Thursday, May 28, 2020

More Than Fictional Characters

*This post won’t spoil my book, but you should read it first just in case. ;)*

I went to a mediocre public school in an extremely rural part of southwestern Pennsylvania. A couple of years ago, my graduating class met in the bowling alley of a casino for our 20th reunion. 

I didn’t go. 

High school is a nightmare. Really. It’s my recurring nightmare. I can’t find my classes. I can’t work the combination lock. And my personal favorite, there’s a math class (always a math class) that I suddenly realize I’ve not been attending for months. It’s too late to drop the class. I can’t make up what I’ve missed. It’s just failure. Complete, utter, disastrous failure. 

High school was not enjoyable for me as a student. You can read all about it in the second part of ‘More Than a Bad Teacher.’ (That’s the part where multiple reviewers really started getting into the book.) Pep rallies, classes in temporary trailers, Danny... he was a real guy that tortured me during lunch. Ashleigh is mostly me when I was a teen. 

But in the first part of the book, the story is told from the mom’s perspective. And the mom is what one reviewer called ‘abrasive.’ Andy isn’t me, but she interacts with a world I experienced as a substitute paraprofessional at the local school district. This mediocre public school is in the exurbs, an hour and a half north of my alma mater, and the similarities are striking. 

Demographics, middling academics, weird emphasis on sports that hover somewhere between unsuccessful and embarrassing. 

High school football players celebrating in a hugging huddle.

I subbed in all of the buildings, but it was the middle school that gave me stories. And it was in middle school as an adult that I began to wonder why many of the teachers were so miserable. 

So I started writing ‘More Than a Bad Teacher’ as a hypothetical exploration of one teacher’s indifference. Teachers in my southwestern PA district are paid quite well, so that was off the table from the beginning. The middle school building has regular issues with mold, the gym had a bucket to catch a constant drip from the leaking roof, there were no staff bathrooms, and the teachers’ lounge was an empty classroom devoid of any color or personal touches. It was outfitted with a microwave, table and chairs, and a copy machine because no human should ever just relax for a bit. The infrastructure could make a person miserable, so that gets Andy down a little. 

Her home life isn’t going well. That takes a toll. But Andy is at the point where she dehumanizes her students. She thinks they’re all little dummies. They try to talk to her and she reacts by heaving a huge sigh. Andy ignores IEPs. 

And as I wrote her life, I could imagine that Andy was desperately bored. She wasn’t engaged with the course material and her students certainly weren’t. Her authority was constantly undermined by a consultant the district hired to boost state standardized test scores. She wasn’t a bad teacher, not really. It’s just that she wasn’t supported. She needed something more than take home pay to have workplace satisfaction.

ID Badge for Substitute Paraprofessional at a School

Andy gets a jolt before the third part of the story that forces her to examine her situation. By the end of the story, she’s made great gains. The turnaround may be pollyannaish, but she’s not abrasive anymore and you can imagine her life continuing to improve. That’s what I like to think happens to her. 

But I’m still waiting for our real life public school to get that kind of jolt. We sit with a C+ grade on Niche. Niche and Great Schools aren’t perfect measures of school quality, but the grades in my area do correspond to the reputations of each district. Our teachers are paid as well as those in nearby A+ schools. It’s time to look at what resources other than teacher pay are being provided. 

I was not a teacher. But even as a substitute teacher’s aide, I felt crushed by going to work everyday having to hope the teacher’s bathroom stall was empty and that a pack of sixth graders didn’t come in to practice their makeup. And I wonder if great schools find a way to encourage and reward more creativity in the classroom. They surely attract first rate teachers, but they must also provide training and support and appreciation. And maybe a leak-free roof and mold abatement for good measure. 

There’s something wrong with our schools. It’s time for a broader conversation about what can be done to make it right.