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February 09, 2010



Wow! So when I was watching "Freedom Writers" the other night, I was thinking, "This is dumb, there's no teachers who turn such a blind eye to their students." I mean sure some do, but I didn't think it REALLY happened, you know? Crazy. Needs to be more teachers like you around.


This reminds me of when I taught HS in NYC. I was in a small alternative school in a good neighborhood, with kids from all over the city, some the population you talk about at Booker T. Poetry was one of my favorite things to teach my students. They were often true artists with language (I thank rap and hip hop for that) and delighted in creating their own poetry books.

My other favorite subject was Shakespeare. Yes I got the "They won't understand Shakespeare" thing too, but I'm proud to say, they did. And by the end of my five years there, the whole school was excited by Shakespeare, and not one of them was afraid of it or intimidated by it.

But all that other stuff you talk about? That's why I'm not teaching anymore. Sigh. That happens a lot, I'm afraid.

Rachel O

Best job I ever had was running the prison school. Of course, our students were adults. But we did teach dictionary and other critical thinking skills. Often these adult students would argue with me that they didn't want to learn anything that they wouldn't be tested on with the GED. I regularly argued the benefit of learning how to learn. Maybe if they had learned that in middle school, I wouldn't have met them in prison.
Lovely article, my old friend.

Charles Conlan

Reminded me of an early episode in grade school.
The teacher beat the hell out of me for reading the book titled,"Battle Cry". I have wondered afar how many clones have been let unbridled to prey on other's.

Nancy H

That's insane. And infuriating.

That sounds like such an amazing creative exercise that you were trying to get the kids to do. I wish there were more teachers and administrators like you around.

How can kids learn or teachers inspire with that kind of climate in schools?

I'm so thankful to have had great teachers growing up, like Mrs. Galloway in 6th grade, who made us read through the major works of Shakespeare for the whole year. I didn't appreciate it at the time, but I very much do now.

It's a shame that educational policy has stripped teachers of incentive (and often permission) to teach in a creative way.

Leigh Shulman

The scary part, Candice, is how much MORE insane the stories get. I was part of a teaching seminar, and remember listening to some of the long time teachers who taught in some really tough schools comparing notes about losing students.

It's awful. Because as a teacher, you're required to report any abuse you see. But reporting abuse requires the student to accuse the abusers directly which often puts them in more danger.

I'm not really sure how to get around that, because you don't want parents falsely accused. At the same time, even if a student is taken out of an abusive home, the options are pretty limited.

It is nuts that this is a part of teaching.

Leigh Shulman

Yep, Rowena, that's exactly why I stopped teaching also. I considered getting certification. All I really needed to complete it was 2 years worth of classroom hours and to take the certification test.

But then I as offered a job teaching college and took that instead.

It's unfortunate that the best teachers end up too frustrated to teach. Or they burn out badly.

Leigh Shulman

Thanks, Rachel. I'm glad you enjoyed this article.

I've always wanted to know what teaching in a prison is like. Interestingly, it was my private university students who didn't want to learn anything not on the test or that they didn't absolutely need to know in order to get an A.

You might also be surprised (altho probably not) that quite a few of the full time teachers I met referred to their classrooms as holding pens.

I'd love to hear some of your stories, though.

Leigh Shulman

What did your teacher have against that particular book? Or were you simply reading at the wrong time?

Ironically enough, a teacher can no longer beat students. But clearly there are plenty of other issues.

Thanks for sharing your story. Whatever the case, I'm glad beatings are no longer allowed.

Leigh Shulman

Thanks for your insight, Nancy. And also your compliment.

I will say, my role as teacher was easier than being an every day teacher. Since I only saw the class once or twice a month, I became a good break for them from their normal routine.

I also wasn't required to follow the dress code of teachers at the school, so I arrived in jeans and t-shirts. I think they related a bit better to that than the 50 year old woman from NJ who was burnt out and ready to retire.

I also had a teacher similar to your Mrs Galloway. Mine was Ms Oliver, and she taught 8th grade English. My parents told her that I was bored in her class, so she made me write an extra paper every week on any topic I choose.

I also didn't appreciate it at the time. Now I get it.


This post really hit home for me, Leigh. As an 18 year old in college in NYC, I interned with Teachers & Writers Collaborative, working as an assistant to a poetry workshop leader. The classes we taught were at Booker T Washington.

I was only there for a semester, and I was so young. It was tremendously hard, some of the hardest work I've ever done, I think. I look back on it, and can't help seeing myself as a kid who tried but ultimately failed.

As you said, of the schools I saw in NYC, Booker T was definitely not the worst. But that belief that the students won't "get" Shakespeare isn't lost on the students -- whether they're told it or not, many of them seemed aware that's what the school system thought. And so they thought it too. Because of this, their sheer mental block was intense.

Have you ever read Kenneth Koch's Rose, Where Did You Get that Red? His belief, and the ideal that T & W inherited from him, is that any kid, even a 7 year old, can read a Blake or Wallace Stevens and get something very true and real out of it. After teaching this class, I really believe that. I don't think, in retrospect, that I had a ton to do with it. I think I was more a messenger than anything, someone that got the work into their hands.

Awesome you did that work for four years -- it's important, and I wish I had had something like that as a kid. You sound like a tremendous teacher.

colorado auto glass

Teachers should have a degree of academic freedom and encourage students to follow their passions, to think for themselves. That's how you let the students harness their full potential.

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