I became a teacher because my friend, Edna, puked.
She didn’t vomit; she didn’t throw up like the rest of us in our elementary classroom. She didn’t just get sick to her stomach. She puked. At least, that’s how she would describe it if you asked her, although most kids didn’t ask her much of anything after talking to her once or twice.
I first met Edna in third grade, and it didn’t take me long to figure out that mastering vocabulary and social skills weren’t the only challenges she faced. Besides being saddled with an outdated moniker, she came from a poor family, was cross-eyed despite the coke-bottle thick glasses she wore, had the shaggiest, most unevenly cut hair I had ever seen, and could have been the poster child for undiagnosed learning disabilities. All the cards were stacked against Edna, and she wasn’t even aware there was a deck. As a kid, I didn’t realize why Edna seemed different; she just was. All I knew was that my friend never enjoyed school like I did, even when I tried to help her. To a third grader-especially a third-grader who loved school-that just didn’t seem fair. As an adult, I still don’t think it is fair. However, there are a number of things in education that aren’t fair.
We have come a long way since my days with Edna so long ago, but not far enough. We live in a society desperate for educated citizens, yet schools are floundering on the verge of implosion and the solutions legislators foist upon the profession are leaky band-aids at best and complete disasters at the worst. Beginning teachers are sprinting away from school systems in droves after just a few years on the job, or worse, just after completing student teaching. Faced with a hopeless situation prettied up by an overabundance of obviously cosmetic reforms, they sacrifice the years of hard work and money spent preparing for their vocation, not to mention the potential for a decent retirement from a field to which many had planned to devote their lives. How many other professions can boast that infamous detail? The main causes are naturally up for debate, with a lack of pay at the top of the pile. Other reasons include a lack of support from parents and administrators, rigid standards dictated by state legislators who have never set foot in a classroom, too much time spent on testing, the cutting of benefits, and lack of student interest, just to name a few. But how about this one…
No one listens to us.
For years teachers have said we need smaller classes. Instead of twenty-five students, how about ten to fifteen? You can do a lot with ten to fifteen students, even if a couple need accommodations, a few have serious attitude problems, and one comes in every day bouncing off of the walls because mom and dad fed him twelve jelly doughnuts for breakfast followed by an energy drink chaser. With twenty-five students, though, somebody-somebody like Edna-is going to get lost. Did you know that the number of kids in a classroom is directly proportional to the size of the cracks in the system swallowing up the students who struggle? It is. The larger the class size, the larger the cracks. And, naturally, the larger the cracks, the more room there is for those who already tumbled right in to stay there. Like Edna.
But no one listens to us.
We keep insisting that almost all the problems in the classroom could be more easily resolved, or at least managed, if there were fewer students per class. This is what made special education so wonderful, at least before inclusion (yes, I just said that). Individual attention and a teacher who knows your name goes a long way in the learning process. But instead of trying that method, one that works well in parochial and private schools, federal and state governments try everything but that, saying it will cost too much money. We are reliant on the efficient, cost-effective factory method-get as many students in a classroom as possible, chug, chug, chug through the curriculum, and spit out what amounts to nothing more than a statistic holding a diploma at the end of the educational assembly line. Forget that a high school diploma is almost meaningless now; at least we fulfilled our obligation to society.
Or have we?
There always seems to be enough money to subject teachers to costly “professional development” initiatives and mandatory continuing education requirements that add just a little more pressure to the hectic and harried lives of teachers who are trying educate someone-anyone-against tremendous odds. There is always money, too, to create a position, usually an administrative one, to help institute these new, very important initiatives. Usually this administrator gets a nice big salary for doing every day what basically adds up to a constant justification of his/her job. These folks are easy to spot. They are stress-free, full of energy, and armed with statistics they throw at teachers as we hobble past their offices, envious of their 8-3 jobs and noticeable absence of papers to grade.
Boy, do we need smaller class sizes.
We are also overwhelmed with underfunded new acts designed to make certain no child is left behind. Unfortunately, nobody is trying to pass the “Help Those Kids Climb Out of the Cracks Act”, or, as I like to think of it, “Edna’s Act.” This would be an act that limits classroom size to ten kids and that’s it-no extra tests, no special training for teachers, no felling of forests to supply reams of paper for the building-sized state and federal reports schools have to generate to prove their success. Just limits on class size-no exceptions, no exemptions, no excuses. The lack of teachers might be problematic at first, since not too many people nowadays want to apply for a job where they are micro-managed nearly to death and held in lower esteem than a Democrat in a red state (or vice versa), all the while earning just enough to cover living expenses and pay toward college loans.
But as the implementation of Edna’s Act proceeds, potential teacher candidates will see that there is hope and that teaching is not just baby-sitting and mounds of paperwork. They might even see that someone did listen to us, as classrooms get smaller, more kids are graduated, school violence wanes, and everything somehow gets back into balance. Hey, it might just become THE job to have! However, I don’t think that is going to happen any time soon, because…
No one listens to us.
At least I take comfort in the fact that I have some kind of a voice. No one could have heard Edna from the depths of the classroom chasm, even if she would have yelled for help. She was too far down. I am pretty sure Edna hated school, because, by the end of third grade, her few short years in the school system seemed filled with nothing but struggle and failure. She just couldn’t catch on, socially or academically. Our teacher was wonderful and talented, but there was one of her and twenty-six of us-even Edna could do that math. I don’t know what happened to my friend after third grade-she just seemed to disappear-but I wonder about her sometimes. I wonder about her, and I wish I would have had the skills and knowledge I have today back in third grade. But all I had to give Edna then was my friendship, and I hope that somehow it made a difference. It looks like I will never know.
Throughout my career, I have had the privilege to work extensively with a variety of learners in a variety of settings, and I will continue to teach as long as I think I have something to offer students like Edna, who needed me then and inspires me now. I may enjoy being a teacher because I love what I do, but I became a teacher because Edna puked.A
And wherever she is, I can’t thank her enough.