I see variations of that phrase a lot on public school websites around the area where we live, and I am increasingly disappointed -- and a bit alarmed -- at how little it seems to mean in the day to day workings of the school system, to teachers and to administrators.
We lost another student this past week in our town to suicide related to bullying. I can't even remember how many this makes this year. Seven? Eight? What makes this one even more heartbreaking is that he was only thirteen. I remember my eighth grade year; I didn't have anything in my life that was so bad that I even thought to take my own life.
And yet, there is seemingly little that the schools are doing to prevent these things from happening again. Our good friend Catie works with Youth for Christ in the city. She and our friend Justin (who is the youth pastor at our church) have been trying to get the administration to cooperate with them to have the students go through a program YFC does in the city to prevent bullying. They have pretty much been stonewalled for the past year.
I myself have endured more than my share of racism, insubordination, and basic lack of decorum from students (mostly high school students) at several schools in the area as a substitute teacher. I have had a cell phone thrown at me, been called "chink" by kids, and been physically threatened by students to the point where I had to be escorted by an officer or another teacher from class to class for a couple days.One of things that make it bearable is that a couple of the schools where I have endured such idiocy have incredible principals who follow through with the students and are very supportive of the faculty and staff -- including substitutes.
Others, not so much.
Just this past week, I was at a certain school twice, at the high school on Wednesday and at the middle school on Thursday. I've subbed at this school fairly regularly for the past three years, and I have had good rapport with the secretary, to the point where she knew me by name, asked me about my baby, etc. Well, on Wednesday, the only plans that the teacher left for me was for all her classes to play Scrabble, except for her honors class, and all they had to do was go to the library and check out a book. First of all, I hate days like that, because then it feels like I'm just babysitting. Anyone could do that. You do not need a certified substitute with a higher education to watch a bunch of kids play Scrabble all day. Secondly, students do not need 40 minutes to pick out a book to read from the library. The unfortunate thing with not giving some kids enough to do when there is a sub is that they get bored. And when they're bored, they cause trouble.
Cell phones came out, texting started, my directions about the Scrabble games were disregarded, and I eventually had to ask a student to hand over his phone. Not only are cell phones technically not allowed in classrooms, they are a liability for teachers and substitutes, as you never know what kind of pictures kids may take, what they may record and then post on the internet. The student refused, put it in his pocket, and told me I'd have to take it away from him myself (a.k.a. get it out of his pocket) if I wanted it. He also refused to leave when I asked him to, so I had to call for someone to escort him out. While we were waiting for a hall monitor to come get him, another student started shouting at me about how I was being completely unreasonable, blowing things out of proportion, and how I should learn to be a "real teacher." I told him firmly that I did not appreciate his raising his voice at me nor did the situation involve him. He continued yelling, so I had him leave with the monitor when she came. I wrote it all up and submitted a discipline referral, as directed by the secretary.
Well, I received a phone call from the principal (who I have never met and who has never met -- or seen -- me). I fully expected that he was attempting to follow up on what had happened, and I also thought he was calling to apologize for the students' behavior. Apparently, I live in the Twilight Zone, because what happened was far from what I anticipated.
He started with, "It seems you've had some trouble the last few times you've subbed here at our school." I agreed. Then he said, "We're a bit disturbed at the things we've been hearing from our students about the way you treat them." WHAT?! I tried to stay calm, and I asked him what he meant.
He said, "Well, did you have a student sit on the floor?" (A kid came in and sat on the floor in one of the middle school classes. I left him there, because I figured maybe that was something his teacher had him do, as he was pretty fidgety.)
I responded, "No, he chose to sit there, and I didn't think anything of it."
"But did you have a student sit on the floor as punishment?"
At this point, I'm wondering about the kid who I sent out into the hallways for ten minutes for telling me to shut up. So I said, "No, he chose to sit there. Another student a couple weeks ago, I had move closer to me at the round table, and he chose to sit on the floor instead."
