Victoria Jelinek


XIII: Values…

My husband sent this to me – it made me smile, and it reaffirms my own priorities. I remember something I was told by a European when I first moved here – “Americans live to work, Europeans work to live.” May this remain true (even as I do think the contagion is spreading here…).

Antithesis of Greed.jpeg

Advertisements


IX Public Education

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” John Dewey

Pacific NW Oak TreeThe state of public school systems throughout the world is generally deplorable. It’s disheartening to consider how this reflects societal values and it’s frightening to consider the implications of this culturally now and in the future.

I spent a year observing classrooms in England, the USA, and Switzerland before I decided to re-train as a teacher. What I saw in public schools (not “public” in the English sense) was alarming: overcrowded classrooms, horribly behaved students, excerpts of books taught rather than entire books because there isn’t enough time or motivation to teach the entire book, and teachers privately asking me how to get ‘gigs’ writing literature guides, as I did at the time, rather than “having” to teach. I remember crying one day as I walked back to a friend’s house in London after having spent a day observing classes at a local academy. I felt, then, as I do now, as though there is little hope for future generations given the incredible challenges for public schools as a result of the lack of social and governmental support for them.

Because the quality of training, support within the schools for teachers, the general behavior of the students in the classrooms, and the curriculum of the international baccalaureate, I did my practical training at a private school in Switzerland while I simultaneously completed my pedagogical certifications at a school in England. When I graduated, I went to work at another private school in Switzerland for the next four years. Having seen the kids through their courses and off to university, I decided to take some time out. I was fed up with the level of privilege I saw, and what I perceive to be the growing inequity in society between kids with money who are able to have superior educational experiences (such as smaller class sizes, teachers paid well and consequently not “burnt out”, and a level of general expectation from both parents and administrators that education is key to success personally and professionally) and kids who do not.

So, I offered myself up as a substitute teacher in a local high school where I live in France. It wasn’t teaching literature, as I was trained to do and which I am passionate about, but, rather, English as a foreign language for an eight-week placement, full-time, 200 kids per week. Even so, I was excited to get in there and to bring IB philosophies to students who had not likely been exposed to it before. How naive I was. The kids did not understand that the games I played with them in the classroom had learning objectives. They were so unused to play and autonomy, that they became over-excited and consequently disruptive, thereby destroying any possibility of an appropriate learning environment. My desire to reason with them, to model respectful and open-minded behavior, was seen as weakness to the majority of them. Most were only responsive to base punitive measures. My carefully constructed lesson plans which integrated visual, oral, written, and kinesthetic activities, were never completed because I spent much of my time each class, each day, managing poorly behaved students. Exercises that I assigned that involved their having to create, imagine, make connections between ideas, were simply too difficult for most of them to do. They preferred rote exercises and prescriptive worksheets. The majority of them do not value education – they want to be ‘celebrity bloggers,’ or ‘international sports stars.’ When I tried to reason with them that IF they became, for example, a professional sports figure – and that’s IF they were good enough and opportunities presented themselves – their careers would be over very early. What, then, would they do to earn a living? I was met with blank looks to this question. When I tried to speak to them about how ‘celebrity bloggers’ should be able to write, to observe and to process cultural trends, they could not see the connection. This doesn’t surprise me, given that many of the parents don’t value education or encourage respect for teachers. For example, one English parent over a casual dinner told a friend of mine shamelessly and stupidly that her son had pretended NOT to speak English “just to mess with me,” his substitute teacher. The child of a friend of mine at the school (who was not in one of my classes) wants to be a filmmaker when he grows up but does not know what a literature class is OR the point of being able to deconstruct stories in order to make good films. His parents, likewise, also do not make the connection. Another parent of a very naughty child in one of my classes simply rolled her eyes at her daughter’s continual misbehavior and said that she never did “go in” for school. (She has already been held back a year and she’s 12). Another parent told me that literature and the arts are “useless,” and her child – who was in one of my classes – refused to do “extension” work in literature (while I taught fundamentals of English to the French kids) ‘cause “there’s no point to it.” Under the influence of parents like this, ignorant of the role of education on the quality of their children’s lives and for the betterment of society collectively, who don’t value respectfulness towards teachers or peers, opting, instead, to reward Darwinian competitive behavior, and who believe sport, and maybe science and math (which of course trump the humanities and the arts), then it’s no wonder that their children have the values they seem to, behave in the classroom as they do, and require constant ‘sticks’ to maintain order, rather than ‘carrots’.

