Scribble Might

A fresh perspective on the personal and political.

Why “Waiting” was so hard October 25, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — mandolyn10 @ 7:17 am

“Waiting for Superman” was a hard film to watch. In part because some of the cartoon interludes were irritating (who still thinks that teaching is about teachers pouring information into the heads of receptive, empty kid brains?), in part because it made me question my commitment to non-charter public schools (I don’t blame parents for wanting a better option, and I have to admit that teacher tenure without demonstrated classroom excellence seems insane to me), and in part because there is little that is as heartbreaking as watching a child’s educational (thus, life) opportunity determined by a lottery (unless that child is your own).

But mostly, a flood of grief washed over me as I watched. I taught for four years at Roosevelt Middle School in Oakland Unified after graduating form college. I wasn’t a terrible teacher, but I wasn’t a great one, either. I tried harder than I ever had at anything in my whole life, but when the tests rolled around, my kids scored about the same as the teacher down the hall, who spent the entire day yelling at her students about how stupid they were. Sure, my kids liked me a good deal better than her, but that didn’t help me sleep at night. That didn’t mitigate the fact that they needed great, not ok teaching or that they needed a seamless classroom manager, not me, who caught so little of the rule-breaking that went on. The fact that many of them wanted to stay with me at lunch or after school didn’t stop me from reading with intense feelings of shame about my fellow Teach for America teachers who were so fantastic that they were profiled in newspaper articles or district and TFA publications. I couldn’t figure out how to be an excellent educator, no matter how many classes I took, no matter how many trainings I went to, no matter how many books I read, the pieces just didn’t fit together for me.

I failed kids who desperately needed me to be magnificent.

I have spent the six years since I left teaching trying to make sense of why I failed when my peers succeeded. Part of it was inexperience, perhaps, part of it was my inability to multitask well or be efficient in much of anything. Part of it, I am sure, was about being a white lady from the suburbs who didn’t really understand how my privileged identities would and did play out in the classroom.

Watching “Waiting for Superman,” I was reminded how critical great teaching is and how damaging not great teaching is (“A great teacher covers as much as 150% of required standards while bad teachers cover as little as 40%” — I was always behind the standards timeline). Kids with great teachers gain ground when they’ve fallen behind, and kids with mediocre or bad teachers fall farther and farther behind. I just can’t shake my knowledge of where I fall on the continuum of great to bad teachers, and it feels really crappy.

I felt as small and ineffective as ever. I cried for a long, long while. I am still forgiving myself for not doing better by the 240 or so students who I taught in my four years as a teacher. I loved each of them dearly, and did my best, and I know it wasn’t enough.

Note: I do recognize the self-centeredness in this piece. I watched this movie that is supposed to motivate me to work for educational equity, but I ended up triggered and absorbed in MY memories, MY experience, MY devastation, while not getting into the muck of the dire situation of my former students who were taught poorly more than they were taught well. I am looking for ways to get re-involved in the educational equity movement, and I must continue to process my teaching experience with honesty and compassion, so I can be of best service to the activism.



4 Responses to “Why “Waiting” was so hard”

  1. megan Says:

    You are so right! Teaching is HARD! I am not a teacher any more, because, frankly… I wasn’t super great at it either. Being scatterbrained and prone to losing things did not serve me well in the classroom. 😀 However, an area of teaching I’d like to see you explore, especially in your own experience, is the ability of a select few educators to connect with their students, to believe in their student and their potential. Whether or not you taught your standards everyday, or noticed every errant, broken rule, in my humble opinion, is only a small part of the picture. Every day of your four years teaching, every one of those 240 students (I believe) for that period, or that day, or that year, had a teacher that believed in their potential, their ability to do anything, be anything. THink about how many of your students had no one in their lives who provided this small gift. You introduced them to reading and writing and the joys and adventures contained in each. Fuck standardized tests… the real learning is in these small things. When I started this journey of being an educator, I wanted my students to have life-altering experiences in my class. When it happens, it’s great. But I’ve learned that the small moments are where the real joy is for me. Think of the small moments those 240 kids had in 4 years. Maybe they don’t remember every one. Maybe they didn’t alter the course of their loves in any measurable way. But their in there. And they mean something. And you should not be so hard on yourself. You brought passion and commitment to your classroom. You can’t measure that with any standardized test and you can’t teach it in teacher school.

  2. megan Says:

    and yes… i do know the difference between their, there and they’re… i was just typing too fast!

  3. mom Says:

    Well, now, this is bad writing …. technique-wise, fine, concept-wise–very flawed!! Way, way too hard on yourself!! First, you only had those kids a few hours a day! Genetics, family, friends, society were first doing their bit to influence the reception of the kids’ brains–already filled with “stuff” before you came on the scene. Your biggest job was discovering what that stuff was, how to get the “negative” out so there was a little toe hold for the positive. I heard your enthused voice so often talking about the remarkable moments you had–there were lots of them. I think you’re confusing how your student’s felt about your efforts with how the score happy administrators felt about test results which determine $$’s and/or their personal careers–oh, same thing!!
    Anyway, Megan’s right–it’s very hard to TEACH because no one can; all that can happen is students can LEARN and they have to be in a receptive space. If they’re not, you can be MAGNIFICIENT and it won’t matter. I suspect the “illusion” of control surfaced in your words. It happens to me all the time!

    You are MAGNIFICIENT — always, all ways . . . love

  4. mandolyn10 Says:

    Thanks mom and Meg, I appreciate the kind words. It’s true there were good moments, small triumphs that I know were meaningful to my kids, and I didn’t mean to negate that. I almost didn’t post this because I was concerned the response would be on trying to make me feel not so awful about my performance as a teacher rather than on the fact that even on my own measures, non-standardized assessments that gave me a sense of how my kids were progressing, they weren’t learning fast enough to make up for being behind, and I could never cover more than I was supposed to. In fact, more often than not, I was unable to cover what I supposed to. I felt ashamed, because I wasn’t helping them gain ground, to catch up from being behind grade level and they desperately needed someone who could.

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