Back to School? Not for Me.

A teacher confronts the limits of passion

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On a lonely stretch of Interstate 5 somewhere north of Bakersfield, my close friend of 35 years turned to me and said, “So, if you could do anything you wanted, how would you fix public education?”

I had been bending his ear for a long string of empty miles, bitching about the stack of problems I face in the classroom. But he wasn’t trying to get me to quit whining. He really wanted to know.

And I couldn’t tell him. I opened my mouth, emitted a monosyllabic excuse for language, and promptly shut it again.

• • •

My reason for walking out of the high school classroom after five years is that I have no answer to my friend’s question. I have no clue how to improve my own classroom, let alone all of public education.

The suspicion that I don’t make much difference despite 70-hour workweeks and a true love of teaching has been steadily creeping up on me for the past year.

Why, I began to ask myself, do I have a 90 percent pass rate in my far more rigorous 10th-grade honors English classes but only a 25 percent pass rate in my basic 10th-grade classes?

A proximal reason is that honors students work; kids in the basic class don’t. But many educators would argue that this means the teacher isn’t doing enough to get kids excited about the material. This is the greatest argument in the world for me to make a dignified exit, because I can’t do any more than I’m doing.

• • •

The overwhelming majority of my students love me. I realize this sounds completely immodest, but I get this feedback not only from my students, but also from their parents, from my administrators, from students who have never had me, from students who hope to have me and from other teachers.

I got it this June from a kid who, as he walked out of the class on the last day, pulled me in for a man hug and said, “Mr. Rice, man, I know I failed you class, but you still my nigga.” Which is, I suppose, a form of love.

Meanwhile, I’ve had graduates come back and tell me my class was more rigorous than anything they’ve experienced in college. One girl wrote me on Facebook: “Thank you, Mr. Rice, for making us read ‘Allegory of the Cave.’ It came in handy for my philosophy lecture today, you have no idea.”

I’ve also had plenty of kids tell me multiple variations of, “You’re a great teacher Mr. Rice, and I learned a bunch of stuff in your class. I mean, I know I failed because I didn’t feel like doing any work, which was totally my fault, but when I went to take my GED, what you taught me really stuck.”

Great. It reminds me of what Churchill said about Dunkirk, “Wars are not won by evacuations.” It doesn’t matter what I do if half the kids who evacuate my classroom aren’t getting credit for having been there.

And despite the fact that every day for the last five years I have pressed my raw energy into service, a burning core powered by years of life experience and stacks of accumulated knowledge, I can’t seem to make any difference. Those hard-charging kids in my honors class would have succeeded without me, and I didn’t make any quantifiable difference to those in my basic class who still failed despite my best efforts.

Look, it wasn’t like I thought I was going to fail. I confidently strode into teaching. After 25 years in the U.S. Air Force, I held a great security clearance and had achieved the apogee of any enlisted career: E-9, Chief Master Sergeant. I had completed a bachelor’s in English cum laude, a master’s in education and accumulated two decades of experience in training and guiding young airmen. I think I had good reason to be confident and even a bit cocky about my prospects in public education.

• • •

I was hired by principal Bob Gerye at Spring Valley High School and stepped into my own classroom on Jan. 17, 2007. The first-year teacher I was replacing had quit.

By the end of my first semester teaching, Gerye asked me to join the leadership team, a small cadre of teachers who work together with administrators to improve educational outcomes. I went on summer break energized and excited.

Throughout each subsequent school year I could feel my lessons getting leaner, more concentrated. I worked on critical thinking, the students’ ability to present themselves coherently, to tell good stories, to argue intelligently and effectively, to spot bullshit when they read or heard it, and to open their minds to the vast panoply of human experience.

However, it takes work to become a better communicator and thinker. More work, it seems, than many of my students seemed willing to do. Fail rates in my second year of teaching didn’t improve. I wasn’t about to compromise my expectations or inflate grades, but perhaps I was pushing them beyond what was required.

I went to seminars, read academic papers, talked to my colleagues and listened carefully to my students. I pulled back on some requirements, strengthened the educational scaffolding on others. For five years I kept at it.

I expected my honors kids to keep up reading outside the classroom. They dove into focused small-group work, general classroom discussions and textual analysis. They wrote essays and reflections, dialectical journals and structured arguments. They dug into texts and pulled out implied cultural values from all over the world and wrote and acted their own plays. And they flourished.

For the kids in my basic classes, progress was measured in tiny increments. I allowed them to use notes on all exams, because this would allow them to connect what they were discussing and being taught and structured application. I required no reading at home, in part because most of them told me they wouldn’t do it and in part because I wanted to help guide them through the material.

Still, it was too much for many students. They asked for word searches instead of readings. They expressed their desire to sleep. One girl came to class drunk, her vodka in a plastic water bottle. A boy passed out on his table, knocked out on Xanny bars bolstered by way too much ibuprofen.

Then there was this sort of conversation:

“Hey Peter, let me talk to you for a second. I noticed you bombed your proficiency exam. What’s up?”

“Aw man, I looked at the paragraphs they wanted me to read and I said, man, that’s way too much work. Fuck it.”

“So what did you do for three hours?”

“I dunno, just slept.”

• • •

Every year I have a few kids who excel in my basic English class. There are always one or two really bright kids who took the class because they didn’t want to be bothered with an Honors workload. Then there are the kids with intellectual impairments. Some of them work hard and most often score solid B’s. The same goes for the hard-working English Language Learners, who often move from virtually zero ability to leaving with a second-semester A.

Those who are passing, even the ones who need to work especially hard to overcome a disability, routinely ask me, “Mr. Rice, how can anybody fail your English I class? It’s easy.”

And I give them the same response I gave my friend as we cruised up the I-5: I don’t know.

It would be easy for me to shift the responsibility: kids these days, parents these days, state legislatures these days, not enough cash, class sizes through the roof, single-parent households, the economic troubles, cultural anti-intellectualism.

So what?

The district is paying me to teach despite those impediments. Parents are expecting me to get their kids ready for the greater world, and I am only doing it at a rate of 50 percent. I am literally doing a half-assed job.

It has been rightly observed that teachers are crucial to the future of our society. That they cannot accept failure. That no kid should slip through the cracks or be left behind. I agree, and I recognize my limitations. I have let far too many slip and left far too many behind.

I therefore respectfully submit my resignation.

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