South High Journal: Observations from an inner-city vocational-technical magnet school

By Damon Krane
May 5, 1999
Unpublished assignment for one of my first teacher education courses

*******************

( Editor’s note, 2/18/13 – Names of school employees have been changed.)

I conducted my classroom observations for this course at South High on Pittsburgh’s South Side. Over the course of my time there, I observed five different teachers’ classrooms. Rather than re-type every journal entry or simply write a summary of my experience, I’ve combined the two formats by writing an overall summary with entire class periods excerpted from my journal.

I chose South High because, having gone to a practically all-white, upper middle-class, suburban high school, I knew I lacked experience with city schools. After several weeks of my phone calls not being returned, Ms. Conner, the school’s assistant principal, finally set me up with the head of the Social Studies department, a middle-aged white man named Mr. Randall. I came to the school and talked to them both in person. Mr. Randall had arranged a list of classes I could observe in various rooms with various teachers, including him.

I soon learned that South High is a vocational-technical magnet school. When I was in school the real nature of “vo-tech” programs was obvious. As one of my classmates put it senior year, “They didn’t send me to Vo-tech because I’m mechanically talented. They sent me there because I’m a ‘discipline problem.’ It doesn’t have anything to do with being good at working on cars.”

At South High I learned that whereas vo-tech programs where a way to remove unwanted students for part of the day, a vo-tech school is a way to remove them from the general student population permanently. As one teacher at the school explained, “This is a vocational technical magnet school. That means it’s the last step before the kid gets kicked out of school completely.”

While at South High I never observed actual vo-tech classes, only general social studies classes. When I originally talked to Ms. Baher and told her I was probably going to be a social studies teacher, she said she would arrange for me to observe some of their social studies teachers. In retrospect, however, I wish I had observed some of the vo-tech classes to better understand the workings of the school.

Day One

My first day at South High, I arrange to spend the entire day. I wanted to completely immerse myself in the setting, not to mention make up for the time it took to arrange my visits. I find it very, very strange to be in high school again.

The day begins with Mr. Randall’s 10th grade World Cultures class. He plays the movie Not Without My Daughter “to show the class Islamic Culture and male and female gender roles within that culture” for a unit he was teaching on the Middle East.

Only nine students are in this class: six female, three male. Some wear coats throughout the period.

Mr. Randall shows the movie, occasionally pausing it to ask a few questions and point out specific things. Then the class ends with a brief review.

“Any questions?”

No.

************

From that rather uneventful class, I go downstairs to room 127 for Ms. Hallaway’s 9th grade African-American History Class. I find that notes have been written on the board in advance. As part of what appears to be a daily routine, students come into the room and began copying today’s notes.

The room is full. Nearly 30 students (many wearing hats) occupy nearly all of the available desks. Almost immediately I notice that all of the students are black. So is their teacher. The only other caucasian in the room, besides me, turns out to be a teacher’s aid.

As the students copy the notes Ms. Hallaway instructs them. “Always read what you write, because you never know when someone will be talkin’ about your mother,” she says.

As the students continue writing Ms. Hallaway recounts the story of going door-to-door in Swisshelm Park, organizing citizens after a “special needs” lawsuit in the 1970s. She tells the students of being harassed by racist residents who probably didn’t realize their town was named after the famous abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Jane Swisshelm.

Later in the class, Ms. Hallaway draws an analogy between England’s imposition on colonial America and a newly independent young person living in their own apartment, only to have their mother come over one night and throw out their girlfriend, “because she’s a hoochie.”

Ms. Hallaway asks the class, “What color is slavery?”

They answer with great familiarity: “Green.”

She succeeds in keeping the students reasonably engaged throughout the class period. I never notice her take role. Maybe she didn’t have to, since the class looks completely full.

Next I travel back upstairs to room 208 for Mr. Randall’s U.S. History class, made up of about 25 11th and 12th graders.

“Hats off,” instructs Mr. Randall. The class is noisy. Mr. Randall passes out worksheets and tells the students to do one side while he takes role.

One student persists to loudly imitate flatulence. The class gets louder and Mr. Randall tells them to get to work.

“Excuse me,” Mr. Randall says to a female student carrying on a conversation with another student.

“Excuse me! l’m talking, ” she replies, then pauses.

