Monday, March 29, 2010

Real Life in the 6th Grade

Well, I've had several post ideas in recent weeks, but nary time to write them. You see, I've been spending my days as a long-term sub for a 6th grade classroom. So let me enlighten you as to life in elementary school, whether you are still there, or whether it's been several decades.

The first thing, and this is a comment mostly directed at our legislators, is that teachers DO NOT GET PAID NEARLY ENOUGH. They get to school usually before 8:00 a.m. (more like 6:00 if they teach jr. high or high school) and some are still there at 6:00 p.m. And they take tons of papers home to grade every day. Plus they have to deal with these students suffering from "life entitlement syndrome" (a term I just coined). They get a measly lunch half-hour, which they often spend grading papers or planning lessons, or catching up on their personal issues. And most of them spend their summers taking additional teaching credits often required by the district or the state.

Second, there is not nearly enough time to really teach students in the course of an elementary school day. First, we have to take roll, lunch count, say the pledge, deal with 25 questions about forms that were sent home, book orders, bathroom requests and pencil sharpening. Once the students finally settle down to work, you've got maybe one good hour to cover math, science, health, and also deal with the boy who never stays in his seat, the girl who really only cares about how short her shorts are, and the IEP student who won't be doing any of those lessons.

Then it's off to recess, AKA, a really good way to get the kids all worked up again so that it takes them another 15 minutes to get settled down. After recess, you've got maybe another good hour to cover spelling, grammar, and writing, which is likely to be interrupted by the art teacher, an announcement by the track coach, papers that must be put in backpacks NOW, and the inevitable discussion called "Why do we have to do this?" Then the kids go off to band/orchestra or study hall (where they listen to their iPods).

They rush to lunch, snarf down maybe a teaspoon of food, then outside to get all excitable again. After lunch, they're tired of being told to be quiet, but they are now going to computer lab, where they are supposed to be looking up information about Bosnia, but instead, they have games, google earth, and other distractions. I have to go around the room a hundred times to keep them on task--a truly impossible feat. After computer lab, we have a few minutes for reading and social studies, then we have to leave 15 minutes at the end of the day for them to gather up all their homework, write their assignments down, and pass out papers.

Somehow, during this mad dash of a day, I am supposed to prepare them for standardized tests, assessments of 1,000 kinds, and bring enriching, meaningful significance to learning about pronouns. Which I can do, IF the students were up for it.

But they're not. They feel entitled to put in their time doing worksheets in exchange for 100% scores. These kids have checked out. They listen to a math lesson, nodding when asked if it makes sense, chatting through the entire time they have allotted to complete the 20 easy problems they are assigned, and then still proceed to get only one problem correct.

Some of the students, I grant you, work diligently all day, completing their work in quiet, while the rest of the room echoes with sounds. The sounds of the boys who think their every thought deserves verbal expression. The sounds of the kid who has to drum on everything. The sound of the kid who insists "I'm not talking" every three seconds. Even when it's quiet, it's loud.

They whine about everything, from where they sit to the classmate who farts to the injustice of my calling on someone who has only spoken once all day. They whine when they don't hear my instructions because none of them will shut up, including the ones whining. They whine that they're hungry at 9:00, because they don't eat breakfast at home. They whine that they have to go to band, when it is actually an optional class. They whine that the principal makes them adhere to the dress code. They whine when I insist they turn work in on time. They whine that they didn't know about the test posted on the board for the last six days. They whine when asked to do work that requires actual thinking.

And yet, they want to grow up, go to a good college, earn a good living, and of course be rich and famous. They have no idea how privileged they are, nor how sad it is that they are wasting the precious education that comes to them for free.

Still, I go everyday, ready to make a fresh start of it. Hoping that today there will be some light bulbs that go off. Hoping that somehow the students will find it in themselves to actually care. Hoping that anything I do makes any difference to anyone.

I sound like someone who's been at this for 30 years and is ready to retire. But I've been in this particular 6th grade room for a whole 4 weeks. If I had to spend every day for 30 years in an elementary classroom, I would go stark, raving, mad.

And I LOVE kids. LOVE them. If all I had to do was BE with these students, they would be delightful. And they are delightful some of the time. Like when the one student gets so excited about basketball that it's the only time I really enjoy hearing him talk non-stop. Or the student who will do almost anything for a piece of candy. Or the troublemaker who really gets into art.

But if those legislators think for one second that they can cut funding and cram more 6th graders into each classroom, I challenge them to spend a day doing what I do. They will run screaming for the hills, raise teachers' salaries three-fold, and stop their bellyaching about how far behind education is in this country.