For five years in the early 1990s, I was privileged to work as a counselor and teacher at a small, private residential school in suburban Philadelphia. The 60 students (40 girls, 20 boys) ranged in age from 13 to 18, and came from varied economic, ethnic and racial backgrounds. All had been removed from their families by the courts after suffering physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse. All were diagnosed as SED (Severely Emotionally Disturbed), and many were on psychotropic medications. Nearly all had grown up streetwise and cynical.
The facility was wonderful, especially considering that it was funded on a non-profit basis. Formerly the mansion of a very rich benefactor, it included six dormitory-like cottages, the school (complete with full gym and cafeteria), a swimming pool, grassy wooded grounds, and an infirmary building which also housed both nurses and a permanent staff of therapists.
I chanced to apply for work at a time when the school needed a biology teacher. My duties rapidly expanded to include teaching math, algebra, geometry, and environmental studies (a course I designed myself) -- as well as filling in for other teachers in all disciplines as needed, running the school's nascent computer lab, creating and maintaining school records, and creating preadmission academic evaluation tests.
But this school environment was behaviorally on another planet, since all the kids were struggling with PTSD, depression and other intense emotional issues, over and above the raging hormones of adolescence. For me, lesson plans were futile, since any class period was bound to be disrupted by arguments, a fight, a time out for counseling, or a student needing to be passively physically restrained by staff until he/she regained control.
So I taught off the top of my head, following only a general course outline, and since I knew the material well, it worked. I was able to adapt each day's teaching to take advantage of questions raised, and to tie in my course material to other classes to show the relevance of it all to their world. Most importantly, I both modeled and expected from my students two attitudes -- respect and affection. Even on those dark days when affection wasn't possible, respect was always a requirement. By keeping it real at all times, being firm, fair and consistent, we all created together a thriving learning environment.
Because I had creative latitude not often enjoyed by teachers in public schools, I was able to introduce a variety of learning games, field trips and animated discussions. There was a clear correlation between my performance and that of the students. If one learns a subject best by teaching it, I learned a great deal -- not just about academic subjects, but about the learning process itself. Being their counselor/confidante as well as their teacher enabled a bond of trust and respect to develop over time. Whatever their academic records, I always held out to my kids my faith and expectation that they were brilliant -- and more often than not, their self-confidence grew and they rose to the challenge. The faces and personalities of my students remain vivid in my memory to this day.
A few were beyond our help -- kids too deeply into gang culture, or too deeply hurt by life. Most used their time with us (varying from one to three years) for gradual healing and growth. Our small staff (seven teachers and a handful of aides) was overworked, underpaid, and uniformly dedicated to their work. Professionals, one and all.
I was reminded of my time as a teacher by Bob Herbert's excellent column in today's NYTimes, in which he describes "program elements" (class size, curriculum, school size, length of the learning day) as being not nearly so important as having talented and passionate teachers. The focus of Herbert's column is a woman named Deborah Kenny, who has developed successful charter schools in Harlem. Her understanding of the supportive and challenging environment which fosters great teachers, and her understanding of the clear, attainable goals she presents to her students, are nothing short of inspirational. I share her world view of education completely -- "It never crossed Ms. Kenney's mind that a rich and abiding intellectual life was out of the reach of kids growing up in a tough urban environment." Bravo ! !