“Sorry. I crossed the line,” she says with a mixture of submission and sarcasm.

Most students talk or look around. A few are writing. Mr. Randall walks towards two students who are talking. His attempt at intimidation through proximics fails, and they continue their conversation.

He puts notes on the overhead projector (“Roosevelt and the New Deal”) and reviews the notes.

“Any questions?” Mr. Randall asks.

No.

Mr. Randall ends class a little early so students can begin their next worksheet.

************

Next on my list is room 201: Mr. Stanton’s mostly 11th grade U.S. History class.

“Alright! Let’s go! Sit down!” Mr. Stanton booms.

“1936!” he yells.

About 15 students are in the room. I’m seated in the back corner, which turns out to be the most crowded section of the large room.

Mr. Stanton, a middle-aged white man like Mr. Randall, snaps his fingers and points to the door. One student moves to another seat. Three students are moved to other seats within the first ten minutes of class.

Before class, I had introduced myself to Mr. Stanton. He told me that he has been teaching for 29 years, 12 of which have been spent at South High. He characterized this class to me as “very immature.”

None of the teachers thus far have introduced me to their students. I thought perhaps the teachers didn’t want my presence to seem like an intrusion. Yet I was hardly undercover. I’m sure I stood out fairly well with my dress pants, button-up shirt and notebook — complete with the “Mr. Krane” nametag I had been given at the principal’s office. Nevertheless, no teacher had acknowledged my presence to his or her class. With the exception of Ms. Hallaway’s students, who were focuses on their studies, the students mostly looked at me curiously, then averted their gazes when I looked at them.

The students in Mr. Stanton’s class, however, quickly ask who I am. They don’t ask Mr. Stanton, the classroom’s “authority.” They ask me directly.

Mr. Stanton doesn’t acknowledge their questioning. I’m unsure of how to respond, wandering if he thinks I too should ignore the students. I point to my nametag and smile.

My first impression is that I liked these students — definitely more than I liked Mr. Stanton.

Mr. Stanton shows the class a BBC video on pre-World War II Europe. The video covers Kristelnach.

Some students watch attentively. About one third of the class puts their heads down or looks somewhere other than the TV. I notice that one student is sitting in a desk outside the doorway, having been moved as his punishment. A few conversations carry on openly with Mr. Stanton sitting nearby on a table in the back of the room.

The video ends.

“OK. Open your books to page 624.”

Mr. Stanton yells, ‘Let’s go!” Then, “Sit down!”

He proceeds to read straight from the ten-year-old textbook, which he himself later describes to me as “History for ldiots.” Then he assigns homework.

“Dustin, get back to your seat!” He yells at a dark-haired boy.

Dustin replies, “Why?”

“Because I’m bigger than you,” Mr. Stanton says, attempting to be halfway joking and down to earth.

“Mr. Stanton’s tough as hell!” Dustin yells to the class, mocking his teacher.

I note that these students are alert and not the least bit submissive.

Class ends and the students leave.

“What you’ve just seen is the failure of our public education system,” Mr. Stanton explains to me. I don’t doubt it.

I ask why that is — what’s the problem?

Mr. Stanton proceeds to complain about everything from administrators who don’t support teachers and out-dated, idiotic textbooks (which he still relies on), to incompetent school boards and students without social skills or “respect” (presumably for him), and finally to “the lack of leadership in Pittsburgh.”

I nod my head as he speaks, listening to him list everyone else’s contribution to “the failure of our public education system.” Then he pauses.

“And, well, I guess we teachers are partly to blame, too,” he says.

I think, “Hell yeah, you are,” having just witnessed the failure of our public educator. But his critique of the contribution of teachers to the current, pitiful situation ends up amounting to him bitching about “the union” and its president.

**********

I break for lunch. On the way out the door, a security guard lets me know that I’ve got tape on my back.

“Asshole kids,” says one guard.

I smile and walk away. That’s how I would characterize these kids: likable assholes. They are rude, confrontational, and demanding. Given their situation they should be.

Back in my high school, a teacher would have to pry any response from a student. Here at South High you don’t have to ask these kids to talk. True, in most cases they aren’t learning any of the subject matter, but that was true of Peters Township, too, where everyone plans to go college because those who don’t (like me) end up having their survey responses forged by a guidance counselor.

