Why I Teach Public School

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AT THE ENTRANCE TO THE HIGH school where I now teach, the doors are always open. On the cold city days of January, teachers walk through the foyer, collars up, hats on, braced. Students and other young people who do not attend the school stand, short-jacketed, smoking cigarettes and pot, wearing no gloves, braced against a stiffer wind. Once through the third set of open doors, teachers no longer exhale mist, but we still leave our coats buttoned. The race is on to initial the register. Eight-fifteen a.m. is marked by a bell. Yesterday, it had been synchronized with our watches, but today it comes four minutes earlier.

The school I used to teach in has no main entrance. The general administration building is warm. A fountain in the middle of the polished slate floor reminds one of the Alhambra in Spain. Most of the young men there file in to breakfast from separate dormitories scattered about the manicured campus. No one crosses the center lawn; it's forbidden by tradition. The breakfast is a solid one. Everyone wears a tie. The immaculate classroom building shuts out the wind with thick doors at the entrance and again at the beginning of the hallways. Taking attendance is not necessary; everyone knows each other, and everyone is there.

Today, I teach at Hope High School, a public school in the inner city, but my two years teaching at Portsmouth Abbey are still clear in my mind. Many of us at Hope who are under 50 talk about going to an easier school, a private school. But no one leaves. ''The glass is half full, half full," teachers say, trying to convince themselves all is OK. I have offers, but I do not go back to the happy land of private schools. I remain here. For three years, I have been unable to explain this. I just reread I van Illich and stay. You never hear the word "colleague" at Hope, but it's common at Portsmouth Abbey. The teachers there are cast from similar molds, enough alike to create instant bonds of shared experience. This can breed a false sense of reliance, however. I remember a fight on the baseball field. I was alone and had to break it up with the coach from the visiting team. The rest of the game was horrible, full of bickering with the ump and unpleasant yelling from both benches.

At dinner that night, many faculty members had much to say about the incident. But where were they this afternoon? I wondered. They talked, yet remained apart, living life through hearsay experience. At Hope, all the teachers stick together. The artists, the reactionary conservatives, the coaches who laugh a lot, the disciplinarians who ration laughter, the weary principal so overextended he hardly stands a chance, the intellectuals, and the ex-cop-we all stick together. We have to. At Hope High, in the city, fights can be more dangerous. Our halls are so close to the streets. Outsiders come and go. So heads turn right away. You never feel alone.

When I teach here, I don't focus on the garbage in the halls and the language in the air. I emphasize the kids. When I step back to watch myself teach, it seems clear to me that I treat the students as young men and women. I am hard on them. They do not get away with vague answers; they must know facts and be able to explain themselves clearly. They have to be strong to do what we ask of them. Learning and growing up at the same time is rough. But it is exactly the same at Portsmouth Abbey. Young people there are treated like young adults, too. Teachers push. With the push and intensity, students gain confidence. If they sometimes seem hurt by the pushing, it is because they have pride in themselves. This hurt is at the core of caring. Ask Socrates.

The best methods of the public and the private schools are the same. Aside from adjustments for individual differences and in pacing, my push has worked for me for 10 years—at Portsmouth Abbey and at Hope. The differences in kids are cosmetic. Some wear crisp oxford shirts and Brooks Brothers ties and avoid conflict; others tease their hair and row over a new set of Nikes. Both are hilarious. Both are comforting. Both are high school.

On the other hand, students at private schools have been trained for years to "do school." The kids in city public schools have often been trained for survival in a different arena. So they think they do not know how to do it. But the skills needed to do school are not that complex. Learning how to study and remember, to think and reason, to write or paint about the world around you, is not hard. Public school kids can learn as much as private school kids, but their teachers must be tough and shockingly demanding. They must meet student resistance with grace and a push. Grace and a push. That will get you there. Nobody teaches well in the best private school or the worst public inner-city school unless they teach with love for their students. The students do not have to earn that love. It is part of the process. And process is product.

Each month, it becomes clearer why I stay at Hope High School. I know how to teach and get results. Few of my students cut my classes. Attendance is up. The students have organized a cultural awareness group to explore African roots. They are finding out amazing things. A grass-covered Sahara. The fabulous empire of Ghana. The discovery of algebra. A community is forming. I have demanded that they be there and have given them a chance to seize dignity. We are all learning to be creative. And they are learning how to write, some of them very well.

Why would anyone stay here? The answer lies in the commitment. Education is one of the few truly public goods left in the United States. Health care is not provided for everyone; neither is housing nor even food. Education is. That is quite something.

We teachers are like the baseball scouts of 1950s, combing the United States looking for talent. With a box of new baseballs, playing catch, we look for the kid who has the beginnings of a big-league curve. We develop this talent for society's future use, for community development, for change. As a teacher, you get good at it, seeing the beginnings of something. Alpha and Konkeo write before school with a volunteer in the library because, for them, American syntax has been elusive. Evans stumbles through Thorstein Veblen's economic theories. We rewrite. We have them retake a test. We push.

I advise the Leadership Committee of students elected from our 10th grade teaching team. We are not permitted to use the school facilities for activities because of the threat of violence, so we raise money to rent halls around the city. The twice-weekly meetings have given some students who are chronically late a reason to come in. This committee visits a private school each year. Those more polite students visit us. The kids talk about the surface differences and the social class differences. They know private money separates us. At the end of the day, after discussing the cosmetics, each group says they liked it, that they had fun, that they learned a lot.

In the end, I think I stay at Hope because it is more my style. I understand cities. I was always drawn to ride the subway. And I believe without cities filled with neighborhoods where people know their own history, make art, read, and write well, this country is nothing but a flat, undifferentiated, deadly place. My friends stay in the private schools because it is their style. Both public and private school teaching is a social obligation. The satisfaction in both places comes from the kids.

Vol. 03, Issue 02, Page 8-9

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