Sunday, October 28, 2007

When a Student Drops Out

I lost a student the other day. I walked into class and was told that Jose Luis won’t be coming back to the center. He apparently just up and left. I’m told it’s a common occurrence at the center. But I got so into my routine I guess I just kinda forgot it might happen. The problem with my routine however, is that the more I got into it, the more I cared about the well being of each of my students. You develop a relationship that I really think sustains you through the monotony of doing simple math and reading exercises over and over again. If you don’t love these kids, you can’t do that shit again and again, because to be perfectly honest, I hate teaching and yet, I love my job. Why? Because I love my students. And so losing my first one, has really been a personal blow, and I am still reeling.

Those of you who have been keeping in touch with me have no doubt been subject to my relentless conversations about Jose Luis, my 17 year old student who bravely began attending school for the first time ever this year. When I first got him, he couldn’t write his own name, count past 10, or even recite the first 5 letters of the alphabet.

But over time, we began to see progress. The last class I had with him, we were doing simple addition and subtraction, counting to 100, and reading small and basic sentences. Everyday was at once frustrating and enlivening. For so long, I struggled with him, but near the end, it was like something clicked. You work with a kid long enough and you learn how he learns. I learned about Jose Luis, and began teaching to how he learns. And as we began to see progress, there was this sense of excitement about what was going on. A life was changing, he was learning and it was having a tremendous impact on every aspect of his life. And I was in the front row, blessed to witness it all!

I go to bed tonight and I wonder where this kid is. You can’t over dramatize what it is we do, because in the end, we are nothing but a tiny peg in the system. But with this kid, my role was bigger. I really had an opportunity to do something substantial. To teach a kid to count his bus fare, to read. Really, it was beginning to see a future for a kid that once had none.

One of our last days of class, timid Jose came in and started giving me lip. I was so taken aback that it took me a while to realize what he was fussing about. He was holding up a book his cousin lent him, demanding me to account for why he couldn’t read it. Teach me more, teach me faster. Professor, please, push me more, he told me. And just like that, the motivation my student had found deep within himself lit a spark of my own. Quiet Jose, demanding to learn more. I had planned this week to try and squeeze in more hours one on one, so we could move him along more rapidly. I had all these grand visions of what we’d do. For Christ sake, I had a kid begging to learn, begging for homework, begging for more class time!

And none of that will happen. I lost a student and I’m losing sleep on it. He’ll never learn again, I know he won’t. I hate to be so cynical, but every core of my body knows this to be true. There is no fairy tail ending, no life lesson learned. At this moment there is me, in this room, looking at the lesson plans I had created just for him that are now wasted. Jose Luis is gone, and with him went an opportunity to get educated, an opportunity to break out of poverty. Why? Life isn’t fair, but damn it, sometimes it should be.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Choices We Have To Live With

Punishment is a tricky thing here at the center. The basic facts of the matter are that kids are kids no matter what part of the world you find them in. And being in the position of a teacher now, that also means inevitably my priorities (that they learn something) are going to clash with one of their most frequent priorities (that they get away with doing something they should not be doing). That said I always hated hearing that classic teacher’s diatribe about how “this is not a democracy and blah blah blah”…and wouldn’t you know I used it the other night.

Make rules and keep them consistent. Establish your classroom management. The advice was all there, and it all seemed so easy. And yet, I’ve learned in my brief time here, as a teacher, if there is anything that is my responsibility, it’s less about sticking with the rules I made and more about seeing these kids and situations through loving and logical eyes. For if kids are a tricky thing, so too are parents.

I confiscated a cell phone the other day. RULE= Items that have nothing to do with my class become mine for a week. And so, when a 10 year old was text messaging under her desk (something I did countless times as a student) I seized the phone. The girl stayed after class and begged for her phone. My response was simple. No. After my next class, she was there again, begging even more. No. Tears were almost in here eyes. But rules are rules, and I insisted, no.

And then near the end of the day, I started to process just why she was so desperate. It was nagging me, something about the way she looked at me. You get to know your students in a way where an unusual reaction stands out. Not exactly one of the teacher’s pets, this girl had already had her fair share of runs in and punishment with me, and never flinched before. So why now? I spoke with a colleague who put it into perspective. “Some of the parents here are still learning good parenting. And so, her mom might hit her if she comes home without a phone tonight.” There it was, clear as day, and complicated as all hell. Keep the phone and drive home my point of classroom management. But at what possible cost? It was my call.