Of course, at my high school, students saw value in the memorization of meaningless word phrases in order to get good grades. Still, they learned little. Here, students fail and learn little. The difference is that these students are not passively obedient, and because of that I think a teacher here has one advantage that teachers at my high school lacked.

The students at South High have a lot of enthusiasm and energy. It’s a lot to work with if a teacher can counter that enthusiasm by actually teaching their students – by actually acknowledging them as people and not just desk-filling mass to be indoctrinated from “History for Idiots” and, in turn, expecting them to be satisfied by that arrangement.

***********

I return from Lunch to Mr. Brensen’s 9th. Grade civics class.

Mr. Brensen looks like he’s in his mid-forties and is white. He tells me he has been teaching eight years at South high, having spent the previous seven years at the nearby suburban districts Baldwin and Keystone Oaks.

I ask him what grade level this class is. He tells me that they’re 9th graders, “but they might seem more like 3rd graders.”

Mr. Brensen tells me his students have no social skills, and he compares them to “cavemen.” It’s a big class according to Mr. Brensen, “but it all depends on how many show up.” He tells me that it’s a hassle to get the students to do anything. “We do what we can with what we have,” he says.

Students start to enter the room. One student (Will, I think) is the second person of the day to tell me that I look like “Mr. Wienstien.”

“You dress like him, too, and that’s not a good thing,” Will says.

The first three students to enter the room don’t have pencils. Mr. Brensen points this out sarcastically, saying that they don’t need to bring pencils to every class if teachers give them pencils in every class.

Mr. Brensen has to yell, “Excuse me!” before the class gets quiet.

“Quiet” is a relative term at South High. Open conversations continue. Mr. Brensen loudly gives instructions to the room of about fifteen students over the remaining noise. I look down at the student worksheet that has been passed back to me and wonder if I should put my name on it. It’s so weird to be here.

Mr. Brensen asks one student, “Was it you who asked for a pencil?”

“Hell no, Brensen! It was me,” says a hefty kid in an “NWO” wrestling T-shirt and backwards baseball cap.

“Please, call me ‘Brensen,’” Mr. Brensen says after one student calls him “Chuck Norris.” (With his beard, Mr. Brensen does bear a slight resemblance. The students must be gifted in such comparisons, e.g. Mr. Wienstien.)

The student next to me is listening to a walkman loud enough for me to hear it easily. He turns and says something to me that I can’t decipher and then puts his hand out in the aisle between us in a closed fist. I smile and lightly hit the top of it with my fist. He does the same to me in return, nods his head and returns to his music.

Mr. Brensen never misses an opportunity to be sarcastic. He tells the class that he doesn’t want to waist any of their time, “because if I waist even one minute of your time each day, that’s three hours of your time by the end of the year that’s been wasted.”

“Can I get a drink of water?” One student asks.

“Didn’t you get a drink yesterday?” Mr. Brensen replies. “You can’t tell me you need another one today.”

“That’s one more minute, Brensen,” the student replies.

Two students want to leave to “get a drink.” One wants “to go to the bathroom.” The student next to me stops his walkman to flip over the tape, belches, and says “excuse me.” Then he stops the tape and interrupts Mr. Brensen to tell the class a story.

“Yo, man. I went with my sister to the store and this lady walked by. And she said ‘excuse me.’ And I said, ‘your welcome.”

He grins and turns his walkman back on. Mr. Brensen gives me a mockingly perplexed smile.

Mr. Brensen tells them to start their worksheets. The hefty kid yells something I don’t catch as he’s walking out of the room and the kid next to me yells “in my left titty!” in response.

Will, the student who compared me to Mr. Wienstien, comes over to my desk and tells me that his friend has a question.

“He wants to know, if your friend Jack was stuck up on the roof, would you help him off?”

I reply “No.”

Will leaves.

Mr. Brensen comes over while the students are working on their worksheets and shields his mouth from the class’ eyes with a folder, so that he can whisper to me that there are “ten special ed. kids in this class, some not even identified as such.”

Mr. Brensen tells me that normally he has students copy the notes from the overhead during class, then he lets them refer to their notes when taking the tests. He says he has gone so far as to underline the answers in the notes before he puts them on the overhead. Still, he says, many students fail.

Will and his friend, who, according to Will, is named “Phil McCracken,” talk about “ejaculation” at the table to my left.

