That’s The Way It Is….

When I finally landed a permanent public school teaching job way back in 2009 I was handed the class of Geometry. Oh, did I hate teaching Geometry. Probably the biggest reason I hated Geometry was the fact that the only training in Geometry I ever had was taking the class as a freshman in high school. (I managed to miss Geometry in college due to the fact it was only offered every other year and there happened to be a change of professors as well, which messed with the scheduling.)

Anyway, Geometry is full of theorems, such as, “a line that is tangent to a circle is perpendicular to the radius of the circle at the point of intersection.” The textbook I used relied on using the theorems to set up algebraic equations. The vast majority of my students simply memorized the theorems and applied them as necessary. However, a few of my students wanted to know why the product of the segments of intersecting chords in a circle were equal. Guess how I answered.

“Because that’s the rule.”

“That’s what the book says.”

“This is preparing you for the workplace where you have to be able to apply rules.”

I’m sure there are more examples, but they are all in the same vain of, “just shut up and do the work.” It still makes me nauseous to think I was like that because that meant I only viewed my students as subjects to be controlled. I assumed that I was only like that in Geometry, but as that first year progressed I began to realize I was like that in Algebra I as well. Eventually I realized that I wasn’t teaching math, I was teaching how to get the correct answers to textbook problems. I was doing that because that’s all I had ever known. I taught how I had been taught. I could solve nearly every procedural problem in the book, but I still struggled with anything of a different context.

I was taught to look at a problem and recall the correct procedure. It forced me to develop a mentality towards school where I don’t question, but rather I obeyed. No one ever asked me to explain. I never asked why. I just did and I got rewarded. It’s kind of like one of those seal shows that happens at a zoo or aquarium.

Please take a moment to watch the video because it is the perfect metaphor for how I view the grade obsessed student. Imagine going to out in the wild and throwing that ball at a bunch of wild seals. If they could talk I’m pretty sure they would all say, “Ummm… yeah….WTF is with the ball?” And if I was the person that threw the ball I would say, “It’s MATH!!!!, and you use it everyday in your life.”

But the zoo seal plays with the ball because it knows it’s going to get dead fish, just like students solve equations because they know it will get good grades. That’s right, we’ve replaced dead fish with A’s. Neither the zoo seal or the honor roll student question why, they just want the reward. Play with ball, get fish. Solve for x, get A. Play with ball in front of people, get more fish and applause. Have a lot of A’s, get a name in paper, discount on insurance, or even tacos.  It’s purely a conditioned response that requires no application or understanding.

Now imagine that zoo seal from the video is transferred to another zoo to teach the ball tricks. How does that go? Probably pretty smoothly for most good, tamed seals, but what if there is a newly captured seal from the wild? How does that zoo seal respond when questioned about purpose of the ball?

Pretty much the same way I did.

Deficit Thinking

I’ve been meaning to write about my experience at Center for Training and Careers (CTC), a contract alternative school that operated with the Minneapolis and Richfield school districts in Minnesota. The name is a bit misleading, as we weren’t a vocationally oriented school, but rather a school that offered a different setting than the traditional public school, but the curriculum was largely the same. We housed students that had been expelled from other schools, members of rival gangs at the regular public school, students that were working full time, and some whose home life just wasn’t conducive to a typical school day. I thought I was going to write about how difficult life was for some of these students, but I realized that struggle is all relative.

Some of the students at CTC had a remarkably positive outlook despite the obstacles that were placed in front of them. The problem with that thought is I would be trivializing any obstacles that my students face. It’s like I would be saying, “You think you got problems, let me tell you about problems,” without accounting for the relativity associated with problem perception. So I decided to scrap that idea.

My mind then wandered then to an idea of purpose, making sure I’m doing what my students need me to do. But I didn’t like the outcome with that draft.

This is my third attempt at writing about CTC. Each time I come back to the idea, I keep thinking about one conversation with my supervisor during my first year, during the first semester. The school year was not going good. Almost none of the students were doing homework, scores were miserable because of a horrid lack of prerequisite skills, and note taking was non-existent. I was looking at my grades, which were bad at best, and griping to my supervisor about all of the problems that I was facing. He interrupted me and asked me to think about why my students were at this school. He talked to me about all the ways that these students aren’t like students we find in normal school. He talked to me about making sure that we keep sight of what these students need.

That’s why I thought this was going to be about purpose, about realizing what my students need. In reality though, much of the purpose of my class is out of my control. The state dictates the content taught, OTES guides my practices and pedagogy, and stigma and traditions influence my behavior. So if that moment wasn’t about defining purpose, what was it really about?

I’ve come to the conclusion that my meeting with my supervisor was more about me than anything that goes on in my classroom. The problem I was experiencing was justifying my status as a teacher. To me my students were lazy, they didn’t care about school, or they weren’t prepared. I thought they didn’t have the support at home that they needed. I thought that their priorities were misplaced, that they were too concerned with social status and not enough with academics.

When my supervisor directed to think about my students he was actually forcing me to abandon my deficit perspective of them. I had to stop thinking about everything that was preventing them for having success in the classroom and focus on the ways I was preventing them from having success. It was difficult to drop it at first, because losing a deficit perspective means I take blame for my students failures. But as I gradually began to accept my part in my students struggles and failures I became a much more content teacher.

**An example of  my understanding of a deficit perspective would be the restriction of bathroom privileges in school. I should limit the number of times students use the bathroom because if I don’t, they will leave class constantly to go to the bathroom when they really don’t need to. The first time I catch a student wandering the halls instead of using the bathroom my deficit thinking is confirmed. In response, I limit bathroom privileges for all students because I don’t trust students.**

I am by no means perfect. I still find myself stumbling and placing the blame on students on occasion. I still catch myself in a conversation where I say, “I did my part, they didn’t pay attention.” But now I feel guilt every time I fall back into that mentality. It has become ingrained in me as part of who I am as a teacher. Lately, it’s been more of a struggle than it has been in the past (thanks OTES), and I have found myself leaning on faith more than I had used to. The temptation is there though, to just go back to the way things were. I don’t want to, and luckily very few of my students know that side of me.

I sometimes wonder if I would be the same teacher, or even the same person, if my first years of experience would have been in a more traditional school.