I Don’t Know Sh*t About Education

The message we send our kids: Live like whitey.

Ryan’s repost of my old blog entry gave me cause to reread it for the first time since April 2011. I closed the post by pledging to be a good teacher. I’m now into my second year as a special education teacher and it’s as good a time as any to look back and reflect on my experiences and to answer that question: Am I a good teacher?

Special Education is not something I imagined I’d be doing when I completed my English degree. Or when I completed my English Education Master’s of the Art of Teaching (don’t ask). It’s definitely been a big learning experience and it’s humbled me quite a bit.

But more than any of that, working in Special Education has taught me that I don’t know sh*t about education. Reasonable people would expect to find a flawed system with inefficiencies and problems. What I have come to find is a deeply broken system bordering on dysfunction. The worst part is, nobody seems to know how to fix it. Everywhere I think I find some kind of answer or some kind of solution, there are significant downsides just waiting around the corner.

For example, I may teach English (sped English is still English) but what I find myself spending most of my time on is, for lack of a better term, life-skills. I’m not talking about balancing a checkbook or writing a resume. Instead, some of students need to learn not to scream at each other, teachers, phones, insects, or walls when something doesn’t go their way. And let’s be clear, these kids aren’t catastrophically disabled or diagnosed with anything more than a behavioral disorder, ADHD, or some small learning disability. The truly “bad” kids never set foot in a regular classroom. The students I see are mostly just maladjusted little jerks who can’t handle anyone asking them to do anything they don’t like.

And that’s where my confusion sets in. I like to try and help these kids. I consider it my duty for living a cushy lifestyle on fat-cat Wall St. money. So, like most reasonable people, I try to help them see the big picture: “You’re right, Billy, reading The Most Dangerous Game is bullth*t. But, Billy, it isn’t about reading this book, it’s about showing that you can follow directions. It’s about showing you know how to work hard and accomplish goals.” Billy doesn’t care though. He puts his head on the desk and refuses to move it. Which is fine because I really need to move on and teach the other kids who are starting to pull out their phones. I keep Billy after class and have a quick talk but he just doesn’t care and tells me to f*ck off. Billy’s mom gets an email which will never be replied to.

Was that right? Should I have tried to help Billy see the big picture?  Is that what a good teacher would have done? I feel like helping students develop a sense of responsibility and a work ethic is the right thing to do but what am I really setting them up for?

We live under an illusion of meritocracy. Supposedly our society rewards hard work with cash-money. Our school system is basically built upon that premise. Work hard and you will be rewarded. That’s not true, though; is it? Should a good teacher work to sustain that illusion? The lifestyle we’re asking them to follow is, well, a white 1950s vision of America. It’s a profoundly conservative, or rather, libertarian message which we send to the kids every day. As we work in our political system to undo the damage caused by 30 years of self-interest, shouldn’t we be doing the same in schools?

That’s why I say I don’t understand Education. I can’t figure out what the purpose really is. For the last decade high schools nationwide have been on a giant “college bound” binge. AP and IB classes have exploded. Honors is not far behind. The general education kids and the special education kids are all being pushed right toward the ivory towers. But it’s not what they need. It’s not what they want. And the only explanation we give them is a monetary one: You go to college to get the best job. You want the best job so you can make the most money. The way to get there is entirely on you, 15 year-old freshman. You and nobody else.

Our schools pretend they’re raising and entire generation of John Galts just waiting to show they’re the best so they can make that bank. The kids know it’s bullsh*t and they quit a long time ago. Why don’t we?

Does that make me a good or a bad teacher? I don’t know.