Mr. Brensen enters the room with a TV, then leaves.

The class talks as a few students move about. Mr. Brensen retreats to his desk. He proceeds to teach the class, or make an attempt at least, from the front row of desks.

One student tries to stealthily sneak out the door. Mr. Brensen sees him and acts like he was coming to ask Mr. Brensen a question.

So much is going on in this room that I can’t write fast enough to record anything more than a fraction.

At one point I notice that practically all of the desks have stuff written or carved all over them. Looking down at my desk, I notice that “Brian X”, “J-Murder” and “Master J” have all occupied this desk. Wait – no, each name is in the same handwriting. It must have been someone searching for the perfect tag.

************

Period 7 is time for Mr. Brensen’s 9th grade Civics class. Only seven students are in this class – today, at least. One girl leaves after Mr. Brensen won’t give her a written pass to leave. Four of the six remaining students sit at desks; the other two sit on the table behind me. I hope they don’t have any tape.

The girl who left (Gina, I think) returns without explanation or any comment from Mr. Brensen.

Mr. Brensen is a big guy. He’s got to be at least 6’4″ tall, with long arms, long legs and a small head, by comparison — or maybe just in general. He has a low, booming, nasally voice, wears glasses, and has a very shortly-trimmed beard, which is almost totally white. I’d place him somewhere in his fifties.

Mr. Brensen asks the class what there was for people to do at night, after dark, 150 years ago. Replies include “Smoke some Herb!’ and “Steal some of Grandpa’s moonshine!”

Larissa gets up and walks around until Mr. Brensen tells her to sit down. Looking back at my notes, I don’t have any record what this class was about.

************

8th period is the last period of the day. I spend it in Mr. B’s 1Oth grade world cultures class. Mr. B is a white guy in his late 20s or early 30s. He doesn’t tell me what “B” stands for. The class is loud even by South High standards.

One girl is yelling everything she says, often incoherently, at the top of her lungs in a raspy high-pitched voice. Another student yells, “SHHHUT-UP!’ over and over again, without directing it at anyone in particular. Judging by the expression on her face, she apparently takes great joy in this.

Mr. B tells a student named Nate to take his headphones off. Mr. B is not yelling like most teachers have been.

“SHHHUT-UP!”

The room is very chaotic.

“SHHHUT-UP!’

I’m not sure what is going on.

“SHHHUT-UP!”

The first girl who had been screaming her various comments comes over and asks me if I’m from “Western Psych” (the popularly abbreviated name of the regional psychiatric hospital) and if I’m doing a report on her. She tells me her name is Jamira. According to the girl next to her, someone is supposed to come from Western Psyche to evaluate her sometime soon.

They ask me my name. The student next to me, Mike, says, “It’s Mr. Krane! Can’t you read?” I tell them I’m not from Western Psych.

“Are you sure?” They don’t believe me.

“Yes, I’m sure,” I reply calmly.

“SHHHUT-UP!”

They ask me where I’m from then. I tell them that I’m here for a class at CCAC (Community College of Allegheny County), to observe their class and others. In reaction to that, Mike begins saying “Mr. B is a horrible teacher” over and over again.

When I go to jot down observations he starts again. “Mr. B is a horrible teacher. Mr. B is a horrible teacher. Mr. B” –

Tamika, the student to my right, interrupts Mike to defend Mr. B. “How’s he going to teach, if you won’t let him?’ she asks.

However, Tamika becomes less forgiving when Mr. B. later pronounces a student’s name wrong. In response, she laughs and says aloud, “You still don’t know our names, do you?”

“What’s my name? Tamm-ick-ah?” she asks, apparently mocking Mr. B’s past mispronunciation of her name.

Later I find this is somewhat understandable, since Mr. B is the fourth teacher the class has had so far this year. According to Mr. B, none of the previous three teachers have been able to deal with “teaching” the class.

“SHHHUT-UP!”

Jamira leaves, then later returns to the door. It’s closed but I can hear her screaming outside.

“SHHHUT-UP!”

Mr. B handed every student a worksheet as they where walking into the room. Some students work on them, mostly in groups.

Jamira calls Mr. B “Curly.” He’s bald.

Nate asks Mr. B, “Are you going to tolerate that shit!?”

“SHHHHUT-UP!”

