A veteran high school English teacher discusses the joys and frustrations of teaching at a metropolitan school in the United States. With all their successes and problems, schools invariably are reflections of the society they serve. The author deals with unmotivated students, many from low-income families, as well as high achievers, among whom are a large percentage of immigrants determined to succeed. "One of the things that keeps me coming back," he says, ". is the exhilaration of being with young people-the give and take, the challenge to be on their wavelength and get them on mine, the being part, however small, of the lives of the next generation." The strength of America's economy and technological development would seem to belie the complaints, repeated over the decades, that schools are failing and that education reform is urgently required. "We teachers must be doing something right."
Patrick Welsh, who will begin his 36th year in teaching this September, frequently contributes essays about secondary school life to national newspapers in the United States.
I teach English at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia. Often, when I share that fact with someone I have just met, I'll get reactions that border on condescension or puzzlement. "You must be brave! How do you do it?"
Sensational media stories about violence and declining achievement seem to have given some people the notion that American high schools are disorderly and dangerous places where no one who could find another job would want to work. Sadly, the complex, exciting, exasperating, challenging, and rewarding inner life of schools, a life that mirrors much of American society, remains a mystery to most of the public.
One of the things that keeps me coming backin September I will begin my 36th year at T.C.is the exhilaration of being with young peoplethe give and take, the challenge to be on their wavelength and get them on mine, the being part, however small, of the lives of the next generation.
A SPECIAL EXCITEMENT
There's a special excitement in teaching in a school like mine where 87 countries are represented in our student body. Over the years, kids from trouble spots all over the world have poured into Alexandria. I have taught kids who escaped from Vietnam on the last flights out of Saigon; kids who have fought in wars in Cambodia and Sierra Leone; kids who walked from El Salvador through Mexico and swam the Rio Grande into Texas.
Long before September 11, when many Americans could not find Afghanistan on a map, the cities of Kabul and Kandahar were familiar to my colleagues and me. They were the birthplaces of many of my favorite students. To me, the face of Afghanistan is not the images of conflict we see on the nightly news but that of Jamilah Atmar, who sold hot dogs at a food stand in downtown Washington and managed to send her three childrenHarir, Zohra, and Razaon to graduate from Virginia colleges. I often wonder if I have taught these kids half as much about literature as they and their families have taught me about the global village we now inhabit.
Immigrant kids often bring with them a work ethic and love of learning that put many of their U.S.-born peers to shame. This past year in my senior Advanced Placement (AP) classes I gave 11 awards for excellence. Three of them went to immigrants: Aminata Conteh, from Sierra Leone; Fajana Ahkter, from Bangladesh; and Essay Giovanni, from Ethiopia. While many of their classmates complained that reading Shakespeare or Faulkner was "too hard," Aminata, Farjana, and Essay just got on with their work and pulled straight As [perfect grades].
I'd be less than honest if I didn't admit that I enjoy teaching those Advanced Placement classes (through which students earn university course credits) more than I do the so-called regular classes. Not only do I have more control, but also I can do more and better literature. Many students in my regular classes are so turned off to reading that they profess boredom even when, to spark their interest, I bring in sports pages from the newspaper for them to read.
DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH
Oddly, the classes with the best attendance are often the regular ones and where the students have given me the most trouble. For some of these students, school is the place where the action is, the place "to be with my friends." It is also the place that offers them the structured and consistent adult presence that many of them lack in their homes. Despite the difficulties they can cause, one of the biggest satisfactions I get as a teacher is discovering the diamond in the rough in my regular classes. These kids act hard, wearing the tough mask of the street to hide the fact that they are bright.
I think of a girl I had in a regular class a few years ago. To hear her talk on Monday morning you would think she was the queen of a girl gang of street fighters. But when I would give her a book that would take the other kids three weeks to finish, she'd come back in a day or two having breezed through the book with total comprehension and ask for another. I tried to talk her into transferring to my AP class but she told me there were "too many white people in those classes." (Unfortunately, the fact that so-called advanced classes are attended predominantly by white students makes some minority students feel uncomfortable about joining them.) No one in her family had gone to college, but I kept telling her she had to be the first. She took a year off after she graduated, but the last I heard from her she was attending a community college.
Some of the biggest thrills in teaching come out of the blue, years after a student has graduated. Sometimes it comes when I answer a knock on the classroom door. Two years ago I opened the door to see a distinguished looking man in a Navy officer's uniform. I hadn't seen Wyman Howard in 18 years, but I recognized him immediately. The guy I remembered as a fun-loving, rambunctious, and not horribly disciplined teenager had become a Navy SEALS commander. He was back in Alexandria visiting his mother after an overseas mission, and had dropped in to say hello. Another time when I answered a knock on the door, a tall, sophisticated looking black woman was standing there. She looked too young to be someone's mother, but as soon as I heard the voice I knew it was Lettie Moses. She had just graduated from Smith College and was on her way to the University of Michigan Law School. Lettie grew up in "the projects"the federally supported housing for low-income families. Lettie's mother and father were determined to see her succeed. "I just dropped by to say hello," she said. We talked awhile, catching up on the past four years. I think what Lettie was really saying to me was: "I just wanted to let you know I made it." What I wanted to say to her was: "If you only knew how thrilled I am to see you. This is what teaching is all about."
