Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 5.7]

One of the last classes I took before starting my dissertation was a course in the socio-economics of education. The professor was brilliant and he took a critical theory approach to the historical and current paradigms in education. He was passionate and discussed reality, really connecting with his material and with us. It was in this class that any remaining idealism and naïveté I held about the possibility for education to be the “great equalizer” was exposed and obliterated. I came to believe that education couldn’t actually equalize opportunities for the majority of people from different socioeconomic backgrounds like I’d hoped it could.

I knew from Bridget McDunn that social class—particularly your parents’ status and influence—mattered to one’s success on an individual basis. But my experiences with her were so personal I hadn’t generalized them to society and our institutions. And I hadn’t thought much at all about how other groups, like minorities, were affected by American politics and racial biases. There was a culturally (white) accepted way of behaving in school to really “make the grade,” and some kids simply weren’t given the cultural capital to survive in it, especially considering there is often a “hidden curriculum,” which is white-biased, bordering on racist.

I also learned that way too many teachers default into the field of education due to low grades in their chosen field or because they really just want a career where they don’t have to work in the summer. It never occurred to me that many of the students I taught didn’t necessarily have a true desire to teach and inspire the children of the world to learn.

If that wasn’t depressing enough, I learned our public schools are really huge bureaucracies that burned out the teachers who did care and had become merely a mechanism to perpetuate the status quo. Politicians who were not sensitive to all these issues were killing teacher ingenuity and student creativity by forcing standardized tests on them and then grading the teachers and schools based on the students’ scores on the test. A friend of mine teaching in a Title One school put in far more effort and “heart” than her counterparts in an affluent school district. Yet every year she received an “F” as a teacher because she couldn’t close her students’ gaps fast enough. Forget the gains she did make and the personal mentoring she gave them; those things weren’t measured on a standardized test. On top of those challenges, teachers were being asked to care for kids with cognitive and physical disabilities and a host of other emotional and behavioral problems, yet they weren’t provided with adequate support or services. What could these teachers do?

So, every topic in this class was simultaneously eye-opening and depressing to me. There didn’t seem to be any way to fix it either, considering the power of politics and social class. And it could get even worse if schools became privatized for capitalistic gains. Because of this class, I read more critical theory books about classism, racism, and the bureaucracy of American education, and that led me into the politics of Ralph Nader and books about evil corporations and corrupted government. I soon became convinced our democracy was an illusion; our government was really ruled by the rich and the corporations, and they were going to control education to keep the masses as “dumbed down” as possible—so they could stay in power and get richer. A veil had been lifted.

Disillusionment set in. Was I really teaching things that would matter in the end? The rich were going to get richer, and the poor were going to get poorer. At first, I tried to add more realism into my teachings. I felt future teachers should be aware of the real issues out there so they could attempt to educate themselves about them and mitigate them somehow. I changed my method of teaching from mostly lecturing to discussions and case studies. I started bringing in real teachers to talk about classroom management and kids with special needs. The more energy I poured into it, though, the more “war stories” I heard and the more drained and hopeless I felt.

Then, I began to develop a cynical and suspicious view of my students themselves. They didn’t seem to grasp the severity of the problems, and they didn’t seem to care much about fixing them. They still skipped class and really only asserted themselves when it came to arguing about their grades. It began to bother me more and more when they showed up late or with a hangover, or skipped class altogether due to Homecoming. They skipped class on the days guest speakers were scheduled, until I started telling them I would test them on the content.

Now I constantly thought, These are the future teachers of America?

I also felt like a hypocrite, because knowing what I now knew, you couldn’t have paid me to work in the K-12 school system. I couldn’t see how I was giving them a damn thing that would make a difference. They were all going to have to get out there and learn for themselves how to survive. They were all going to have their hearts broken, watching the system fail them and the children they cared about.

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