Mr. B seems pretty ineffective, but at least he’s not screaming. He and Mr. Stanton seem the most out of touch. Well… then there’s Mr. Joyce. Ms. Hallaway has definitely been the best teacher I’ve observed so far. Mr. Brensen places a distant second.

The class is relatively quiet for the moment. A few conversations are going on, but it’s no big deal…. again, relatively speaking. This really is a different world. I don’t see it as hopeless, though. At least these students aren’t in a daze of submission. I write in my notebook, again, that they are rude, confrontational, and somewhat inquisitive — more a comment on the entire day’s experience as a whole, than this particular class.

“SHHHHUT-UP!”

Mike is about to get kicked out by Mr. B. Mr. B opens the door and then closes it with him and Mike outside. They soon return.

It’s 2:03pm. 15 minutes to go.

Mr. B announces that it’s now time for the class to watch a video “regarding the Arab world.” This time it’s not “Not Without My Daughter;” it’s something else, but I can’t hear exactly what. Mr. B tries to give the class the first bit of instruction in almost half an hour.

Nate and Jamira return to the room and things fall apart.

Mr. B starts the video.

Jamira yells incoherently then comes over to see if I’m writing anything about her. She still thinks I’m from Western Psych. Mr. B comes over and tells her that she needs to sit down. Jamira tells him (rather loudly) that he needs to get out of her face and grow some hair. They both go outside the room, and I can hear Jamira yelling.

Now it seems as though Mike will be getting kicked out again, this time “for talking.”

“That’s bullshit!” he responds to Mr. B. “I don’t give a fuck!” He then goes back to his desk and rafts it up with some other students’ desks.

I wonder if I can leave here without being told that I look like Mr. Wienstien.

Mike asks Mr. B, “Where’s my slip?”

No answer.

“Where’s my slip?”

Still no answer.

“Dorkface! Where’s my slip!?

It appears as though Mr. B may finally be writing the disciplinary referral slip to accompany Mike’s ejection from class.

Seeing that Mr. B has begun writing, Mike tells him “Adam’s a faggot.” Mike also tells Mr. B that Tara, the girl standing beside them, “is a lesbian.” It appears as though Mike is trying to get Mr. B to write those comments down on his slip as the reason for Mike being thrown out of class.

“Does anybody know what time it is?” one girl asks.

‘SHHHUT-UP!”

Mr. B turns the video off as the period draws to a close. He tells the class they are going to watch the video again tomorrow.

“Why?” someone yells.

“Because you didn’t learn anything today,” Mr. B replies.

“We never do,” replies another student.

“Tomorrow you might,” says Mr. B.

“SHHHUT-UP!”

That first day was pretty representative of my experience at South High and it served as an immediate orientation.

Day Two

I returned two days later to find that Mr. Randall was not there. One substitute came, then another.

I wonder who the substitute thinks I am. He doesn’t ask.

The substitute looks at the instructions on the board.

“Well, I guess that’s your assignment…. Do they have books in here you can use…? If you need paper, it’s here….” he says to the class.

One student leaves. Another enters the room for the first time this morning.

Only one of the three configurations of fluorescent overhead lights is on. That light, accompanied by the early morning sunlight is all that lights the dim room.

The substitute works on his own papers quietly at his desk. Some students talk quietly, but they are pretty subdued. It’s early.

One student puts her head down to rest. Another ten minutes of this, and I’ll want to do the same. I really just should have slept in this morning.

Now I realize that, since Mr. Randall isn’t here, I don’t have a list of teachers who know that I’ll be observing their classes today. Great. This is going to be fun.

A new student walks in. The sub doesn’t say anything. Indeed, he hasn’t said anything since his initial instructions to the class. He just sits there at his desk.

Two girls are talking; one has her head down, three more are staring off into space. It’s possible that two students are working on their assignment, only because I can’t see what they’re doing from my seat in the back of the room.

Another student comes in and puts his head down. I’m getting tired now. Maybe I’ll just follow yesterday’s schedule, with the exception of Mr. Joyce’s 3rd period class. I don’t think I could handle a repeat of this class.

20 minutes of class have gone by now. I could really go to sleep. I wish I had brought my Sociology textbook. I could be reading it now. Or maybe I just should have slept in this morning.

