Monday, May 07, 2007

Life in Rural America (Union Parish, part 1)

Finally, I'll begin with the schools in Union Parish, where I taught briefly. I also plan to talk about the community, the economy, and anything else that the Union Parish residents who are offering input would like. Here's my perspective as a teacher. Next up, the perspective of some parents.

When people ask me why I gave up teaching, my answer amounts to something like, “I loved the kids, but teaching in poor school districts is hard.” They ask for examples—after all, aren’t teachers always complaining that there’s not “enough”—resources, time, money? And so I give them examples.

Like how, my first year, I had 33 fifth-graders in a small classroom in which you still had to get permission to turn on the air conditioner. Or, how our playground had one small swing set that the fourth through eighth grade had to share and a decrepit basketball court that the boys claimed, early-on relegating girls to the status of observers and facilitating the habit of standing around in small, exclusive cliques. Or, how the only ancillary was PE (no music, art, etc.) twice a week, for 45 minutes, if the PE teacher came on time--he wasn't going to keep them over if he was late.

That 45 minute period was the only during-school planning period we had. In addition to the lack of a planning period, there was no duty-free lunch, so you had to shuffle your kids through a 20-minute lunch break during which cafeteria employees and district officials expected you to keep the kids virtually silent.

Oh, and the textbooks that fell apart and (to the horror of a historian!!!) the social studies texts from pre-the fall of Communism. I taught there from 1999-2001. Some of my kids’ textbooks had my cousin Trinity’s name in them. Trinity was in the fourth and fifth grades in the 89-90 and 90-91 school years.

But mostly I tell people about the fraction test that I tried to give my fourth-grade class back in the winter of 2000 (yes, I remember). Black and white copies in my school were like some illicit drug—available, but you had to pay dearly, by begging and describing why you needed them, and endure abuse, from the office staff and teachers’ aides, to get them. Keep in mind, there is no Office Depot or whatever right down the street. The local bank would make a few copies for you for 25 cents per page or, if your pastor or church secretary felt sorry for you, you could use the church's copier.

The school wanted us to use, primarily, the purple ditto copies. When I taught fourth grade, the new principal quite generously offered us 200 black and white copies per month (hah!). By the time of the fraction test, mine were used up. And though a co-worker offered to let me use some of her allotment, the principal said no. So I made ditto copies.

Blurry ditto copies on which the kids couldn’t see into how many sections a shape was divided or how many were shaded or if that number was 1/3 or 1/8 or 1/2. So I showed it to the principal.

And he said, “I’m sorry.”

I made a transparency of the original and had my kids copy the problems from the overhead. By the time they finished copying it, after I walked around pointing out errors and reminding them, "please don't begin until you have all the problems copied!", and I'd read over them aloud to make sure we were all on the same page (many children have problems transferring from board/screen to paper), they didn't have time to take the test that day. So, I took the original, drove the 20+ miles to Ruston and made copies.

And I realized, as much as I loved my kids, with a base salary of $18,600 (with a master’s degree), I couldn’t keep supplementing and buying things and trying to fill in the gaps. And I wasn’t one of those super-creative teachers who could make everything from scratch (scratch materials cost money, too, btw). That's always been strange to me, the expectation that teachers are to be these selfless, constantly giving, unconcerned about money, always super-resourceful, uber-noble individuals. Teaching in poor circumstances does inspire you... sometimes. I learned to love construction paper, glue, and cardboard. I learned to hoard nubby pencils, loose leaf, newspapers, and boxes.* But, sometimes, it just makes you exhausted beyond words.

So, I sent out the three PhD applications I’d been thinking about.
* On supplies, for comparison, my son attends public school here that is consistently ranked highly in the state accountability system. The school does not send out supply lists in the summer. Instead, the PTO puts together the supplies the teachers want, boxes them by grade, and sells them at a marked up price to raise money for the PTO. The teachers there have no qualms about sending out a note the night before requesting that the kids bring something to school the next day, sending lists of things for you to buy for school activities, requesting certain types of notebooks or brands of supplies, or requesting that all the children bring a sack lunch on certain days. In Union Parish, doing such things were frowned upon because they 1)presuppose that the parents had time and money to go to the store 2) assume that the small local stores would have a wide variety of supplies for reasonable prices 3) ignore the fact that perhaps the parents of children receiving free or reduced price lunches (as the majority in my school did) had no money (especially in the middle of the week) to buy a lunch (duh!). Though the faculty at my son's school are nice, they are a bit cushioned and smug, I think, and sometimes I want to point these things out to them.


RageyOne said...

Oh gosh, I recall those mimeograph machines. When I first started teaching in LA (East BR Parish, 1994) we had one of those machines in my building and it was in use. *very sad*

It really is sad that rural areas suffer so much. I know that there are young people in those areas who have great potential, but not the resources. It is no fault of the students jus the lot they were born into due to the society that surrounds them. Places with a small tax base (very little industry) and poor economy. Those places struggle and struggle to keep their heads up.

Gwyneth Bolton said...

I have to say that it always saddens me to see just how little this country values equal education. If it were really valued, it would be properly funded across the country, from rural to urban areas. And teachers would be paid a living wage.... But to rephrase Pac, they got money for war, but can't teach the poor...


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