I have been inactive over the past 6 months and therein lies a story. Don’t worry, it is relevant to our title.

After about 20 years of teaching only Advanced and Accelerated students, I was asked to teach 3 regular senior World History classes. I had not taught this level and in such numbers for at least 20 years.

I teach at a college prep school, so what was there to worry about? I mean these were simply less talented or less motivated versions of the students I had been teaching for a very long time. I was a veteran of almost 40 years of experience and I had won a lifetime teaching award from my school. I was good at what I did and this would be a piece of cake.

Wrong, it isn’t easy . The key reason why is in those throw away phrases “less talented or less motivated”. I should also add less mature. It is not unusual for young people to be mature as persons, as students, what is missed in that observation is what that means for the average teacher in the average classroom, especially a “public school” classroom.

What I found was that at least 40% of my “college bound” regular seniors could not or would not read their textbooks and a hardcore minority would not bring them to class either. I don’t know how you teach a survey of World History without having your students read a lot of history outside of class. Less you think we are talking 100’s of pages a week, we are not we are talking about 20 to 30 pages a week.

What I found was that these students had a hard time following the logic of a historical narrative/event. I have always maintained that history is simply a course in or collective psychology, repeated lessons on how basic human nature mixed with unique circumstances leads us to act in certain ways, to choose from a limited palate of options. But when asked why barbarian warriors could grow less battle ready after living among the comforts of civilization, most of my students could not see that the very human desire for comfort and leisure and luxury could cause even the most blood thirsty of warriors to grow soft and slow and unready to ride a 100 miles a day to do battle in some distant corner of their conquered lands.

The reasons for this go back to their life experiences and maturity and their motivation or lack thereof. Our technological environment and the culture it has spawned reinforces this superficiality of understanding, this emotional/psychological deafness. To these issues adds shorter attention spans, the expectation that the teacher should spoon feed them everything they need to know and the unwillingness to simply take notes and make a minimal effort to follow along and we have the makings of endless headaches for a teacher.

I am a teacher, and I take it personally when students do poorly. I question what I am doing or not doing to cause this . Even knowing all I have written, I still look in the mirror each morning and ask “what am I doing wrong, what more can I do?” I am now spending between 2 and 4 extra hours a day working on this course. I simply have not had the time or energy to blog very much over the last 6 months. It is not just the extra time required. I find myself emotionally and physically spent at the end of each day. There is no more toothpaste I can squeeze , the tube is often empty.

In this I am like most teachers. We care. We have chosen a profession that is long on hours and short on material rewards, so if we didn’t care we would have to be insane to do it, even more to do it for decades.

All I have said about the challenges of teaching average high schoolers is only compounded when we discuss public school classrooms. They are filled with students who share all the limitations and challenges I have mentioned . But instead of 22 students, fill those classrooms with 30 or more and make the number of classes not 3 but 5 or 6. Additionally, give that teacher not one preparation or course to teach but 2 or 3. Add in the issues created by poverty, single parenthood, cultural marginalization and disparagement. Add learning impaired students in the mix. Did I mention administrators who make “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job”  look like the executive of the year? The challenges are enormous. Now you can begin to see the task public school teachers must take on every day of their professional lives.

I have a friend who  is one of these quiet heroes, so I get to hear about it everyday as we ride home together.

In Texas, and much of the rest of the country we must add a whole other level of challenges – political extremists who hate all public institutions and harbor a special hatred for public education. What that is all about is the subject of my next blog entry.