*************

Finally the day’s first class ends and I head to Ms. Hallaway’s African-American History class again. It was another good class. I think she is the only teacher I’ve observed here who actually manages to teach.

I had inquired to one of the teachers here, as to why the African-American History classes are totally comprised of black students. I was told that African-American History and Civics are 9th grade elective courses, so all the black kids take African-American History while all the white kids take Civics. The teacher (who, like all of the teachers besides Ms. Hallaway, is white) told me that, as a result, the black kids don’t know anything about how the government works. He didn’t express any problem he might have had with white kids being ignorant of African-American History.

Yet in this situation, it seems to me that all students miss out. If a Civics class contains knowledge that is necessary for students to participate in a democratic society/government, then all citizens should receive that knowledge via public education, regardless of their race. Furthermore, if a class is teaching African-American History, then it is teaching American History. Why shouldn’t students be taught this material without such a racial distinction? If public schools are only teaching black kids the struggle of African-Americans to achieve “the promise of democracy,” from slavery on, maybe our schools should be teaching the white kids about the struggle to oppress and exploit minorities, from colonization on. That way, schools could overtly promote a racist hierarchy, rather than their current method of promoting it through the ignorance that segregation of knowledge breeds.

If African-Americans can only be taught of their history at the expense of knowledge necessary to fight present and future oppression through democratic political action, then this is sadly a case where, by teaching History, schools greatly improve the chances of their students repeating it. On the other hand, if Ms. Callaway is including any amount of traditional civics material in her class on Africa-American history, her students are probably learning more about civics than students taking civics from any other teacher here that I’ve observed.

I do want to emphasize the fact that I am not saying that teaching students about the experiences of African-Americans is a bad thing. It’s a good thing. What I am saying is that students should not be taught along the lines of their race. Multiculturalism should not mean teaching white kids European-American history; black kids African-American history; Asian kids Asian-American history; and Latinos about how many democratic governments the US has overthrown in Latin America. All American students should be taught about how the world’s History has influenced — and in turn been influenced by –American History.

Also, I’d argue that all students should be taught democratic self-governance — and not just as spectators, but as participants in a democratic setting. That, of course, would mean democratizing public schools, and that’s a whole other story. I guess the moral of this one is that a stratified school system serves to reinforce social stratification. In the case of South High this is not only visible with regard to the African-American/ Civics split, but also with regard to students being pushed into a vo-tech school in the first place.

Just as we all know that kids end up in vo-tech programs and schools because they are “discipline problems,” we also know that a disproportionate number of these “discipline problems” comes from low-income families, regardless of their race. (South High is about fifty-fifty black/white.) From the time these students – practically still children – enter such a program or school they are in a designated track. In this case it is a track with serious limitations. As Mr. B told me when he explained the nature of a Vo-tech magnet school to me, “We don’t have college preparatory courses here.”

The other moral to this story is that a public education system of deplorable quality is perhaps a more effective deterrent to democracy than the best state propaganda. Whether that outcome is deliberate or not is certainly arguable. The outcome itself, however, is not.

*************

Now, getting back to Ms. Hallaway’s 2no period class…

Again, it was another good class.

Ms. Hallaway to her students: “Now, you and I all know that Indians are from India.”

That goes on the list with “What color is Slavery?” My list, that is. Although I hope the students are keeping one of their own.

************

Things more or less continued like that throughout my time at South High. Ms. Hallaway was a pretty good teacher by any school’s standards. Mr. Joyce and Mr. Stanton were fairly ineffective. Mr. Brensen must consume insanely large amounts of coffee to stay as wired as he does.

Although he was much too cynical and laid too much blame on his students, Mr. Brensen nonetheless showed incredible skill at managing his classroom. I don’t think he was able to teach his students much, but keeping them occupied and under control (even though I’m not a fan of controlling other people) was itself a feat. I have no idea how he can keep up that intensity throughout the period, much less how he can maintain his momentum throughout the day. I guess the best way to describe Mr. Brensen was as a master of damage control, not teaching. There probably was more that could have been done, but in all fairness to Mr. Brensen, he did a lot. He did try to teach; maybe he just didn’t expect it to happen.