Well, he went on to say that he had received complaints from students about "the way [I] treated them" and from "several teachers" (who he refused to name when I asked him to be specific) and that they didn't have confidence in my classroom management. I told him very clearly that I had excelled in classroom management in graduate school in New York City, and that if he had any concerns about my personal character and integrity, there were teachers and parents of students in his school who could vouch for me.
He pretty much ignored that statement and went ahead to say that I would be getting a letter from his superintendent "dismissing" me of ever substituting at their school again, and that they would also be sending a letter to the sub registry (which goes in my file). At this point, I was incensed. I asked him if he was aware of the amount of rudeness and racism with which some of his students had treated me. He replied, "I had no idea about your ... heritage." I said, "That's right, because you have never met me. And you're choosing to take this action without hearing my perspective or having the decency to speak to me in person?" He just said, "I'm sorry you feel that way."
You know, what appalls me is that his conscience lets him get away with this. What are the students learning through this? That they can complain and get their teachers riled up and suffer no consequence for their negative behavior? That on days with substitutes, they can do whatever they want and treat us like crap because they can get away with it?
What makes it worse is that I know exactly why the principal chose this course of action. It's just easier. It's easier to get rid of me, a substitute who is a temporary, occasional presence, than deal with students who need discipline and their parents. It's easier to get rid of me than to get a few less dollars from the government if he has to suspend those kids for a day or two. It's just easier to wipe his hands of a sub who is trying to do the right thing by upholding their own school rules.
Knowing what I know about the kindergarten experience our friends' son had recently within this same school district makes me realize this is a tremendous flaw in the entire administrative system there. It was so bad that they took him out of the school and are choosing to have him attend a private Christian school forty minutes away rather than have him at this school.
I'm trying to keep in mind what our pastor said in church yesterday on love. That our love for God should compel love for people. I'm struggling with thinking of this principal and those teachers with love in my heart right now. We also talked about forgiveness in 20Somethings yesterday, after watching "Luggage," how we forgive because we understand how much more God has forgiven us for, regardless of whether the other person asks for forgiveness or not, regardless of whether they even think they're in the wrong or not.
There have been moments during this past weekend where I feel like I've surrendered this to God for His divine, sovereign justice. But then there are moments when I'm just angry that this is how the system is sometimes. I know why I wanted to be a teacher. I believe in education, that it is more than just teaching kids about subjects like English, math and science. It's about teaching kids to be critical thinkers, to expose them to the global world, to teach them that everyone deserves to be treated as a human being, and indeed, to guide them in their journey to becoming responsible, respectful, productive citizens of their communities. This is all too clearly not happening at many public schools in this area.
A part of me just wants to throw in the towel and give it all up for lost. I never intended on spending much time in American public schools anyway. My dream has always been to teach in international schools. But another part of me knows that for some of these kids, I'm the only non-white, not-from-this-area face that they've ever met.
I've received a lot of affirmation and encouragement from friends as I've shared this story, which has helped tremendously. It's so easy to fall into the mindset of, "Maybe this isn't what I am supposed to be doing. Maybe I should go back to school for something else." It's good to have people who really know me (unlike this principal who has never even seen my face) remind me of who I am. A friend of mine from Bible study reminded me that if I wasn't doing something very right, Satan wouldn't be trying so hard to sway my spirit and to discourage me. I know that doing the right thing is very rarely the easy road to take, but geez, I sure wish it wasn't such a rough road to travel sometimes.
"If the God you believe in as an idea doesn’t start showing up in what happens to you in your own life, you have as much cause for concern as if the God you don’t believe in as an idea does start showing up. It is absolutely crucial, therefore, to keep in constant touch with what is going on in your own life’s story and to pay close attention to what is going on in the stories of others’ lives. If God is present anywhere, it is in those stories that God is present. If God is not present in those stories, then they are scarcely worth telling." ~ Frederick Buechner