Teach

Yesterday afternoon I needed to .pdf (yes, it's a verb) a batch of student essays and was finally forced to clean off the lid of the scanner where piles of receipts, credit card and medical bill statements, literary journals, and general correspondance, had accumulated and subsequently been ignored over the last couple of months while studying for my final preliminary exam. (Yep, I'm happy to report that I am now ABD.)

Buried under an old issue of The Writer's Chronicle, I found a stack of photos I'd been meaning to scan for perpetuity's sake, several of which were from a trip to the Oregon State Penitentiary. This happened when I was teaching literature, comp, and poetry writing, at Chemeketa Community College, and was invited by the prison chapter of Toastmasters to bring my students in for a joint reading and brief workshop.

Here's a picture of me at the event. Young, enthusiastic, excitable, and, most certainly, adrenaline-filled and sweaty. Six or so years later, I like to think all but the first and the last adjectives still apply.

(If you ask my students, the first doesn't. The other day, one of them guessed my age to be 37. I am still a ways off from late thirties territory, so I'm not sure if this number is a complement or not. I prefer to think it is.)
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I started teaching in September, 2001, only a few weeks after 9/11. Intro to Poetry Writing at University of Oregon. Hard to believe I'm now into my tenth year of teaching. Can it be? Check my math.

I'm proud of this, and also feel grateful to have had so many amazing students, and to be fortunate to have been able to keep in touch with a large handful of them. Last week, I received an email from a woman in that first poetry writing class updating me on her life and whereabouts, the poetry she's still writing. Small blessings.
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Last Friday was another small blessing, and a powerful one. I had the chance to talk about poetry live via Skype with students in Effingham, Kansas, a town with a population of not quite 600. It's about an hour and a half northwest of Kansas City. A rural area of townships and unincorporated communities.

The students had read a fifteen-page sample of my poetry, and, for a good forty minutes or so, I fielded their brilliant and insightful questions about my poems, about what inspires my work, about why my poems have so many religious allusions and don't seem to offer any redemption, why I write about Kansas, about the role of poetry in the world. An unforgettable experience for me, and hopefully a good one for those young writers.
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The national media pundits as of late have been giving some attention to education in this country, and it seems to be this documentary that's drawn their gaze.



Certainly it's an understatement to say there's a lot to address in this country in terms of education. Off the top of my head: there's the legacy of initiatives like direct instruction, No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top. Arguments to be made about teacher pay and performance, unions, budgets that need to be balanced. ESL, charter schools, school violence, busing, elimination of arts education, parental involvement, US rankings compared to the rest of the West. The list goes on....

And while it's difficult to even begin addressing this issue, while it's difficult to even know where to start, maybe one place to begin is by thanking our teachers, by taking a moment to send an email to a teacher who inspired you. Send a note of thanks to a teacher who put you back on the right path, to one who wouldn't let "I can't do it" slide by without responding with, "We don't do 'I can't.'"(That one's from Mrs. Van Noord, my 7th Grade English teacher.)
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Last night, I watched A&E's new reality show "Teach: Tony Danza." Here's the promotional clip if you haven't seen it.



The show makes me uncomfortable.

I worry about the sensationalization of education's very complex realities becoming quote-unquote "reality." I worry about the kids/students becoming characters. I worry about dropout rates, school violence, prejudice and injustice, class difference, becoming entertaining boiler plate at worst and cheap and passing political slogans at best. I worry that the line between truth, experience, and the deep reality of people's lives, will again be blurred by camera crews, production, and ad revenue.

But the show also touched my heart.

In the first episode, you see determined kids who want to learn, who want to get out, move up, make a better life for themselves. You see parents determined to help their kids, to wrench a future out of their school's/community's/city's/nation's apathy, parents who have been waiting for a teacher who cares. Moving to say the least.

The "reality," however, is already far from real.

I found Danza to be a sympathetic figure, but, then again, he only teaches one class per day. When the camera finds him with a mug of beer at a bar after the first day of teaching and coaching, I found myself momentarily identifying with him, thinking, "You can do it, Tony. Hang in there, buddy." But just as quickly as I sympathized, I thought of those teachers I know, and the real reality of their teaching lives.

A good friend of mine is currently teaching seven college classes. Some semesters he's taught as many as eleven between in-the-classroom instruction and online. Keep in mind, a full load college load is four classes per term.

For years, my wife taught in a poor, rural school. Taught all seven class periods every single day, tutored students before and after school and during lunch, and coached volleyball, all before getting home around 8 o'clock with a stack of work to grade and lessons to plan.

This isn't about teacher pay, but if you want to crunch the numbers, that puts her salary way below minimum wage. Tony Danza will, no doubt, make a good chunk of change for teaching his 40min per day.
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This isn't about teacher pay. It's about what teacher's make.