No one in his or her right mind ever said teaching was easy. In my K-12 experience, I've had forty-two teachers. Of those forty-two teachers, three were unfit to teach. Two more were marginally competent. The other thirty-seven ranged from adequate to exceptionally good.
We've all had, at the very least, a few marginally competent teachers in our educational careers. I had at least two teachers who would have fallen into this category. Many of us of us have had the misfortune of having outrightly unfit teachers. I've had a few of them as well. One of them I was fortunate enough to lose after the principal discovered that I was the child of educated parents. It seemed that the administration of the school did not put children in the man's class whose parents were likely to recognize that the teacher had "issues." As my family was new to the district and my mother worked for a neighboring district, my parents were not recognized as such. About six weeks into the school year the misplacement became apparent, and I was moved into the class of a teacher who possessed at least the minimal skills needed to teach fourth graders. The move was great for me, but what about the other twenty-nine children whose parents weren't sufficiently prominent to have their children moved into the class of someone who more or less knew how to teach? Were they any less deserving of competent teachers simply because their parents weren't savvy to the workings of the school system?
It's a particular ax I have to grind with school systems in most places. The children of wealthy, educated, or otherwise influential parents are given the better teachers. Those whose parents are none of those things are too often placed in the classes of those who do not know how to teach because the parents either lack the knowledge of the system or are too humble to complain.
In reality, the children of educated and influential parents would, for the most part, be OK with the less qualified teachers as long as those teachers treated children reasonably well. i'm not suggesting that those parents would necessarily like the idea of teaching their children every night and weekend, but it would happen if there were no way around it. My mother's biological children would have mastered the state standards of each grade level had our teachers been illiterates who looked at comic books all day long instead of teaching us. My parents were probably extreme examples, but, for the most part, educated parents would see to it that their children learned what they needed to learn whether the teachers at school taught it to them or not. I don't think I learned anything for the first time at school until high school government class, and even then, it was only a very small portion of the curriculum that was new to me. My mother expected my brother and me to type annotated research papers, usung either MLA or APA style depending upon the subject content (on topics of our own choosing to make it at least a bit interesting and fun to us) the summer after we finished second grade. My dad had us differentiating between plant and animal cells under a microscope before we started school, and taught us the basic differences between normal blood cells and cancerous ones by the time we were in third grade. Other even educated parents might not have taken matters quite so far into their own hands, but they at least would have had their children visiting public libraries more or less weekly, and would have had their children reading and writing often enough to know if there had been deficits in basic reading skills, reading comprehension, or writing conventions.
When a teacher's deficits in competency lay primarily in his or her inability to treat children as children should be treated, even a parent most skilled at educating will not be able to undo the damage and remediate the moral and emotional support that has been neglected. It's very difficult to rebuild a child's soul after it has been torn to shreds. Teachers who do such damage are the very worst teachers on the planet and do not deserve second chances to destroy more children after having been caught damaging even one. God knows how many children such teachers have harmed before they are caught for the first time in the destruction of the fragile psyche of a child.
I had one teacher who was marginally damaging in this way. I was removed from his class because it was discovered that my parents were the sort who would not stand for such a shoddy excuse for a teacher. But what about those children whose parents were not the sort whom school administrators actively avoided offending? Why should those children have had to spend the remainder of the year under the tutelage of a man who did not like either children or teaching? He probably disliked me more than he disliked the average child in the class, but it's doubtful that he actually liked any child in the class. He was allowed to continue with his subtle yet devastating effects upon the very cores of the children who were unfortunate enough to be left in his care. My hope is he did not last long in the field of education . He seemed to dislike teaching in general and children in particular. My best-case scenario is that his dislike of the profession eventually drove him from the field.
I was moved after maybe seven weeks of the purgatory-at-best of the man's class into the class of a teacher who was probably not the brightest bulb on the Christmas Tree of Life, but she at least had the decency to smile at us once in awhile, and she acted sympathetic toward any child who was injured, ill, or upset. She had sufficient mastery of basic fractions, decimals, and long division to impart it to the students who entered her classroom not yet having mastered those concepts. On the rare occasion that she misspelled a word on the board and someone pointed it out to her, she politely thanked the child who pointed it out and quickly corrected it.
This contrasts sharply with Mrs. Moore, my fifth grade teacher, about whom I've written previously. Mrs. Moore appeared to like some of the children in the class, but for whatever reason, she held an obvious dislike for me. The problem may have had its roots in religion. Mrs. Moore was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. My father, though not formally excommunicated, is no longer considered a member of that church in good standing. My grandfather is an authority in the upper echelons of that church. Mrs. Moore may have decided that my entire nuclear family consisted of bad people.
