Trevor Gardner, a teacher at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in San Francisco, wonders if all the time and energy he and others expend in teaching is worthwhile.
Almost every day I find myself asking the question, "Is it worth it?" The constant energy, frequent twelve hour days, the weekends, desperate appeals falling too often on unconcerned ears, the heart and soul that I put into teaching ?is it all worth it? I am not, of course, implying uncertainty about whether or not the students are worth the struggle (for they are the one force keeping me inspired and focused in the midst of frustration), rather, whether or not my energies are being wasted, lost in the cesspool that we call public education in this country. I know that I am one of many who perpetually ponders this question, then returns to his classroom in time for the bell to ring in the next group of thirty-five students.
My frustration grows poignant due to systemic failure I see around me. Despite wide ranging efforts on the part of individuals: daily calls home, weekly homework sessions, academic contracts, and what I see as engaging curriculum, I still open up my e-class grading program to see that nearly one-third of my students are earning grades of D or F for the semester. This number seems absurd to me, surreal. Yet, in discussing this dilemma with many talented and dedicated teachers around me, I discover that this level of failure is not uncommon. If fact, it is the norm. We work in a system that accepts failure as the norm.
But the rush of the school year rages on so rapidly that few stop to question such acceptance. Sure, we all throw our unique sticks in the torrent attempting to slow the flow, but the river of failure continues raging. We all understand fully where the flow ends up when it falls through the cracks, when children fall through the cracks. The cycle continues. Could our collective energies be more productively spent in a way that does not allow astronomical failure and dropout?
Looking into the eyes of my students that serve as my most honest mirror, I ask: What is my responsibility within this system? What is my role in the failure of my students? If I willingly work in an education system that I know does not do all it can to assure the success of students (which I do), am I complicit in their failure? These are the questions that roll through my mind as I stare out at these emerging adults every day. Am I failing them by spending my time in the school building as opposed to out in the streets protesting their neglect? When they ask me weekly why our government does not give more money to education and why people do not care about schools, I shrug my shoulders in silence.
However, I have hope that there are ways to work effectively within our broken system. It is possible to fight through the bureaucracy and neglect to actually teach kids. I believe John Taylor Gatto refers to it as "guerrilla" teaching ?finding ways to teach outside the often senseless restrictions of the school building walls while locked in the political confines of public education. It is usually a matter of finding the right spaces.
I have a single example that I would like to share because it filled my school days last week with hope and vitality. Three years ago, a small group of teachers at my school got together to plan a week-long event that came to be called "Increase the Peace Week." One of the teachers had heard that it was supposed to be Violence Prevention month in January and all schools throughout the district were supposed to be doing something, anything related to violence prevention in January. We began our conversation with the common criticism of the District, that nameless, faceless entity that educators so often blame (often rightfully) when things in schools are not running as they should. But, soon the dialogue turned and took on a different tone, a more optimistic tone. We began discussing POSSIBILITY instead of impossibility and barriers. This group of four teachers sitting in room 200 after school in mid-December began envisioning the "what ifs" of creating a week of activities related to issues of violence and violence prevention for our school community. The potential was amazing. We left the spontaneous meeting inspired and ready to change the entire culture of our school.
Three years later, I am reading over the first draft of the list of events, workshops, activities, and learning opportunities that are planned for the Third Annual Increase the Peace Week at Thurgood Marshall. Almost fifteen lunchtime workshops open to all students and staff, poster and writing contests, a majority of teachers using peace-related curriculum in their classrooms, assemblies, poetry open mics ?a visible and real effort to bring awareness of violence related issues to over a thousand students who experience it pervasively in their daily lives.
Fortunately, we had and continue to have an administration that is trusting?or perhaps busy enough to allow a group of teachers to organize an event like Increase the Peace Week. They were not a strong support throughout the process but they were also far from being a barrier or a wall around which we were forced to maneuver.
I have no data or numerical evidence to prove that Increase the Peace Week truly impacted students or led to a decrease in violence at school, if just for that one week. I do not know if any students thought twice about getting in a fight or abusing other students in the halls with their language because of the incredibly deep discussion we had in my classroom all week long. There is no standardized test that can assess the impact of Increase the Peace Week. But I did listen to a dozen young poets spill their wise and courageous words over the microphone, offering real solutions to violence and abuse that they see every day. I heard hallway conversations about "that Filipino guy who used to be in a gang," who led a workshop about gang violence prevention while holding up a roomful of posters of people who had lost their lives to violence. And I listened as students in my World History classes analyzed the roots of violence and why it would never stop in our communities until people learned to accept differences.
We found a way to make meaning of the world around us, even in the midst of so much madness. For a moment, something real and relevant and important was happening at school and both teachers and students took notice. These are the spaces that allow the magic in. Unfortunately, these spaces are not deep and wide enough to engulf every corner of the school building every day. But they are all around if we are willing to search.
In the chorus of his song, "Anthem," Leonard Cohen writes, "ring the bells that still can ring/forget your perfect offering/there is a crack in everything/that's how the light gets in." These are words of incredible wisdom for those of us working within the windowless boxes of the public education system right now. We must constantly work to find the spaces that lead us, and our students to the light.
Yes, it is worth it. It is worth it because THEY are worth it.
Trevor Gardner teaches history and language arts at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in San Francisco. He participated in the Asia Institute's 2003 study tour to Korea and Japan and our 2004 workshop on human rights in Asia. You can reach him at email@example.com.
The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the UCLA Asia Institute.
Published: Saturday, February 14, 2004
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