The most shocking, out-of-the-blue moment came last year while I was working late in my classroom. The television was on, tuned to the Public Broadcasting System's News Hour with Jim Lehrer. I didn't even look up when Lehrer said, "Now reporting from Baghdad, New York Times correspondent Edward Wong." Then suddenly I recognized a voice from 15 years ago and looked up to see Ed Wong, TC class of '91, standing in the Baghdad night discussing details of an insurgent attack earlier that day. I remembered a great imitation Ed had done of me looking for papers on my messy desk, but had thought he had gone to medical school. I was at once shocked, thrilled, and worried for his safety when I saw him. When he was back home at Christmas, we went out for coffee, and Ed told me that my class and that of another teacher, Jacqueline Hand, had turned him on to literature; I took the compliment, knowing in my heart that you don't teach a guy like Edyou step back, and get out of the way, and try not to do any harm. But when I now read his reporting on the front page of the New York Times, I will boast about one thing: I was at least able to recognize that talent when he was 17.
Thank goodness I knew enough to recognize Kathryn Boo's talent. I remember marveling over an essay she wrote on James Joyce's short story Eveline. Here was a slender 17-year-old red head who looked as if she was about 12, writing with the insight of a woman twice her age, and in a style so graceful and clear I was astounded. Toward the end of the year, when it came time to give out a writing award, I was tornno other student was even close to Kate, but she had cut a lot of classes as the year was ending. Going against my instincts about discipline, I ended up giving Kate the award. Years later when she won a Pulitzer Prize for a brilliant series of articles she wrote for the Washington Post, and shortly thereafter a MacArthur Genius Award, all I could think was: Thank goodness I didn't make a fool of myself and refuse to recognize her great gifts when she was a kid.
In a way, I never see change from year to year. The kids in my classes start off as strangers in the beginning of the year, and by the end I often have to hold back tears as they are about to leave. However, I know that in reality things have greatly changed since Kate was in my class in 1981 and Ed in 1991. Today, more than ever, teachers are in a growing battle for the hearts and mindsindeed, just the attentionof teenagers. With instant messages, e-mail, the Internet, computer games, DVDs, videos, cable TV, and a myriad of other forms of escape and amusement beckoning from the electronic media, it's harder than ever for kids to curl up with a book, to find the quiet time to concentrate, and get in the frame of mind that reading a novel or solving an equation demands.
Some of the victories I have had over the electronic media have come when I least expected them. Two years ago, I got up my courage and taught Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice for the first time in 20 years. While I was confident girls would like it, I was sure that boys would hate it. But the reaction of Luis Cabrerra was almost enough to make my year. Cabrerra is a rabid sports fan who seemed to know every arcane detail about the local professional teams, especially the Washington Redskins. He never impressed me as a candidate for the Jane Austen Society, but I was wrong. "Once Darcy came into the picture," said Luis, "I really got into it. He was so cool the way he treated girls, how he never got pressed about them. I stayed with the book because of him."
THE MYTH OF SCHOOLS IN TROUBLE
Like American society, schools are full of challenges, but I still don't think that my school or the schools nationwide are in as much trouble as many politicians and education experts would have us believe. The myth that American schools are in bad shape has a long history. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, points out that today's complaints about students' poor reading and math skills, ignorance of history, inadequate preparation for the work force, unfocused curriculums, lack of moral educationyou name ithave been echoed for more than a century. In 1892, when fewer than 6 percent of high school graduates went to college, the Harvard Board of Overseers issued a report complaining that only 4 percent of the Harvard applicants "could write an essay, spell or properly punctuate a sentence."
In 1983, a study commissioned by the Reagan administration, "A Nation at Risk," warned that a "rising tide of mediocrity" had so engulfed our schools that the very future of the U.S. economy was threatened. "If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets," wrote Terrell Bell, then secretary of education, "we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system."
Common sense leads me to a rather different conclusion: If our schools were so bad in 1983 and, in the opinion of many so-called reformers, are just as bad today, how is it that America's economy and technology are the envy of the world? We teachers must be doing something right. It seems that the further one is removed from the everyday life of schools, the more negativeand unrealisticthe perception becomes. Gallup polls, for instance, show that while only about 20 percent of adults nationwide give schools a grade of A or B, 72 percent of parents give the schools their own children attend an A or B. Familiarity breeds contentment.
My school takes in refugees from all over the world, teaches them English, and in many cases sends them off to the nation's top universities. We create programs to keep girls with babies in school so that they can get decent jobs and stay off welfare rolls when they graduate. We send our women's varsity crew [rowing team] to England to row in the Royal Henley Regatta, the world's most prestigious race of its kind. The kinds of kids we have under one roof, and the services we perform for them, are as varied as the country itself. We don't always succeed, but those who constantly criticize public schools are failing to accept the reality of American society as it is today, its social problems, its glory, its wonderful variety. The public high school has no choice but to accept the reality as reflected in America's children and the challenges they pose. Anyone who takes time to look closely at what schools are doing and what our teenagers are accomplishing can't help but be impressed.
From the e-journal "American Teenagers".