Then again, religion may have been the very least of it. I can only guess what may have been going through Mrs. Moore's demented mind. I couldn't please her no matter how hard I tried. I soon learned not to point out any errors to her -- of which there were many -- because her face would turn very red and her features would become pinched, and she would find some reason to discipline me within the next few minutes following my having pointed out her error. In the grand scheme of things, though, academic content was the very least of any conflict between Mrs. Moore and myself.
Mrs. Moore didn't like my messy hair. Neither did I. I HATED my hair. I had been born essentially bald. What hair eventually came in was ramrod straight until one day when I was five. It had been a hot and humid night, and when I woke up, there was some curl to my hair, which we all found odd. Each day it seemed to get a bit curlier until it was somewhere between Shirley-Temple curly and a garden variety Afro without benefit of a perm. I had the tan that many children maintain through childhood, which is, I suppose, Mother Nature's way of protecting children from constant sun burns. My hair was wildly curly, My skin was bronze to the point of giving me an ethnic look, and my eyes were very blue. I had the look of a strangely bi-racial child. On top of my otherwise somewhat odd appearance, I was shorter than most children three years younger than I and had the build of a starving refugee. My hair was difficult to manage, and I hated the wild curls every bit as much as Mrs. Moore did if not more so.
My mother would attempt to French braid my hair, but however tightly she braided it, the job would last no more than an hour or so before the hair would begin to pull loose. My father discovered the miraculous invention known as a hair straightener and would painstakingly flat-iron my hair to straightness on mornings when he was home. As long as it wasn't foggy and I kept my head under an umbrella on rainy days, the straightening held.
My mother was not a morning person and did not have time to straighten my hair before school. I tried to straighten my own hair with the straightener, but I burned myself several times. Mrs. Moore threatened to call Child Protective Services if she saw one more burn mark on my neck or face. My family had dealt with CPS the previous year when a rather perverted and nosy girl had peeked over the restroom stall when I was using the school bathroom after I had sat on my brother's Mardi Gras beads all the way from Las Vegas almost to Fresno following a trip celebrating my uncle's birthday, leaving a string of bead-shaped red bruises along my bottom and thigh. The girl ran out of the bathroom and into the office screaming that Alexis had herpes. Instead of telling the little pervert to mind her own business, the school secretary had called CPS. This resulted in CPS caseworkers showing up on our doorstep the following morning, and in my having to show my nude bottom to them and explain about the Mardi Gras beads. I was forced to stand in a state of partial nudity while the workers compared the shape of the Mardi Gras beads to the marks on my skin to determine whether I was telling the truth about how the marks got on my skin. I wasn't eager for any sort of a repeat encounter with Child Protective Services, so I left the curling iron to my dad and let my mom French braid my hair when Dad was not home in the mornings.
On picture day of my fifth grade year, my father was in Boston, so I had a French braid job instead of straight hair that day. I tried extremely hard to keep my head still so that my hair wouldn't loosen itself from its moorings before our pictures were taken, but grades preschool through four had to take pictures before we did, along with sixth grade, as the 6th grade GATE students had to leave campus at 10:15 on Wednesdays. My hair looked like its usual mess by the time my class was set up to take students' pictures. At the time, I knew I could not have looked very good in the school pictures, but tried to dismiss the thought from my mind and tried not to dwell on it.
Mrs. Moore had made barely veiled comments about my appearance more than once. Several times she'd said things like, "At least one girl in this class is not pretty," while looking directly at me, "but people would think she was pretty if only she would be sweet and kind." I thought it may have been my imagination that she was looking at me as she made her remarks, but other girls commented on how she had been looking directly at me, I distinctly remember a girl named Jenna saying, "I don't understand why she keeps talking about how ugly you are. You're not exactly Miss America, but you're not THAT ugly." I really don't believe it was my paranoia leading me to believe Mrs. Moore was referring to me in her speeches.
I know I've shared this before, so don't read if you remember it and I'm boring you, but one day in early December the school pictures were delivered to our classrooms. Each child's portrait was displayed through a cellophane or wax paper-covered window in the packet. Mrs. Moore looked at each child's picture, then called the child forward to retrieve his or her child's packet. The child was allowed to decide whether he or she wanted to show his or her picture to the class. Most of the girls giggled and acted as though they didn't want anyone else to see their pictures, but then, upon coaxing, held their pictures up for all to see. Some boys showed their pictures in an "I don't care" sort of way, while others chose not to let anyone else see their pictures.