But here is the crux of the trauma for me – my colleagues and the school, itself, should have known better. As it was, most of my colleagues at the school were disdainful of me, opting, often, to put on English language films for their classes to watch (to students who couldn’t spot a verb if it bit them or string together a rudimentary English sentence, much less understand a film in English) and saw me as a disruptive idealist who didn’t know how to teach “properly” and who made them look bad. The administrator’s gave me zero support: I had no computer in the classroom, no way to project images, no sound system, no books, no dictionaries, just, literally, chalk and a chalkboard. Adding to this, I would intermittently be moved to random classrooms when there were visiting seminars or intermittent meetings, thereby disrupting any rhythm I might have had, as well displacing 200 students in the process. Wouldn’t it make more sense to assign the visiting class to another room? Each week, I would write up a brief report of the material I had covered in each class as well as the comportment of the students, and then send it by email to the Vice Principal and the teacher I was ‘covering’ in order to keep them informed. Over eight weeks, I did not once receive even a response of ‘received and read’ to any of my Saturday morning emails, which would have been a simple courtesy. When I completed my contract (a mighty challenge as I frequently wanted to run screaming from the school) out of professional courtesy (and even as I had a date with a very large cocktail), I went to the Vice Principal’s office to shake her hand, let her know I’d tidied the classroom, returned the keys, and was finished. She made me wait outside her office for twenty minutes while she chatted and laughed with a friend, then she limply shook my offered hand and did not say a single word to me – not a ‘thank you’ for teaching kids who had had NO teacher for five months before I came in, or any kind of acknowledgement for the hurdles that had been placed in my path by the school itself, my colleagues, the parents, and the students.

With the parents, administrators, and the teachers themselves – often absent for months at a time with no substitutes in and without any recourse to their positions and accompanying wages – disrespectful, over-extended, exhausted and ‘calling in’ their lessons, or, ironically, too ignorant and lazy to exemplify the ideal of being a lifelong learner, it is no wonder that the majority of children aren’t motivated and enthusiastic about learning. For the last few weeks since I left this school, I have had an existential struggle: do I ever want to teach again? Having been treated with such disrespect every day, all day, for these weeks, how can I regain the confidence that I am, indeed, worthy of respect? And if I can’t regain that confidence, how can I ever command a classroom again and consequently create a positive learning environment? With parents who don’t give ‘a fig’ about education, much less the humanities, who implicitly and explicitly indoctrinate their children with the same notions, what hope is there in communicating its importance to their children? Why bother?

However, the fact is that in several of the classes, there were students that were interested, engaged, and who appreciated my efforts. I know this because they made ‘goodbye’ cards for me, I received many hugs upon departure, a few classes stood up and applauded me and then shook my hand as they filed out of the classroom, and one child cried. Even so, exhausted, saddened, and angry, I have perversely turned this positivity to negativity because I now criticize myself for not protecting THESE students when the foolish students were being disruptive. I should have kicked these kids out of the classroom. I should have been harsher to them in terms of punishment. But I was operating under the arguably misguided ideology that they, too, were worthy of my respect and patience.

Upon reflection, I suppose I’ve learned a few things, both good and bad. I think that I can’t work in a public school system because there are little resources financially, many parents often view school as a ‘necessary evil’ or a type of day care, so there is little support there for one’s efforts. This breaks my heart because I have ALWAYS been a staunch advocate for public schools, believing they’re the lynchpin of a successful society. I also feel that I’m a coward, walking away from a necessary and important fight to educate children for a better world. In a day and age where politicians and the general public are complaining about public school teachers asking for a living wage, and are braying idiocies such as “They already get their whole summers off!” and “They leave work at 15:30 each day!” I should be trying to fight the good fight by attempting to effect change, to reach a few, bright, motivated students, modeling idealism, curiosity, and a life spent learning, both formally and personally, as the true measure of success. But I can’t at this moment. I feel injured and confused. Right now, I don’t even want to speak to people outside of my closest friends and my immediate family, because I’m horrified and saddened by where society’s values seem to be, and, subsequently, the cultural trajectory we’re collectively on. Where fame and money are the ultimate measures of ‘success.’ Where intellectualism is seen as a ‘bad’ thing. Where kindness and sensitivity are signs of “weakness.” Where it’s okay for children to be impolite to their elders because their parents don’t discourage this behavior and are unwittingly creating narcissistic, entitled future adults.

