Sunday, October 17, 2010

Classroom Confidential

I returned home from my trip to Mexico just a week before school started, having heard that San Francisco Unified School District really didn’t start hiring until the last few days before classes began. I put on my only suit and headed out to the school of my dreams, walked in with a portfolio of my best lesson plans and letters of recommendation, and asked the secretary if they were in need of a science teacher. She said they could interview me in twenty minutes, if I didn’t mind waiting. I was called back that afternoon with a job offer.

On the morning of my first day, I arrived early to give myself time to pick up my rosters and get my room in order. The most obvious problem was that there weren’t enough chairs and desks for the 36 students I was expecting. I was excited and really looking forward to meeting my first students, not just because they were my first students, but also because it was an ESL biology class, an opportunity to really apply what I had learned over the summer. So I scrambled and scrounged to get my room in order, to make a good impression, and with the help of one of my colleagues, I managed to find just enough extra chairs. However, when I received my rosters I was horrified to see that my first period class had 38 students on it, two more than the contractual limit and two more than the number of chairs I had worked so hard to acquire.

My ESL biology class had students from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Macao, China, Viet Nam, Cambodia and Burma, and one from Mexico. Half the kids had names that were so new to me that I had no idea what their genders were, let alone how to pronounce them, names like Haripreet, Bao Yu, Cheng-gong, Dao-Ming, Enlai, Hui-Fang, An-Tuan, Huynh, Ngoc, Dalisay, Diwata, Htai, Kyaw, Bounthieng, and Mrinmayee. And then they arrived, not 38, but 45. I had students sitting on milk crates and lab benches, standing in the back, leaning against walls. I apologized profusely and they thanked me profusely and, despite the logistical problems on day one, we developed the most wonderful classroom culture.

I remember one Vietnamese student who had just arrived in the country. He could not speak a word of English. When I asked him his name, he looked up at me with such confusion and fear that I felt terrible for having asked him such a thing. Students such as he were supposed to be sent to Newcomer High School, where they received intensive English language development. Eventually they would trickle into the mainstream schools where they took ESL classes until they knew enough English to be in mainstream classes. Fortunately there was another Vietnamese student who helped translate for him.

While my first period ESL students were polite, on time, and eager to do well, my second period class was a conceptual chemistry course for native born students. Most of these students had flunked at least one previous science class. And many came to school only because it was better than being at home or on the streets, or because it was a requirement of their probation. Half of my second period students sauntered in late, some by as much as 30 minutes, as if their being in class at all was sufficient. And this was not just a problem on opening day. Throughout the year it was rare to see more than 50% of these students in their seats by the time the tardy bell rang.

That first week I tried to call the parents of every one of my 170 students. I hoped that I could temper the unpleasant interactions with some nice words for those who were doing well. I spent four hours per day on the phone that first week, most of which was spent talking to answering machines or listening to the operator telling me that the number had been disconnected. I think I managed to reach the parents of only 30 of my students, and most of these were kids who were doing well.

I also encountered a few parents who were hostile to me. Some screamed that I should be glad their child showed up at all, or argued that being on time wasn’t important. There were others who broke down sobbing that their child was out of control and wasn’t there something I could do to reign them in? One parent told me that the next time I should call her and she would come right over and sock him in front of his friends. Another told me that I had his permission to hit his son. In many cases the parents simply weren’t available to monitor their child’s homework or behavior because they were working two or three jobs or because they were in and out of jail or on drugs. This was just the tip of the iceberg.

During my first few years I got a real serious lesson from the school of hard knocks. I had an epileptic student whose seizures grew in quantity and intensity whenever her mother was on a crack binge. I’ve had numerous pregnant students, most of whom stopped coming to school. One student had post traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks so severe she couldn’t be at school. I’ve had students who stopped coming to school because they had been raped or molested or harassed over their sexual orientation. I’ve had several students who couldn’t do their homework because they were turning tricks all night, including a male-to-female transgender youth. There have been others who continued to come to school but sat in class sobbing, incapable of participating.

I’ve had students miss class to attend drug rehab, physical therapy or counseling. Others stopped attending because they had been arrested. Several have stopped coming because they run away from home. Many stopped attending because of threats by gangs or bullies. One of my students watched his father murder his mother in front of him.

I’ve had students with depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and anti-social personality disorder. I’ve had others with such severe emotional disorders that they couldn’t communicate with me, stay seated for more than a minute, or comprehend why other students looked at them so strangely. There was one boy who had such acute anorexia that he was hospitalized twice in one school year and another, with sickle cell, who was absent far more often than he was present.

I’ve had students who were homeless, living on the streets. Many students shift between two homes as a result of divorce, complicating the problems of where and when to do homework and where or how to store text books and other educational resources. Many live in crowded, noisy homes, with no quiet space for doing homework. Some are required to work to help the family meet its financial needs or to care for siblings or elderly family members, either of which may take priority over homework. Some are treated like indentured servants by extended “family” members or sponsors.

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