Telling Tales Out of School by Douglas J. Brouillard

So this isn’t really a book, it’s a Master Thesis that I picked up in the Antioch Library because I’m writing a million page paper on Student Motivation. Yes, it’s capitalized. It has me obsessed. What motivates us? Why some kids and not others? How do we best teach students in order to draw out their individual talents and interests?

Mr B. (as his students fondly call him) writes about his first three years teaching: first on the front lines in East L.A., (because it IS our very own personal war zone in America whether you choose to see it or not. Kids growing up there suffer PTSD just as if they were kids growing up in a war-torn area in Eastern Europe or the Middle East. It’s true. Look it up.) and then in a couple of alternative high schools here in Washington.

Written with great confidence, knowledge and, most importantly, an awareness of the USA’s growing problem of neglect of our kids, Mr. B’s thesis was a fine reading experience for me. I didn’t know MA thesis’s could be interesting and non-academic sounding. I like it.

The negative and deeply damaging consequences because of the mindless neglect of our kids is overwhelming. It’s hard to not bring your personal belief system with you when you go into teaching. We each have our view from our neighborhoods and not all of them align with another. There are always different points. There is always another side of the white-picket fence. I don’t have children. I don’t necessarily want children. I don’t know how it is to be a parent in this floundering economy and decade with poverty rising and the necessity of two incomes and the ever-evolving child-rearing methods that are so different from the way we were raised. Hell, I don’t even know how to grasp the new teaching methods that are so different from the way I was taught!

As a result, I am not sure how to take a position on Mr. B’s feelings about the rising generation, but then I have had no experience in teaching yet, so maybe it’s just as well. Brouillard writes in 2004: “We’re throwing away our children. We’re neglecting a whole generation while we buy them off with expensive toys that might even stunt their development…Speaking as just a man and not an academic, our kids are fat, lazy, rude, and have an odd sense of entitlement and it’s our own fault. We’ve let it happen.”

I would even go a step further than Mr. B and say we have MODELED this behavior and our kids are just imitating what they see…turning into miniature versions of us…the apathetic, over-indulged, consumer generation of the 80’s. It isn’t funny and cute when a child imitates a parents neurotic behavior. It is significant of a serious problem when you realize it is not an isolated incident and that there are thousands of kids who are growing up with these embedded ideologies of entitlement. (I guess I do have a personal opinion.)

True story: I work in a coffeehouse a few days a week and the kids that come in there are fine examples of this theory.

” I would like a tall 140 degree decaf vanilla latte in a grande cup with extra whip-cream,” the TEN year old tells me imperiously, as if this is perfectly normal and I should hop to it. “So fill up the rest of the cup with whip cream,” the child explains to me as I set about making the drink.

He isn’t learning this from TV or video games or that devil rock music. He is learning this sort of entitlement and pickiness and high maintenance behavior from just one place: the Home. I don’t know ’bout you all, but I think it’s appalling.

And it’s not his fault. He’s ten. He’s mimicking the adults around him: the “I want it the way I want it and I deserve to have it because I WANT it,” attitude which has become so prevalent among us. You might think it’s just a handful of kids who act like this, but the scary truth is it is a handful of kids who don’t act like this. Politeness and kids who don’t demand are so rare they inspire admiration from all of us. When a child says please and asks politely we ooh and ah at her behavior. Why is this the accepted state of things? And has it always been like this?

But what happens when these kids are grown-up and come to a real obstacle in life? When they can’t have the thing they want even if they do deserve it? Do they throw a fit? Give up? Get bitter and jaded?  After all, life is filled to the brim with constant disappointments. Are we teaching our kids to handle it by telling them they deserve everything that is best in life?

