a charter
school in Texas. There was so much disastrous about this school it’s
hard to detail every element, but let’s do a quick rundown.  I was the
only social studies teacher for the entire high school. This meant that I
had to do classroom preparations for world history, U.S. history,
 geography, economics, and government. Mind you, I was certified to do
this without A.) A degree in history or B.) A degree in education. I
just happened to know a lot about history, because it was a passion of

For those of you who are not teachers, prepping for just one course,
like world history, can be time consuming and labor intensive. It
requires putting together lesson plans, which are required by the state,
and activities for the students. This needs to be done for each day of
the week the course is taught, then multiplied by five. It didn’t help
that I was trying to use Power Point to assist the class lessons, which
meant that, beyond planning, I had to write it all up.

Beyond the lack of time to prep for a class, there was also an issue
of how many students were being packed into the classes, often to a
degree that students were running out of seating. Behavioral problems
went generally undisciplined. As a charter school, this facility drew
from anywhere in the city that a student wanted to come from. There were
no limits on where the student might be from. Funds are given to a
school based on how many students are regularly attending, which meant
expulsion was out of the question. High failure rates would bring the
school under the state’s reassessment as well, which meant failing a
student was discouraged.  So to summarize, trouble students could
neither be expelled or failed.

And there were many trouble students. Part of the problem with the
type of school that this was, is that it drew on the students that had
been booted from standard public schools. This turned the charter school
into a school of last resorts, where a disproportionately high number
of students, per classroom, were trouble students. Don’t get me wrong, I
loved these guys. I tried. I worked. I slaved. I ran a Saturday School
to help students. My lunchroom periods were used to help them when they
needed extra study time. But, I was running off of 12 lessons of
instruction done via video and, in retrospect, there’s much I wouldn’t
do now.

For instance, did you know that Power Point is one of the most
ineffective methods of trying to instruct students? I didn’t. Maybe it’s
common sense to some, but to me, I thought it was amazing. You could
use pictures, video, all sorts of things. Turns out that, at a basic
human level, people don’t learn when copying information from slides, no
matter how many pictures you use. It’s incredibly ineffective. That’s
why there’s a heavier push for hands-on involvement of students versus
copying lecture notes plastered to the wall. You have something in your
brain that psychologists called a visual-spatial sketchpad, which means
you can only occupy a certain amount of information at once. If you have
an instructor telling you something, and the same thing he's saying is
basically written on the wall, and you're expected to write it down,
your brain begins to compete for limited resources.
You can't process
the visual, auditory and reproductive functions all at once. You can use
Power Point effectively, by limiting it to images, or limiting how much
you speak, but to do it all at once overwhelms the brain's ability to
simply remember. I had no idea about this at the time.

But my inability to instruct went beyond the procedural. I didn’t
know how to effectively situate a classroom, especially my first year.
Organization, desk arrangement, daily procedures, everything plays a
small part in running a classroom effectively. There’s a reason
experienced instructors insist on a constant, regular daily regiment. It
actually has a small payoff, and the more small payoffs you have, the
larger the overall payoff becomes. Students learn better.

Of course, it's hard to understand that when you’ve never been taught
beyond 12 video lessons, never had classroom training, or the like. And
while I was well meaning, there were those who weren’t. Another teacher
that had come in on an alternative certificate was a cocaine addict.
Then again, it’s hard to expect too much when my salary was 30,000 a
year. I know someone’s that was getting 25,000. This isn’t to say there
weren’t good teachers. Oh no, there were. However, because the school’s
bottom line was its priority, it was to its advantage to hire
undertrained teachers and then pay them at a lower salary. That’s a
consequence of a school’s goal being profit as opposed to education.

Want some other problems with a school like this one? It operated a
computer lab where students could catch up on credits. In theory, it was
a good idea. If a student became pregnant and fell behind, maybe they
could come in, use the computer to do some accelerated learning and
finish the semester credit in a month. It’s not ideal, but it might act
as a good supplement. The problem arose as students finished a year’s
worth of credits in, maybe, two months. The testing they took to pass
the computer courses were easily completed because, in the final
examinations, they used their phones or looked on someone else’s screen
to use Google. And in no case should a year’s worth of instruction be
done in two months.

So, unfailable and unexpellable students. Underpaid, undertrained
teachers. An emphasis on the bottom line. That’s what my life as a high
school teacher was like. I got better, don’t get me wrong. Actually, in
my third year I went to finish my masters degree, but continued on as a
substitute teacher at different schools. I got a fairly regular position
at one, and was able to turn that class into my own. By my third year, I
was actually getting pretty decent at what I did. Now, working on my
dissertation and with experience and knowledge, I’m actually a pretty
good instructor.

But man. That first year? Terrible. The problem wasn’t all on me,
though. There was a systemic issue with that charter school, and it
wasn’t an isolated experience. I could tell you about a number of other
teachers at different charter schools who had the same experience. It
wasn’t pretty, and it was always about making as much money as possible.
Education got some lip service and, don’t get me wrong, administrators
did care about teaching. However, the goal of making money, when it’s a
top priority, is always going to influence decisions regardless of
intent. It’s going to contour how facility decisions are made. Hopefully
parents will start to realize that charter schools are not silver
bullets. Also, if you live in Texas? Demand better from your teachers,
but also the policies that politicians are putting in place that govern
schools. Please.

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