“Education is the civil rights issue of the 21st century”

Besides getting married, the most significant thing which happened to me during my long absence from the blogosphere was applying to and getting accepted in an alternative teacher certification program. Yesterday, however, I made the difficult decision to drop out of the program.

This was not a decision I made lightly, as I am more than aware that I, since graduating from university, have had an abysmal track record when it comes to starting a project and following through. First of all there was my Master’s program, which I did eventually complete but only after sinking into a deep depression when I realized that academia was not the career for me. Since the age of twenty-three (and I’m now in my early thirties!), my life has often lacked focus and direction, and this is quite a depressing fact given that I’m not getting any younger. I spent many years swearing that I would never become a teacher – it just seemed like the most boring and predictable thing to do – but this time last year I realized two things: (1) that working full-time as a sex worker was slowly eroding my soul and not very fulfilling, and that it would be nice to “rejoin society” by having a normal job and having a salary and (2) that I really wanted to help underprivileged kids. I realized that the reason I had failed so miserably in academia was because I found the work so abstract and pretentious, and completely unrelated to reality. As interesting as it was to do research on obscure late eighteenth/early nineteenth century poetry, there was always a voice inside me screaming “Who the fuck is reading what you’re writing?! How the hell does your work change anything or help other people?!”.

When I decided to become a teacher, I vowed I would never set foot in a university again, so it made sense to me to apply to an alternative teacher certification program, which would be cheaper than a university program, and would also have classes at night and at the weekened (so I wouldn’t be a full-time student and could still work as a masseuse to pay the bills). The application process did give me some doubts, though. First of all, potential students were not interviewed or required to teach a mini-lesson, which I know is the standard procedure for being admitted to a teaching program in the county where I’m from. Instead, the whole application process was online, and they required you to do an online “interview”, which was basically a series of multiple choice questions in which the correct answer ranged from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”. I don’t see how this test can possibly predict whether a person will be a good teacher or not and, indeed, when I finally met my fellow students, there were many people in the class with either weird attitudes (e.g. lack of compassion for the kids; a narrow-minded viewpoint etc.) and others with introverted personalities whom I just couldn’t imagine being able to engage a class full of unruly teenagers.

Much to my disappointment, I also soon realized that the vast majority of people in that class were there purely because they were bored with whatever job they were doing, and wanted a career change. I found very little passion for teaching, and I never once had a conversation about teaching the whole time I was there. There was only one other person interested in teaching poor kids in high-needs schools; some weren’t necessarily against the idea but I overheard so many people turn up their noses at working with troubled kids because they would find it “too difficult” or “too stressful”. I also heard lots of little barbed comments and judgements about troubled kids.

The worst of all was that when I arrived for the first class, I found that our teacher (our only teacher…how fucked up is that? We only have one teacher for the whole duration of an eighteenth month program?!) was a woman I had met at the information session and found incredibly insincere and fake. I disliked and distrusted her immediately even then and all my instincts were telling me “She’s trouble!”. As the months went by, I discovered that I couldn’t possibly have found a teacher whose personality would have clashed with mine more. She was a Southern Belle type who went to church regularly, and who was yet one of the most biased, prejudiced people I have ever met…not in racist way, or anything like that, but it was clear she judged people who didn’t fit into her idea of what a teacher, or even a human being, should be.

I was essentially a marked woman before I even entered the program because of the bad reference my bitchy Master’s advisor had given me. I could sense that this teacher was observing everything I said and did, and just waiting for me to trip up..and, well, of course I did because it made me paranoid, anxious and insecure to be so judged and watched.

The beginning of the end for me with this teacher was when I went off to get married. I had spent hours and hours pouring over the class schedule, trying to find a good time to tie the knot that wouldn’t clash with my teaching program classes (you were only allowed to miss two classes over the whole eighteen months otherwise you could be kicked out of the program!). Just when I had booked everything, the teacher gave us a new schedule, which featured an online course which was going to take place exactly during my wedding and honeymoon. I emailed the teacher to see if I could do it at a later date, but was basically told to fuck off. This angered me, and especially so months later when one of the teacher’s favourites announced in class that she would be moving house, and perhaps wouldn’t have an internet connection to be able to complete that weekend’s online course. The teacher told her to email her if she was having trouble and “we will work something out”. Wow!

After having spent nearly my entire honeymoon completing an online course, I was so frustrated and angry that I made the “mistake” of emailing the teacher to express my opinion that it was unfair to expect people to do work during important life events (such as death, marriage, birth). I got called in for a meeting after this email, and was informed that (1) “I was emotionally fragile” (huh? where did she get that from? I wonder if my advisor said on the reference she gave me that I had suffered from depression in grad school?) (2) I wasn’t cut out for the “rigours” of the American public school system, which was so much more “rigorous” than in Europe (3) I should think about leaving the program to work in a charter school which would suit my personality more and (4) I had behaved in a completely “unprofessional” manner and that she doubted I would be able to work in a school if I was going to behave in such an “insubordinate” manner and, finally, (5) even though I was clearly passionate about and dedicated to the teaching profession, and produced quality work, that that ultimately meant jackshit to her because of all my other “problems”.