When Mrs. Moore came to my picture, she paused in looking at it, and her faced turned to a deep shade of red. "Don't you even own a comb?" she shouted, looking directly at me though not using my name. I looked down. She held the picture up for all the students to see. Most of the students laughed -- some rather nervously -- though a few remained silent. Some children develop consciences early in life and know when others are not being treated humanely. Mrs. Moore took the four or so strides needed to reach my desk in the back of the classroom. She slapped my picture packet down hard onto the surface of my desk, then stormed back to the front of the room. "I don't know why anyone would want those," she muttered about my pictures.
I somehow made it through the last few minutes of the afternoon without crying. When the dismissal bell rang, instead of walking to the cafeteria/auditorium where the after-school daycare program took place, I used the change I should have used for milk money that day but didn't to catch a municipal transit bus home. I found the hidden key, turned off the alarm, and let myself into the house. My mother was eventually contacted when I didn't appear for after-school daycare. The school was searched. When I wasn't found on the premises there, my mother came home to look for me. I was told that Mrs. Moore said nothing unusual had happened at school that day and that I hadn't seemed upset when I left for the day. Several students from my class in the after-school daycare program contradicted her account.
I was in the process of destroying pictures of myself from family photo albums when my mother unlocked the door to my room and found me. She got there just before I reached the next phase of my plan, which was either to cut my hair or to shave my head; I wasn't certain how drastic a step would be needed to rid my hair of its ugliness. That afternoon and evening, and after a few calls from other parents whose children had shared various stories of the happenings in the classroom, the chronicle of my entire year of psychological abuse at the hands of Mrs. Moore was divulged to my mother.
My father, who had flown home that evening, arriving after midnight, took me to have my hair chemically straightened the next day. The following day I returned to school, but not to Mrs. Moore's class. My family had moved earlier in the fall, and the initial plan had been for Matthew and me to finish the year in the previous neighborhood school within the same district, and then to make the transition to the new school the following year, in sixth grade. Instead, both Matthew and I made the move two days after Mrs. Moore's unconscionable treatment of me. I learned much later that nine parents had demanded that their children be moved from Mrs. Moore's class that week. In most cases, the children were not targets of Mrs. Moore's vitriol, but their parents either didn't want their children witnessing such cruelty or considered that if she could treat one child in such a manner, what was to prevent their children from being targeted next? Mrs. Moore was reassigned to non-classroom duties for the remainder of that year, and left the district at the end of the year.
The photographer who had been contracted to take pictures for the school district presumably heard about the incident, as the school district claimed to have had no commnication with the photographer concerning my situation. I have no clue as to how the photographer learned of the situation except that it was a not-terribly-large town in which news travels quickly. In any event, the photographer called my parents and made an appointment to come to my house and re-shoot my pictures. He also came to my new school and shot a class picture even though he had already taken a picture of that class on their school's picture day more than a month earlier. He wouldn't take any money from my parents. A deluxe package arrived in the mail less than two weeks later. My parents used the photographer's kindness to point out to my brother and to me that for every rotten person we'll ever encounter, there are probably at least two really good people, and that good usually (though not always) triumphs over evil.
My concern is that if Mrs. Moore had treated a child from the wrong side of the tracks in such a way, and if no child whose parents were influential had thought to mention any of Mrs. Moore's words or actions to them, her abuse might have continued for God knows how long.
Soon enough, I had the eye-opening experience of being in Mr. Thatcher's class, where an entire world was opened up to me, and where I learned that school was more wonderful than I had ever dreamed it could be, and that my only limitations in life were ones I arbitrarily place upon myself. I wish every child could experience Mr. Thatcher. I'm sure Mr. Thatcher was what God had in mind when God invented teachers.
Children from less than privileged backgrounds are in greater need of teachers with strong mastery of subject matter than are children of privilege. And all children are deserving of teachers who are decent human beings and who treat children with compassion. The vast majority of teachers in our school systems have a mastery of the subjects they teach.. The vast majority also are kind, caring individuals. More needs to be done, however, to cull those who are not deserving of the privilege of teaching children.
P.S. My next post will be about what was supposed to be the subject of this post before I was sidetracked, which was the wack job English teacher I had in eighth grade.