Last Friday, I “shadowed” my focal student, who I am studying for my case study for one of my teaching program courses: adolescent development and learning. I spent the entire day following her from class to class, to a school-wide rally, lunch, and more classes. By the end of the day, I sat exhausted in my car, glad my high school days were a distant memory.
I want to write more about this day later, but until then, one moment stood out from Friday that I wanted to share now. As we left one class for the next, I asked my focal student how she liked the earlier class, let’s call it an arts class, and the way students acted in the class. She said it was boring, but students took it since it was usually an easy A, which made me think of my acting arts class from my senior year. I asked her what she thought of the teacher and the students who played cards the entire class or simply talked loudly all class. She replied along the lines of, he used to be a good teacher, but then “he stopped caring.” The power of that statement hit me pretty hard, especially since one group of students was acting extremely obnoxious, swearing, talking explicitly about certain anatomical items, and frankly, not caring themselves; the other group played poker, or some other card game all class. The teacher, himself, confided in me that while the students were all good souls, many did not care anymore, at least yet, and someday they typically wake up and start to care. He went on to mention that my focal student was one of his best students.
It takes a tremendous amount of energy to care for students, especially adolescents, who do nearly everything in their power to disturb the class, hide out in plain sight, or just put their heads down and sleep; almost anything except paying attention and participating in class. The level of creativity, caring, self-discipline, preparation, focus, intensity, knowledge, etcetera, needed to stand in front of 20-40 students used to chaos as the norm at school, and draw them out of that modus operandi, into the topic of the day, in a way that they actually learn and understand the topic, is immense; it saps you to your very core, every day, and just like a battery that only has a limited number of charge-discharge cycles, so do teachers, who are only human.
The set of skills listed above barely touches upon content knowledge, pedagogy, pacing schedules, or routine tasks like taking role; those all add to the enormity of teaching. So, while I believe teachers must care about their students tremendously to succeed, with the passion and insight necessary to reach a group who are experiencing multiple biological, psychological, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, familial, sexual, and sociological changes simultaneously, some mechanism must exist to help the students meet the teachers, if not half-way, then as close as possible, and that mechanism is the student’s caregiver(s): be it parent(s), guardian(s), whomever. They must invest an effort in this social contract called teaching, or just like this one teacher, above, we will all stop caring since we only have so much energy ourselves; we are not Superman or Superwoman, as those who believe imaginary characters actually exist. We are flesh and blood, struggling with our own life issues as we tend to our charges, the nation’s future citizens, who may not realize this is their moment to wake up, pay attention, learn, understand, and apply themselves, because surely millions of others are doing just that. There is only so much scarce resource to go around in our capitalistic society, where the spoils, mostly, go to those who push themselves, and not to those who sit around waiting for a handout or for someone to impart the wisdom their parents give, or should give, simply because they neither took the time to listen then, nor listen now.
Accordingly, I still find it amazing to read how many “experts,” or more precisely, those with the financial wherewithal to hire staff who then advocate, as if they were experts, who believe that all responsibility for our present educational distress lies with our nation’s teachers; that it is their sole responsibility to turn around those affected by the socioeconomic inequities that were ingrained over hundreds of years, mostly by the predecessors of the our nation’s wealthiest, who with their children live in an alternate universe, oblivious to the challenges facing the majority of students in our country today since their parents, if they are fortunate enough to have parents, or other guardians, lack the skills needed to do what I mention above is critical to teacher’s long-term survival given all the stresses these children carry with them into the school, and classroom. We are fooling ourselves if we believe we can cure the malaise by applying ointment to only one part of the body education; a concerted, modern, team effort is required that spans socioeconomic conditions, parenting programs, support systems, etcetera to right this ship, or we will continue our listing, to port or starboard, it does not matter once we start taking on more water than we can bail. And similar to the grand ship Titanic, who surely was unsinkable, the U.S. in all its glory, will simply be no more, or if it survives, just a shell of its former self, beholden to the more educated nations of this world.