A few weeks later, when we were about to do our two-week student teaching placement, she assigned me to a school around thirty miles away from my home – in an entirely different city! – which had no public transport links. She did this despite knowing that I had no car, and could not even apply for a driver’s licence because of a stupid immigration technicality. I had been looking forward to student teaching so much, and I was pretty sure she had sabotaged this on purpose, so I had to excuse myself from the class at that point to go off and cry in the toilets out of sheer frustration and disappointment. Afterwards, I was told by the teacher “See, this is just another example of how emotionally fragile you are”. She also told me I should probably think about leaving the program because I didn’t have a car, and had “visa issues”. I told her that I had made a professional connection in a school right up the street from my home, and asked if it would be OK for me to work there instead but I was informed that would be “impossible”. Curiously enough, the next morning – no doubt after she had spoken to her superiors – it suddenly was possible for me to work in this school, a fact I was told about at 11:00 a.m. I was given two hours by this teacher to find my own student placement, at a time when most principals are at lunch. Luckily, I managed to talk to the principal and convinced her to take me.

Ugh! I never meant to go into so much detail – I’m sure I must be boring you all to tears – but these are some of the reasons why I have decided to leave my program. I am hugely passionate about teaching; I really, really, really care about the kids; I’m fucking smart, and I know my subject well, and I’m good at presenting it in fun, engaging ways…I don’t mean to be arrogant, but I would be asset to any school! It’s probably true that I would be better suited for work in a charter school, but I don’t believe that charter schools – while some are good – are the answers to America’s public school problems. After my experience with this teacher, I have come to the conclusion that most public schools and the teachers who work in them are probably bland and conformist, and, yes, I will probably hate having to deal with the administration. However, I also believe that students need teachers like me who are “alternative” and challenge them to see a new perspective.

The main reason I left the program, however, was because I still haven’t been able to save up the $1,355 (!!!) I need to apply to change my immigration status and hence receive a work permit. Having no work permit means I couldn’t apply for a job for this school year. I could re-apply for the program next year, but this would mean being stuck in this city until 2011 while I got certified. Both Midwestern Man and I are ready for a change. I also found out recently that certain states (New York was the one I looked into) will not let you teach there with a certificate from an alternative certification program unless you have three years’ experience! I would be trapped, in this awful conservative state, until 2013! I’ve already been here since 2004, and my exile needs to come to an end sooner rather than later.

So, my plans? I’m looking into applying to graduate school in various states to get certified and gain a Master’s in education in the process. If anything has come out of my disappointing experience in this program, it’s that I still want to be a teacher. I think that’s very important because that awful teacher could easily have put me off teaching forever. I never thought I’d want to go back to school again, but I want to learn as much education theory and as many teaching strategies as possible before having my own class. Around 65% of 12th grade kids do not read at grade level, so I need to know how to help them. In my alternative teacher education program, we learned nothing about this. In fact, we pretty much learned nothing in general.

It was, bizarrely, John McCain who, in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, said “education is the civil rights issue of the 21st century”. I never thought I’d be quoting John McCain in my blog, but, well, there you go…The American public school system is badly failing its students, and the vast majority of them are African-American, Mexian-American and/or poor. Something needs to be done! And I, people, am going to try to contribute what I can. It will take more than some bigoted Southern Belle to get in my way!


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5 thoughts on ““Education is the civil rights issue of the 21st century”

  1. justme September 6, 2009 at 9:56 am Reply

    That sounds like a pretty crappy course to be honest, and as though you will be well out of it. Yous so called ‘teacher’ sounds like a nightmare.
    Its great that you still feel passionate about teaching, despite this experience. You just need to find the right course, in the right place. I agree. You woukld be an asset to ANY school!

  2. petrichoric September 6, 2009 at 10:38 am Reply

    Hello, justme! Yes, it was pretty disappointing. I don’t think they’d be able to get away with half the things they did in this course in the UK. Most of the instruction was just fluff. In fact, I don’t really know all that much more now about how to teach than I did when I entered the program.

    Yes, it probably is the best decision for me to leave this program, but I can’t help but feel depressed that I’m no closer to my goal than I was this time last year.

  3. Judith September 10, 2009 at 8:28 pm Reply

    It pisses me off to hear about such tightass beauraucratic nutjobs being in charge of anything in the educational process. They are the ones who give rise to the rumor “those who can’t do, teach” because they run amok with the little handful of power they get. Then those who are committed to teaching get frustrated and mowed over by the system.

    Well, you know that I am hoping you end up in this direction. My sister is a teacher in Massachusetts (actually, she just was made Vice Principal of her school this year), so if you need any advice on getting certified in that state, she could probably help you. She only moved there from Kentucky 3 years ago.

    I’m glad you’re hanging on to your desire to teach even with the system dragging you down.

    • petrichoric September 11, 2009 at 12:29 am Reply

      Yes, this woman did let the very little amount of power she had go to her head. I’m going to complain about her, but I don’t know if it will do much good.

      She does make me concerned about being a teacher, as I’m sure she won’t be the last person I meet like this. I just don’t get it. You’d think that somebody involved in a “caring profession” would be, um, caring, but, well, apparently not.

      I don’t know about Massachusetts, as I’d prefer to teach in NYC, but I may apply to Harvard just for the sheer hell of it. They’ve got a good education program.

  4. Judith September 11, 2009 at 8:42 pm Reply

    Boston is a great city to play in. I can’t imagine too many complaints from NYC if a Harvard grad wanted to teach there after graduation.

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