Also unsettling is that my son is destined for the same public school that I worked in and saw close-up. There are no private schools within practical proximity, so going to a private school would require uprooting him from a gorgeous environment and an ideal lifestyle, where he learns so much about the natural world. Moreover, my husband argues that our son is, and always has been, a good student, a respectful child to his teachers and elders, and that the onus for fortifying his general education is, ultimately, on us, his parents. There is reason to what he says, and I think that I’m up to fighting this righteous cause…But what about teaching again? I have always honored the profession and I once loved doing it. I know that I was an effective teacher and that I changed many of my student’s lives because they and their parents have told me so repeatedly. Do the few who I am able to inspire through my love of literature and the disciplines it touches upon (geography, politics, philosophy, culture, film, history, psychology) become the fortifying force that keeps me ‘in the game’? Do I keep teaching despite the troglodytes I encounter, or, perhaps, because of them? Do I return to teaching in private schools – even as my own son is not in one and even as I ideologically don’t condone them – because the comportment of the students is better, the resources and support available to teachers is good, and I’m paid exponentially more than what I get paid in a public school? Or, is this being complicit to a global system that actively does not want the masses to be able to think?

ADDENDUM:

A few English friends have seen this piece as an attack on the French system and the ‘heart’ of France itself, without my considering context. This was absolutely NOT my intention. As a result, I have included my response to one such friend’s feedback:

This is in no way an attack on the French system or government. (I love this country with all of my heart – AM French too – have chosen it over all the other countries I have spent years of time in!).  I had hoped that by mentioning initially that this is about public school systems globally; the observations that I did in Europe, UK and USA before becoming a teacher; that I reference English parents’ behavior/statements regarding their kids here; and my general, philosophical questions about income inequality and private versus public resources and morale, that this essay is about public schools versus private schools (with the theme of income inequality and consequent motivation and opportunity), rather than a specific system. I have used the French system because it’s a recent experience. It’s an example, but by no means the only one I could use and, given the aforementioned, doesn’t really matter which one I would use because their ultimate root – in my opinion – is still the same (income inequality, consequent resources/pay/motivation/morale and practical learning).
 
Also, if I were to have gone into the ‘nitty gritty’ cultural complexity of  “Why?” the French system (or any other public school system) is as it is, it would be another essay (or would be very convoluted. A virtual treatise. Or academic 😦 ). For example, as you note, speaking about the way the French “channel” kids into specific professions, could also apply to a certain extent anywhere, based on more subtle socioeconomic aspects. For example, I went to secondary school in Scotland, and lived in England for 13 years, and I would argue that while it’s not, perhaps, as overt as the French system with their (very early) channeling, the Scottish and the English “channel” their kids, too, by having most leave at 15 – like the French – to learn trades and do unskilled labor (like the French) and the rest go on to college then university. And then, as you note, the uni that they end up going to in the UK effects their work prospects (as well as the accent they end up using). I would also question the motivation behind England’s intention to test under-fives now (me thinks this is very dubious…about financing elements and “channeling” possibilities). In the USA, again, while all kids MUST go to school till 18 (or receive an alternate high school certification), the reasons for inequity in the public school system there also goes back to economic realities. Yes, the American Dream exists for a (very) few, exceptional (and lucky) lower class and middle class (by US standards, not “middle class” by UK definition) folks, but I would argue that, ultimately, it comes down to their family’s social and practical resources and consequently the public school resources available to them. And, again, where Americans go to uni matters a lot and the price is extortionate, even for mediocre uni’s (such a bloody Socialist me).
As for my colleagues at the French school, I also met a few that were lovely and tried to be helpful…but I suppose (and perhaps here’s where working in Hollywood for so long may have ruined me), mentioning them detracted from the general experience and point, which, in my opinion, comes down to income inequality and consequent lack of financial/practical support for public schools, teachers, and the kids who go to them. I will, however, reflect upon your points and, perhaps, adapt this to another essay (or make it one of many in a book? Perhaps write about elements of my time in Switzerland teaching? Perhaps include observations as a student in various places? Hmmm…).
Thank you, v.

May 2, 2019: An article from The Guardian on education and general poverty, which is NOT unique to England or the UK. It’s an epidemic throughout the world.

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/apr/30/staff-fantastic-but-can-fight-pupil-poverty-incoming-president-headteachers-union?CMP=twt_a-education_b-gdnedu