Thursday, May 8, 2014

Where We Teach

The good news? I get to be in just one school next year, instead of splitting the year between two. The bad news? I'll most likely still be teaching in a gym--if I'm lucky. Since I'll be at that school all year, there will be at least one semester of overlap with a PE teacher, who will have a better claim on that space than I do. The sad news? On June 11, I will say goodbye to all the students at Hartley School, and probably not see them again.

This is a sad reality of being a music specialist in an economy that does not support arts education. When core curricular concerns take all the top priority spots in a budget, music quickly takes on a vagabond status: we'll find work for you if we can; if not, we can always use good subs. And when we do find work for you, be happy to have a job. Keeping you in one building long enough to form relationships, giving you an adequate work space, providing you with all the materials you need to do your work, giving you a daily schedule that makes sense--all these things take a back seat to the privilege of simply having a job.

And then there are the children we get to work with. The Reynolds School District is home to some of Portland's poorest neighborhoods. Most of the children in our schools are on free or reduced lunch, and have breakfast at school as well. Much of what we do with these children is as much social work as education. At the meeting Monday afternoon at which I was told I'd be full-time in one school, the administrator running the meeting kept repeating a simple refrain: "We know where we teach." Those words summarized the many harsh realities of working here: buildings in disrepair, overcrowded classrooms, long waiting periods for materials and equipment, and above all, children who come to us with challenges we would rarely, perhaps never, encounter in a middle-class suburban or bedroom community school district. It's not for everyone, and many, once they realize just how hard it can be, find work elsewhere.

I had an inkling of this reality before I ever came here to teach full-time. In 2002-3, as I was easing back into the education world after a seventeen year absence, I subbed in every Portland area district except Portland (which is hard to break into). Much of my time was spent in the poorer districts to the east and south of Portland proper: Reynolds, David Douglas, Centennial, Parkrose, Gladstone, Clackamas, Oregon City, Gresham-Barlow. I also subbed in the suburban districts of Riverdale, Lake Oswego, West Linn-Wilsonville, and Tigard-Tualatin, and bedroom community districts on the 99W corridor including Sherwood, Newberg, and McMinnville. I discovered some key differences in student behavior among those districts: middle school and high school students were more likely to be respectful if they came from middle class backgrounds, while those from upper class backgrounds (West Linn, Lake Oswego, Riverdale), and those from lower class backgrounds (ever district east and south of Portland Public) were far more likely to act out, often giving the impression they just couldn't help themselves. My first year of full-time music teaching, I was placed in a school in Aloha, a lower-income part of the Beaverton School District. While acknowledging I was still extremely inexperienced at classroom management, and was finding my way as an elementary general music teacher to boot, my principal that year told me again and again that Aloha Park School was a "steep learning curve."

Apart from income levels, all the poor neighborhood schools had another thing in common: diversity (a quality not shared by the upper income schools). The student bodies in these schools had far more English language learners, and not just Spanish-speakers; there were students from eastern Europe, Africa, and southeast Asia. That has been the case in both the schools I've worked in this year, though much moreso at Margaret Scott; Hartley's population is more typical of a bilingual school, with many Spanish-speaking children.

Children in these schools often get most of their nutrition met by the school. Many of them are in an extended-day situation, where an after school program continues their care until late in the afternoon. Many come from single parent households, or households where extended family takes up much of the parenting. Some are technically homeless, living with family friends or in a relative's spare room or, in worst cases, a car. Their parents may be unemployed, working at minimum wage jobs with night shifts, or earning money through activities that come under the purview of a vice cop. They may experience a long string of "father" figures. And their diets at home may consist mostly of junk food. There's a strong possibility their older siblings belong to one of the gangs who frequently tag school property. They may also be up far later than is advisable for young children, and be exposed to television and internet entertainment that is in appropriate for their age.

All of these factors generate misbehavior in the classroom: acting out, socializing, fidgeting, inability to hold onto an idea for an entire class. Couple that with the environment in which I must teach--a huge echo chamber with a constant white noise generator and a smooth wooden floor that cries out to be slid across--and it's amazing I don't have more behavior issues than I do; or, more likely, a testament to the good work done by their classroom teachers and the rest of the school staff of continually teaching and re-teaching expectations.

So yes, I do understand the realities of where I teach: the challenges, the frustrations, the added stresses. But at the same time, I choose to teach here. Yes, in the beginning, I took the job because it was the only one offered to me after four years waiting for a full-time elementary music gig. As I've detailed in this blog several times, though, the rewards of teaching these particular children are manifold.

Start with the fact that almost every child who comes through the doors of the gym is thrilled to be making music: to be moving, singing, clapping, drumming, playing whatever instrument is the lesson of the day. They're so eager that there's often no stopping them. They'll pound the rhythm tubes on the floor, blast ear-piercing squeals out of their recorders, spin until they're dizzy before I've even had a chance to turn on the music we're supposed to be moving on. As one of my Orff mentors, Ric Layton, likes to put it, they're practicing. Telling them to stop runs counter to one of my desired outcomes: that they're intrinsically motivated by the sheer act of making music. I don't have to force or trick them to engage in my subject matter, as I might if this were a math class. They come in wanting to make music. If I wasn't in a giant echo chamber, I could let them get away with a lot more of it. Unfortunately, at some point I need to get the pounding and squeaking to stop long enough to teach a concept or two, and that's where I find myself defeated again and again by the space. But I've got to love the enthusiasm.

Second, these children are far more liberal with shows of affection for me than the children at any schools I've taught at before. I haven't had as many hugs at Hartley as I did at Scott, but they do happen. There are plenty of high fives in the hallway, and any child I pass, whatever age, is quick to smile and say, "Hi, Mr. Anderson!"--or "Hello, Music Teacher!" These children understand that the teachers are here for them, that we care about them and are working hard to make their lives better. They may resist our efforts at discipline, but in the end, they know we're on their side.

And finally, whatever their situation in life, however more likely they are to misbehave, whatever the challenges of facilities and equipment: they're children. Life has not yet taught them to be bitter, cynical, jaded, to shut out the cold harsh world. They're playful, friendly, cheerful, and when they're not, it's because something is wrong.

Don't get me wrong, there are days when they utterly wear me out. This evening, I found myself taking a 45-minute nap after dinner. Often when I drive up to the house, I have to sit in the car for a minute, gathering the energy to get out and go in. Sometimes I have to pause and close my eyes for a few minutes before I can even do that.

As they used to say about the army: this is the toughest job I'll ever love. Finally, at 53, I'm doing real ministry, work that makes a difference in the lives of hundreds of children. Sure, it would be much easier in Beaverton, Tigard-Tualatin, Lake Oswego, West Linn-Wilsonville, or (holy grail of every Oregonian educator) Portland Public, where I'd have the facilities, the equipment, the budget, and the better-behaved kids. But this is where I teach, and these are the children I teach; and I can't imagine doing it anywhere else.

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