Years ago, I attempted to become a teacher. I thought “How hard could it be?”
It proved to be the most stressful year of my life.
After a year of preparation in the LAUSD teaching internship program, I was hired to teach algebra to students with learning disabilities at a middle school in the San Fernando Valley. One of the Intern Supervisors warned me not to work at this particular school. I needed the job and this was a viable offer. “The principal has a reputation for… Well, you’ll find out,” she said.
Algebra. Learning Disabilities. Middle School. What could go wrong?
The greatest barrier was not the learning disabilities, but the students’ ‘learned helplessness’. They learned from infancy that any effort was rewarded with failure. Mastering a video game might take a few minutes, but learning multiplication tables was impossible. They just would not try. They didn’t need yet another confirmation that they were ‘stupid’. The phrase ‘I can’t’ relieved them from countless disappointments.
Of course, forcing these kids to sit still, to be lectured to on a subject useless to them was a completely wrong-headed approach to teaching. They were bursting with energy, passion and desire. They wanted to move and express themselves. Or watch TV.
The old scenario of putting a hundred chimpanzees into a room with 100 typewriters with the expectation of randomly getting a Hamlet out of them presumes those chimpanzees will sit at those typewriters. But my students were not chimpanzees nor machines. They were feeling people, infinitely more resourceful in devising ways to express their pain and frustration.
The educational system could not serve them but also could not release them. They were squeezed into an ill-fitting box which satisfied the mandates of Washington bureaucrats and local administrators. I was the sole representative of this broken system to whom they had access. Their actions were eloquent.
Some students passively did their time. Many students though, were creative in wasting time and disrupting the class. Their favorite was taking turns filing formal complaints accusing me of striking them. I never laid a hand on any of them but the accusations occurred weekly. Investigations always absolved me of any wrong doing. No one answered the question, “How did they learn to do this?”
One kid bragged that he “made more money” than I did. I believed him. I think he was someone’s drug business apprentice. The incentives of money and peer acceptance far outweighed school for overcoming his learning disability. And he was a natural salesman. I told him I once had his opportunities but didn’t like the retirement plan. His puzzlement at that confirmed he had a lot to learn.
My internship instructors assured me that providing elements of ‘enrichment,’ props, colorful décor, candy rewards and toys for demonstration purposes would provide positive returns far beyond my monetary investment. I learned they were a futile waste of time and money. Items brought to the classroom were inevitably stolen or destroyed to no good purpose. Did I mention the threats? Or breaking up the spitting contest?
Observations of my teaching methods were conducted regularly by administration and internship staff. I received good marks and was applauded for improvement in my educational strategies and student engagement. Though a struggle, I felt I found a calling.
Then I learned the secret behind the principal’s mysterious reputation. Each year, for her own amusement, she would select one new teacher from the staff and systematically ruin their career. It made no sense, but her destructive behavior was confirmed to have gone on for years. She was legendary and untouchable. This is what I was warned about. Why willfully destroy eager young talent?
I then found out I was that year’s recipient of her malignant whimsy. Despite my hard work and the good reports on my progress, she arbitrarily decided that I should not be a teacher at her school nor at any school. By not renewing my contract, my position in the internship program would also be terminated, with no credit accrued. To teach, I’d have to start completely over.
The teacher’s union informed me that even if I won, I would still be out of a job. My teaching career was over. However, I needed to stand against such injustice. I filed a grievance.
The union allowed me to work as a substitute teacher. I could earn a living part time but without benefits or a future.
On assignment, I told another substitute who knew this principal about my experience. A teacher walked by and interjected, “I know who you’re talking about. She ruined my career too!” He had to start from scratch and lost years of his life recouping his investment and career. He named her and described her in terms both vivid and profane.
I left teaching to pursue more lucrative prospects. I received notice from the teacher’s union that the principal settled and accepted early retirement.
A year later, while enjoying lunch with my wife in a restaurant, a man walked by who looked vaguely familiar. He saw me and stopped. Excusing himself for interrupting, he asked if I was John Adams, the former math intern at ________ school. I cautiously admitted he had identified me correctly. He offered his hand and thanked me profusely for himself and the staff of the school for standing up to that horrible principal.
He said no one would call her out. “She was a petty tyrant, ruining people’s careers for her own amusement because everyone was afraid of her.”
I thanked him and said I had only filed a complaint. I needed to call out her abuse. He insisted my grievance forced her out. Because no one would jeopardize their career, including himself, they effectively supported her heinous behavior for years.
I told him it was nice to be appreciated and was sorry we couldn’t have worked together longer. We shook hands again and he left us to our meal.
Did I learn more from my students than they learned from me?