By Greg Jones
This is a tale/tail of 3 different High Schools that I’ve been a guest teacher at in recent weeks. The three (3) school districts were Lansing, Dewitt and Detroit, Michigan. The first high school was in the Lansing district. I just ended a 9 day stint. I was surprised to get the assignment so early, as it was the first day of school. As a Substitute Teacher I am unaccustomed at working on the very first day of school. The previous teacher had transferred to another school district. From all accounts she had had enough of her teaching situation. My first day did not meet my expectations.
When I got into the classroom and sat at the teachers desk, my immediate impression was that their are no teacher plans, or instructions of what I would be doing for the next nine (9) days. In fact the teacher’s desk and drawers were completely empty. I felt uncomfortable as the subject areas for this class, were not the same as my teaching specialties (social science areas). I went across the hall to explain my predicament to one of the regular teachers, who although sympathetic, did not offer any real assistance. It became obvious in a hurry that he had his hands full. I could have gone to the main office, but felt that since I was literally thrown into the water, that I’d better learn how to swim quick. So I improvised and came up with a modified lesson plan for nine (9) days.
After day two, it became apparent to me that only about ? to 1/3rd of the students were paying any attention to the instructions. Rather than become disoriented by the lack of participation, I focused on those few students who came to learn. The majority of the students had the attitude that since the regular teacher is not coming for two weeks, we’ll just chill. Out of 5 periods, only one class period had a majority of students who were actually interested in what was going on.
In this shadowy environment of student apathy, anti-intellectualism, and educational stagnation, there were two bright stars who gave me hope and inspiration to continue and not cancel the assignment before the two weeks expired. In several of the classes, the assignment was to watch a video called, “A Death of a Salesman”, one of America’s greatest tragic dramas. Because of the constant background noise, it was almost impossible to hear the sound, and thus be in a position to complete the questions concerning certain points of the drama. In fact, I sat directly under the TV, and could barely hear. But somehow two Asian students, through powers of concentration or whatever answered the questions in a thorough and precise fashion. They were the only two students to do so. Their dedication in the face of chaos and a mob like atmosphere was quite remarkable to me. As they were turning in this assignment, I said to myself that this is why I am putting up with this stuff.
On a positive note, the new principal reminds me of Mr. Clark in the movie “Lean on Me”. This was the movie that depicted a strong willed principal who brought order and discipline to a totally out of control high school. This new principal has brought a sense of hope and optimism to the staff that just maybe things will change. He has a big job as the culture of mob rule will be hard to disperse, as bad attitudes, behavior and anti-intellectualism has run amok for so long.
As if visiting another planet, I entered the realm of Dewitt. The high school is only seven (7) years old, very modern with a feel that serious education is taking place. All modern equipment and accoutrements were there. The students were positive, confident, and not distracted. The spirit of order and learning just pervaded the atmosphere. The teachers appeared happy and confident. Dewitt High set the bar really high, but in reality it is no more than a normalcy that should be the standard for all schools, whether suburban or urban. Having just come from a dysfunctional urban high school, it was refreshing to see what a serious high school is all about.
Having just left paradise, I’ve suddenly felt the touch of Hell itself. The situation at many Detroit High Schools is bordering upon criminal. I was not a teacher, but a guest through a friend who is a veteran teacher in the district.
At this particular high school I felt as if I was in a prison, where the cold steel of low expectations, graft and anti-intellectualism stood as iconic boulders blocking all hope, and feeding mushrooms of despair and failure. Basic supplies such as classroom books are in rare quantities. Bathrooms were unkempt and lacking in necessary toiletries. In fact, bathrooms were just plain filthy.
I felt like I was in a war torn situation, as everything seemed broken down and depressive. Many students walked aimlessly, many with their heads down. Others appeared stressed out, some even zombie like, with heads down and spirits broken. It was an atmosphere of low expectations at all levels. Where the Lansing High school scored a 6 on the scale of dsyfunctionality, this school was fast approaching a 10. The negativity was palpable and stifling.
It has to be said that Dewitt High has its act together. It scores high on every conceivable measurement that denotes educational excellence and quality. Lansing and Detroit have to overcome the high hurdles of bad attitudes/behaviors, and a culture of anti-intellectualism that is born and fed by inattentive parents. It is a tall order, as administrator and teachers can’t really impact upon what happens in these homes. It would be nice to have the beautiful facility that Dewitt has, but prevalent attitudes and behaviors so endemic in the urban schools would be a corrosive factor that would bring down any new facility with classic Samsonian dimensions. Anyhow, where is the money coming from to upgrade these dinosaurs like schools? Perhaps that cube of the puzzle is unattainable at this time, but attitudes, behaviors and respect for learning is in every parent’s hand, just waiting to be given to their children. Remember those two Asian students. Maybe the new buildings will come, but in the meantime parents can build new educational expectations in their children.
So many of these students who are raising all this hell, have been depraved of proper parental nurturing and guidance. More state and local pressure has to be directed at them to be accountable and responsible for the educational development of their children. All the Board of Education policies will come to naught, if simple parental involvement in the educational experience doesn’t change for these students most in need.
The students who come to learn are being drowned out by the incessant chatter of cultural anti-intellectualism. If the challenged is not met, you’ll have a situation where practically every student there, is not in school to learn, but just there. That is a frightening prospect to say the least. Just as there are boundaries in the adult world of work and business, students must be taught by parents about the boundaries and limits in the educational process.