One of the wonderful things about Americans is our ability to meet disappointment with practicality. If we can’t do it one way, we try another. This is the beautiful thing about us, and we teach our kids persistence as part of our cultural value, but I think we need to be teaching our children about the necessity of failure and disappointment just as much as we encourage them to succeed and tell them they can. Mr B. goes on:

“We overprotect children in some very wrong ways and don’t protect them enough in others. We don’t discipline our own children and threaten to sue if someone else even objects to our children’s behavior. We overfeed them fast food because we don’t take the time to make them proper meals. We put them in front of the TV rather than play catch with them. We put tremendous pressure on them to succeed but don’t help them with their homework. They have become symbols of our success rather than extensions of ourselves.  We don’t want to believe our child has problems in school. It must be the teacher’s fault. It’s high time we woke up.”

It was this last that got me thinking about how necessary it is to pay attention to our students.  As we move through our lives, we realize that there are many different ways to be absent from one another; to engage in neglect and abuse without knowing it. We ignore our children in favor of our own adult problems. It isn’t something we mean to do, but we have job problems and financial burdens and failed relationships and a whole mess of things to distract us and occupy us. Throw a kid into the mix and it’s easy to say “Go play! Go watch TV! Go get your father to deal with it!” telling ourselves we can’t deal with everything.

Another very American thing – although a less admirable one –  is to think that everything’s fine when it isn’t. We want things to be fine. We don’t know how to fix everything and that fear keeps us hiding behind rose-colored glasses.

As a teacher, your job is not about you, it is about the student and where they are at in their lives. You have to always be thinking about them and how best to instruct them in the things they need to know. This is the real reason the job is exhausting. It takes strength and character to put your own life aside so you can better devote your attention to others. This is why passion for the career is necessary. You better love your job! This is also why teachers are always bitching about their salaries. When you break down what a teacher makes compared to the hours they put in it isn’t pretty. Try living on less than minimum wage. Yeah, you can say: Then pick another career. But that isn’t possible when you love teaching as much as most of these teachers do.

Do I have passion? For my subject matter, yes. When I’m tutoring someone and suddenly they get it, and their eyes light up and they start telling me their ideas, I just beam at them. That is why I want to teach. Nothing beats the feeling of opening a door in someone’s mind.

Brouillard cites his own experience to model strong teaching methods. He teaches the students self-direction. He teaches them character through literature by having them read stories and then write reflective essays about their own lives (Like: based on the stories, what kind of person do they want to be and why?) He teaches them follow through by not talking down to them and by treating them like adults.

A particularly engaging story was one where he teaches a kid: a foster kid who has been shoved from one home to another with no real adult role models,  about ‘ a man’s word’: that among men a handshake seals a deal; a valuable lesson for a boy to learn when he’s thirteen and impressionable.

He talks about the failures. About the kids he let fall through the cracks because of his assumption that the kid was just a typical teenager and there was no real problem. Yet another reason you can never pay too much attention.

As I enter the field as an educator there are looming problems to be faced. Parents and other community members are cynical of teachers; of our school systems –  and, oh boy, they will air their grievances with surprising ease, not fully understanding the challenges that teachers face: overcrowded classrooms with as many as sixty kids, low or no funding for art, music or drama programs – programs which have been proven to provide necessary interpersonal life skills – the endless stream of curriculum differences that set everyone off arguing for months and years, the standardized testing debates, the poor salaries – most teachers make 2,500 a month and work 80 hours a week – administrative BS, lack of teaching resources or the expense of providing these things oneself, and most of all, the danger of becoming too negative, of not seeing the positive things that do happen, and forgetting why we are all here – and in it together – in the first place.

Let me remind myself of why I am here learning to instruct kids:

To educate. To enlighten. To help. To make a difference in a small way or a big way with no expectation of a reward, to have the experience of touching lives, to enrich my own life by doing so, to teach character, perseverance, critical thinking and creativity, and provide the rising generation some of the skills they need to live interesting and fulfilled lives.

There is the danger of out of control idealism of course, but teachers need a certain amount of idealism to go ahead. They have to believe that everyone can learn. They have to love what they do.

Brouillard shared some valuable insights in his thesis; insights I hope to remember as I start my own career.

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