A Reflection on “Respect”

One problem that I think too many teachers have is easily seen in Mr. Stanton. In my Introduction to Sociology class, some students had to interview teachers and ask them about problems they faced. I think virtually every teacher said kids have “a lack of respect”– for what, they never addressed. If they mean that students tend to seriously lack respect for themselves and one another, then they are totally correct. I just think they fail to see that they along with the current education system have done a lot to worsen that situation – even bring it about, to some degree. However, I doubt that’s what those teachers mean when they say “respect.”

In my experience, teachers (and many others) most often use the term “respect” as though it means “passive compliance to authority.” When they don’t get this “respect”, they don’t know what to do. The great misconception of many teachers is that it is OK to be boring. It’s OK to teach without having to explain why something should be taught. lf the students aren’t satisfied with that then there is a problem with them.

This misunderstanding on the part of teachers is sad to see. I suspect a lot of teachers think: “My teacher’s didn’t have to explain why I should bother to learn something. I just did, because he or she was the teacher. I respected them. Why won’t these kids respect me?”

Perhaps the thought that follows is: “They must not like me.”

Feeling hurt is then followed by defensiveness: “They don’t have any reason to not like me. There’s nothing wrong with me. It’s those damn kids. They’re just mean kids without any respect.”

Thinking about it that way, it’s easy to feel sorry for the teachers. But try being a student, and the attitude is just insulting.

That misconception of respect finds its worst expression when teachers say, “I wish they’d outlaw the damn question ‘Why?’ and just have the kids do what we tell them!” (a quote from one of my fellow student teachers)

Worse yet is the “spare the rod and spoil the child” mentality that says kids would have “respect,” if teachers (and parents, for that matter) once again would be allowed to beat it into them. Violence, of course, is what backs up passive compliance to authority. Equate passive compliance to authority with respect and you consequently promote the idea that violence is a way to gain respect.

With thinking that warped so prominent it’s no wonder we really lack respect for one another, any more than it is surprising that such a lack of respect begets violence. Schools, of course, aren’t solely to blame, but when school’s become the targets of so much violence perhaps we ought to really examine why.

The sooner teachers learn the real meaning of the word “respect,” and acknowledge the criticisms and concerns of their students, the better off everyone will be.

When teacher’s act like teaching kids is a lost cause, however, I think about the kids in one of Mr. Stanton’s classes. It seemed that they hated school, hated learning, hated anything except annoying other people. At the end of one class, Dustin – who I’d seen kicked out of class on multiple occasions and whom Mr. Stanton referred to as “the human hemorrhoid” – came up to me and said, ‘So you want to be a teacher?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “I think so.”

“Well, just don’t be a boring teacher like Mr. S.”

I asked him if there were any teachers here that he liked.

“Oh yeah!” Dustin immediately replied. “There’s Mr. Tiller. He’s not boring. He makes his class fun.” He immediately named another teacher he liked.

“What’s he teach?” I asked, pretty surprised.

“Science,” Dustin added enthusiastically.

“Yeah, you should check him out. He’s in… um… he’s in room – Hey, man! What room is Tiller in?” Dustin grabbed another student’s arm, asking him. He told me the room number.

However, my experience at South High certainly underscored the difficulty of teaching, especially in a city school, even in spite of the extra student enthusiasm I feel teachers here have to work with. On that note, I’ll end with Mr. B’s 8th period World Culture’s class, the last class I observed at South High Vocational-Technical Magnet School.

**********

I come in and sit down in a desk in the back corner of the room. Jamira immediately comes over to me and stares down at my notebook. She asks me if I’m sure that I’m not here for her.

Jamira sits down. Someone asks a question, to which she replies by yelling “Hell Mothafuckin’ No!”

Students continue talking. Occasionally Mr. B begins an attempt to explain something or one student yells especially loudly. Other than that, it’s just a constant din.

I hear the familiar “SHHHUT-UP!”

Mr. B gives worksheets to those students who successfully avoided one at the door.

“Do one through five,” he says. “Danielle, get started.”

Danielle Refuses.

I notice that despite Jamira’s earlier outburst, she about 500 percent calmer than last time. She sits in a desk in the center of the room, working on a worksheet with another girl.

Mr. B tries again to explain the reason why all the students are gathered in this room today — or at least what is to occupy their time since they have been gathered here. For a moment it seems like something will be conveyed.

Some students talk. Someone says “shhh!” Jamira gets mad. Mr. B tries to throw her out. She won’t leave.

