- Teaching Like You Mean It
I began my career as a teacher in Corpus Christi, Texas, at Haas Junior High School way back when. The position offered two strategic advantages for me at the time: (1) a real paycheck, and (2) a short drive to miles of South Texas beach.
I was fresh out of college, flat broke, and had no other prospects. I was hired after a quick interview in mid-December to fill in for a teacher who had decided to spend a semester-long sabbatical in Mexico. The job entailed teaching three classes of "regular English" and three sections of "remedial reading." By early January, after a week of teaching, I wholly understood the urge to light out for a foreign country—students were rude, apathetic, and oppositional; some seemed genuinely dangerous.
On my first day I assigned a seven-page story from the literature book to be read as homework. The next day, to prove that I was no pushover, I gave an easy, four-question pop quiz on the reading. Only 3 of my 180 students managed to pass the quiz. Not only did almost everyone fail, some students refused to even turn in a blank sheet of paper. "Why should I turn in nothing? It's just a waste of paper." They were right, of course, but I argued with them anyway.
After a few weeks of power struggles in which I gave out two packs of detention slips, had a dozen meetings with the assistant principal, and lobbied [End Page 461] to expunge the most troublesome students from my class, I came to the realization that I was a failure as a teacher. Not only was I not teaching anything, I had created a siege mentality in the classroom. While this afforded me a semblance of control, the consequence was that my classroom was a kind of boot camp, alternating between ennui and angst. The most amazing aspect of my failure, at least to me personally, was that Haas was one of the better schools in the district. Indeed, Haas was not even considered a "tough school," or anywhere near as difficult as schools located close to downtown.
Part of the problem was that I had no response when students asked the question, "Why are we doing this shit?" As a ninth grader, I never thought about not doing the work, let alone throwing the assignment back in the teacher's face with an expletive attached. I spoke with my fellow teachers at Haas about student motivation, but they basically told me, "That is how it has always been. You can lead a student to learning, but you can't make him think."
Desperate to survive until the end of the term in June, I decided that I needed to learn some new approaches. I started out by trying to take master's- level courses in English education at the local university, but that was no good. The master's program was run by faculty who had never taught a day in public schools. The juxtaposition of the aloof, arrogant professor doling out the rudiments of postcolonial theory to a handful of eager, pampered graduate students was too incongruent with my daily battles as a teacher at Haas. I dropped out of the program.
In a game attempt to save my job and to keep my classes from going over the edge, I sought out and read every book on teaching I could find. One of the first books I read was Nancie Atwell's In the Middle (1987), which had been heralded as a "new way of teaching" by some of the more progressive English teachers at Haas. I gave Atwell's approach a genuine shot and tried to turn my classroom into a reading/writing workshop. However, I soon learned that I was about as far from Nancie Atwell as my students were from being cooperative, middle-class kids from Maine (where Atwell taught). Instead of reading or writing, the guys in my classes went to sleep, traded insults, or threw spitballs. The girls talked, wrote notes, or got out compacts and started playing around with their makeup...