Follow through seemed less and less viable but I didn’t want to let the girl walk off free of punishment for breaking a rule. And as the day came to a close, out of time and without an answer, I pulled the student aside from a class to speak to her. Maybe I am a sucker and maybe it will come back to bite me, but I gave her the phone back with nothing more than a talk about respect and a huge assignment: writing lines. I told her she was a great student but I needed her to be more attentive. Next time I wouldn’t be so lenient, but I told her I was hoping there would not be a next time.

I left school that day, failing at the one thing every expert told me was a must win situation: class room management. But I can tell you this. I slept a little easier knowing that in the everyday struggle to size up as a teacher, I at least had the common sense to look at the student first, the rules I created before I knew what I was doing, second. Would she have gotten hit by her parent? I don’t know, but I at least learned a little something about myself that day. Simply enough, whether she would get hit or not wasn’t a gamble I was willing to take over a stupid cell phone. That said, tomorrow it’s back to the routine rhetoric of “this is not a democracy… this is a pure and simple dictatorship.” (= Just kiddin, I don’t really say that… at least not the dictator part.

Monday, October 01, 2007

My Legs Hurt- My Life As a Teacher

My legs hurt and I’m talking to myself a lot. It’s been about a month in the classroom now, and that is the short and sweet analysis of it.

I guess it makes sense. I mean, most of my days start boarding a bus at 7:10 AM to head to our downtown school. Unfortunately, the downtown school is very urbanized and therefore lacks adequate playground equipment. And so, from 7:45 AM to about 8:00 AM I serve as the in-house jungle gym for all the younger kids. Truth be told, it’s a highlight of my day, no matter how tired I am.

And come 8:00 AM, the magic begins. Downtown, I’m teaching English to little kids, or that is to say, corrupting young minds to say the most essential of English phrases. You know, “book, eraser, hello, hi, I’m fine, Patrick is the coolest person ever,” etc… So two hours of English and then two hours of what we call Girl’s Program. Girl’s program is time we provide our girls while the boys are out working. It’s their time to learn to cook, work on the computers, and make arts and crafts that they are able to sell and make money off of. It’s also a great opportunity to get to know the story of these little girls, and for that, it runs a close second to the human jungle gym as the best part of my day.

And come noon, I am on a slow moving city bus working my way back to our other campus. A quick bite to eat, a scan of the Miami Herald, and I am off to my most magical class. I don’t know what more I can say other than I taught a 17 year old boy how to read a sentence and count past 20 for the first time in his life. You can’t put a price tag on being present for that moment. And so three hours a day I work with him and three other students with one simple goal: get them up to the educational level they should be in Math and Spanish reading, and do it quick. It is my most challenging course, and my most meaningful one as well.

Come 5 PM, it’s English with little boys. Come evening, on Monday and Tuesday I am teaching Industrial English (words I don’t understand in English or Spanish) and Religion the rest of the week. At 8:30 PM, I call it a day, and head home where we eat dinner as a community. A little lesson planning and paper grading, and then off to bed and the whole process starts over again. It is not much of an exaggeration to say personal time is bed time. Period.

There is so much room to complain about the long days, until your think about your students. I can’t begin to explain to you how moving it is day in and day out to meet my evening English class and shake the little blackened hands of boys who themselves have been working all day as well- but they make their living shining shoes. On my weekends, I have the opportunity sometimes to participate in house building projects in the community or respond to the whinny chants of Ecuadorian kids calling my name to join their pick-up game of basketball. Did I mention we live on the campus we work on? It’s the coolest thing ever to hear them shouting for you to come outside. And ever played bball with little Ecuadorian kids? Two words on how it makes you feel- Michael Jordan.

So here I am, living in Quito, Ecuador, working with one of the most phenomenal organizations ever. My legs hurt and I am talking to myself a lot. A small price to pay for the many gifts this experience is giving me.

“Don’t ask so much what the world needs. Go out and do what makes you come alive, because what the world needs most are people who have come alive.” Howard Thurman