“Jamira, you need to sit outside.”

“l didn’t do nothin’! I’m not fuckin’ leavin’! You can’t make me, motherfucker!” she screams hysterically.

Mr. B goes to his desk and begins writing on a slip of paper.

A phone rings and suddenly I realize why there’s a phone in this room. Mr. B speaks briefly into it, and a short while later a police officer/guard arrives.

The guy couldn’t be more stereotypical. He’s white, over-weight and balding. He literally comes into the room chewing something and licking his fingers.

Between the remnants of his snack, the security officer tells Jamira to go see Mr. Mankin. (I am not sure, but I assume Mr. Mankin is probably either an administrator, guidance counselor or some sort of in-school social worker.) Jamira doesn’t move, so the guard threatens her. “Well, I’d just love to physically remove you. We’ll see that in about one second,” he says. (At last, someone legally empowered to teach a lesson in “respect”!)

“Go ahead and fucking try,” Jamira replies defiantly and then goes back to writing quietly.

One girl says that she’s sick of writing and remarks, ‘Just because we’re writing all this doesn’t mean we’re learning anything!” Another girl agrees, complaining that they aren’t learning anything.

Mr. B threatens to write up the girl who first exposed this well-hidden secret.

“Do you want me to write that you aren’t doing anything here?”

(“Gee, that’s pretty obvious. Who is?” I think to myself.)

I wish I had a video camera in here with me.

The worksheet handed out to students instructs them to read pages 148-154; answer focus questions on page 149; answer section review questions one through six on page 155. The answers to focus questions one through five then follow, handwritten by Mr. B, in sentence fragments for easier memorization, I assume.

The cop hasn’t come back for Jamira. She walks up to Mr. B and tells him to check her off, because she’s done with her work. Three female students walk into the room: Melissa, Tonya, and a girl with blonde hair and a shirt that says “Don’t trust anybody.”

I notice that Tonya has a pretty cool tattoo on her arm: nothing special, just a band around her upper arm. Then I remember that she’s in 10th grade.

“SHHHUT-UP! SHHHUT-UP! SHHHUT-UP!” Again, for no apparent reason.

I check the time. Ten or fifteen minutes left.

Jamira walks out of the room.

Mr. B asks where the best place to hunt and farm in Africa is.

One girl outlines her lips with a make-up pencil. One girl helps another girl with her hair.

“The deserts provide plentiful game and plenty of food. True or false?” Mr. B asks the class.

“Oh, oh! False!” one student shouts.

“Do farmers hunt or farm?”

The class answers correctly.

“If I’m closer to the equator, what happens?”

“It gets hotter!”

“Right. What desert–“

Mr. B is interrupted by the noisy students.

“What desert—“

He’s cut off again.

“What desert—“

“The Sahara!” one student shouts.

“That’s right,” Mr. B replies.

The cop returns, but apparently not for Jamira. He begins talking to a kid in the back of the room jokingly as Mr. B attempts to continue his questions. A few students get up and walk around. One student, Rachel, gets her book bag and leaves.

“Mister, the bell’s gonna ring!” a female student shouts.

“In the desert, do you have any vegetation? True or false?” Mr. B asks. I ponder how a question can be true or false.

The bell rings.

*************

Mr. B talks to me after class. He’s an odd guy who seems as wound-up as Mr. Milson is. But unlike Mr. Milson, Mr. B has an almost forcibly calmed speaking voice. Its irregular rhythm and the nervous twitching of his eyes give him away, though.

Fond of percentages, he tells me that in his class of 28 students, 30 percent are functionally illiterate.

“Retention? Comprehension? Forget about it,” he says.

Mr. B made an interesting comment about students being conditioned into needing individualized attention due to their socio-economic status. I asked him to elaborate.

His eyes twitched faster and he shifted his weight back and forth from one foot to the other. He seemed more visibly uncomfortable than usual…or maybe he’s excited and not nervous. Maybe has to go the bathroom really bad. I’m not sure. He tells me that whenever students ask for a pencil and receive it, they find that power amazing.

Interesting. It really is another world here, where something like that is somehow significant. I don’t dismiss what he says, though. Weirder things are true, especially in a place like school.

On the way to my car, I pass another car with a newly smashed windshield. I make a mental note not to park behind South High again.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Essays. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s