Patriots for Christ

Editor Note: This entry was written originally in 2006.

Many of you have asked what it is like teaching in the schools down here. I have avoided writing about it because I am amazed, frustrated, mystified, angered, surprised, and then sometimes, pleased, with what occurs here. As a result, I haven’t known how to describe it. I am Alice in Gator-land, stunned when the people sitting in the same rooms with me aren’t also stunned by what is occurring. I hope this topic does not bore, as it is always on my mind while I go about my life here.

Finally, in my fourth year of teaching, I’m learning how to be rebellious. Those of you closest to my daily life know that I squawk a lot. I squawked the entire time that I taught in a high school fantastic school. Now that I teach in a school situated in a community which values formal education hardly at all, I understand why many of my colleagues felt I was overreacting in the past.

First, I will say to them, I will always overreact. It is my way, and there is not a lot I can, or want to, do about that. Second, I will say that we should always squawk at those in power, because that is how they first find out what happens among the peasants, right before the uprising. Finally, I would say to them that it does not matter how excellent a school is, employees should continue to squawk in order to make it the best place on the planet.

The first decision of my work day occurs when I must decide where to park. I have recently learned that a Honda Civic makes a fine off-road vehicle. I park on the grass now, because I can. Because that’s where teachers park here. This is tricky in heels, so if I smell rain, I try to get to work in time to get a regular spot. As I settle into my desk, I am greeted by the voice of the attendance clerk, who reads the morning announcements over the P.A. system. Imagine Mrs. Poole’s voice from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, with a rich south Louisiana accent, and then you will have a close approximation of the sound of the announcements. I cringe in particular at the biweekly reminders of the Patriots for Christ meetings.

As this is occurring, I pour my coffee from my thermos and scan my inbox for any e-bombs lobbed overnight by my insomniac boss. She gets lost in the maze of her own cyberlife and fires off all kinds of error-ridden, grammatically appalling, policy-altering missives that generally cause ripples of horror throughout my department. I try to check my box from home on Sunday evenings to avoid the drastic plummeting of already-low Monday morning morale, but I don’t always get around to it.

After I recover from the collateral damage, I finish preparations for my lesson and then race off to teach it. The students in my ESL course impress me constantly. Since I formerly experienced teaching ESL to students mostly not literate in their first language, I am amazed by my students here because they already know how to read. They can hold pencils, and they are quite competent at opening their lockers. I didn’t realize how much class time I formerly devoted to these endeavors with the East African students I’d taught in Minnesota, until I no longer had to instruct those activities here.

Our class meets in a remedial reading classroom during the second period of the day, and we frequently notice remnants and fallout from the behavior issues in the first period. We recently finished a book called Seedfolks. Shortly after our ESL class completed the book (maybe 70 pages at about a fourth-grade reading level), an observant student of mine glanced over at the materials used by the mainstream class and spotted the same book on the remedial reading shelf.

While it is no secret that my shining professional moments are not those related to teaching the 12 and under crowd, I will say there is something charming (and strangely scary to me) about elementary schools, where I also spend part of my days. I don’t remember much of the ones in Minnesota, but the ones here smell funny. No one is completely sure what I am to be doing at these schools, including my boss. As a result, I direct myself. The consequences of this are sometimes positive innovations, such as emailing documents to staff, instead of hand-delivering them. However, other consequences of no one knowing what I am supposed to be doing can be a less than perfect adherence to a “schedule” which was confusing to begin with.

I enjoy rebellion now because I know that I won’t be fired. The drunk guy just finally got fired because he didn’t come to work for four days running and didn’t call anyone. I figure my small acts of defiance, all performed in a quest for greater program efficiency, will result in no other consequence than people leaving me alone to work in peace.

A couple of weeks ago, I began to utterly disconnect from it all. I felt wildly unhappy and worried to have left so many inspiring colleagues in order to come to a job and feel isolated and without leadership. But then something happened. As I had done in the beginning of my time at Eden Prairie, I began to lean on the positives. A fellow transplant, another Badger, is here teaching at my school. I began stalking her and pouring out my woes. She resisted me briefly, but became exhausted from the effort, so now I have a sounding board for processing the shocking tragedy which a system like this can represent. I looked again at my students, who deserve my full attention, and as much information as I can organize for them to explore.

I still don’t know what to say about schools in the bayou region, and I’m looking right at them. Pointing fingers too simple. While the teachers may not have fancy degrees in their backgrounds, most of them appear to be working pretty hard to educate their students. Race and economics play some of their usual roles, but the lack of value for education in general crosses a lot of demographic categories. Pay is low and facilities are sketchy, but on the other hand I received a mid-year raise and a one-time bonus, both completely without warning, which is something I have never heard of in a public school teaching position.

And today, in the face of a boss who I thought was hopelessly immune to any ideas but her own, agreed to a proposed program change, which will improve my quality of work life considerably. Wonders never cease. Today I liked my job. Now that I have said that, I am sure that the sky will crash on my head tomorrow.