If I could go back to the classroom…(part 3/the conclusion)

by guest contributor Jen Chau, originally published at The Time Is Always Right…

Here’s the conclusion:

Flash 1: Our date with destiny. I mean…the principal.
Conclusion: Paper cutting, Cave paintings, Jackson Pollack splotches, and quizzes.
Moral: Think creatively!

I had absolutely no idea how I was going to actually teach art in a way that would add value to my kids’ education. But what I didn’t initially realize was that art could open them up to so much more than just drawing…

1. Art became a vehicle for cross-cultural appreciation. I mentioned in part two that my junior high school students used racist language with me during the beginning of my time with them. Mainly, they called me an “ugly Chinese b—-.” If I didn’t make it clear before, I will say it again — teaching is not for the faint of heart. I knew that my kids were saying this to test me…to see if I would become rattled…not necessarily because they had such dislike of me — they didn’t even know me!

This gave me the sense that my Asian heritage would become this consistently sore subject — that if I didn’t address it in some way, that it would always be something that would be thrown at my face in this kind of hostile way. I wondered if the hostility came from initial disappointment. 99% of my students were Latino and/or Black, and many of them assumed I was Latina until I announced my name — Ms. Chau. I definitely didn’t want to negatively reinforce their behavior by paying attention to their racist language, but what kind of message would I be sending if I merely ignored it? I had a feeling this could be a teachable moment — especially because my kids said that they never really knew any Asians aside from the delivery guys from the Chinese take-out on the corner (multiple students relayed to me that they would call, make orders, then once the delivery men arrived at their door, grab the food without paying and push them right back out. Not sure if this was actually true or if it was told to me in an attempt to intimidate).

So I decided that one of our early art lessons would be on Chinese papercutting. I came in to work with a small cd player, some Chinese instrumental music, and lots of paper…to cut. :) My students filed in and immediately started conversing, not really paying me any attention, as they did with most of their teachers. I didn’t try to quiet them, I merely walked to the front of the room and pressed play on my cd boombox. At first, my students laughed and ridiculed. I’m pretty sure I heard some “ching chongs” thrown out…But within just a few minutes, they had completely settled down and started to really listen to it as they worked. I drew a few Chinese characters on the board and explained the meanings — they copied these to make their paper cuttings, and before I knew it, they were asking how to draw more and more words from the Chinese vocabulary. We had a great first class. They saw that I wasn’t about to shy away from claiming my Chinese heritage, and they began to respect it. Throughout the rest of the year, I continued to get requests for more knowledge of Chinese culture and art, and actually played the cd frequently. I think that both my students and I learned some valuable lessons in exploring difference — mainly, that you might actually appreciate that which isn’t familiar to you…but there’s no way to know until you check it out!

2. Art could be an interesting lens through which to teach about history…and many other things!
The papercutting lesson and a couple others came before I was actually meant to be teaching. Me and my cohort members were supposed to observe and develop our curricula for a few weeks before actually teaching, but because of a teacher shortage in my school, I actually got the go-ahead much earlier. I was given a package of faded blue construction paper, a handful of crayons that were broken in halves and thirds, a pat on the back, and told, “Good luck.” I needed a bit more than good luck and some busted crayons if I was actually going to have a successful art curriculum for the year.

I started teaching while I was still developing my curriculum, but the idea came to me suddenly one day. I would teach about art, using different techniques that were used throughout history. So this would kill two birds with one stone! I would teach about art, and about history! I also incorporated some reading comprehension into every lesson — I would present the students with a little blurb about the type of art we were going to explore at the beginning of every class, and we would do some popcorn reading. I would also give them a couple of math problems to do after reading the passage (e.g. “How many years ago was so-and-so artist born?” — It sounds elementary, but this was the level on which my 7th and 8th graders were operating. No surprise when they were mostly allowed to wrestle each other in the middle of the room during Math class).

After the opening, I would show the students the art project we would do for the day, demonstrate techniques, and then allow them to get their hands dirty! I played music for many of the classes, as we all found it conducive to the work. In the last ten minutes of the class, I would quiz the students on what they learned. This was met with a lot of resistance at the start, but in just a couple of weeks, my students became eager for them. Who doesn’t want to feel like and see that they are learning? My hope was not to make them tricky, but merely ensure that they reinforced all that we had learned during each class. They allowed me to assess whether or not my students were taking in the lessons. The students who had been tagged “difficult” by other teachers were some of my most interested and engaged students. Clearly the acting out was a reaction to a feeling of frustration. My classes were structured (they always began and ended with the same activities), and my students typically left feeling accomplished. The wonderful realization for me was that art would open my students up to so much learning. Subjects that typically elicited moaning and groaning – math, reading – appeared to be more digestible because they came in a more creative packaging. This can be a lesson for any teacher.

One of my favorite classes was really the first of my curriculum. I taught my students about cave painting, which is the earliest known form of art. This was the one lesson in which it worked to my advantage to be in a classroom with no windows :| — I turned it into a cave! I had all of the lights turned off, but I had a couple of clip on lamps that hung by the doorway. I taped butcher paper up, completely covering the walls from ceiling to floor, and placed a big pile of charcoal in the middle of the room. I knew this would go well because I opened the door and my students filed in with, “What the–?” I think one of the most important things I did as a teacher, was to pique my students’ interest and make them curious about learning. During our reading portion in the beginning of the class, I showed my students what some of the earliest drawings looked like — mainly pictures of animals — bisons, snakes, etc, and they re-created all of it. It was hard to get them out of the room that day.

I would say that the next favorite was the day I taught them about Jackson Pollock. I stayed late to clean up that day. :)

Flash 2: Marble notebooks to the head.
Conclusion: The tables are turned.
Moral: Consider a school’s culture when you act.

I was pretty dumbfounded after leaving the class where the teacher was hitting one of her autistic students on the head with his own notebook. How could writing crookedly warrant such a reaction? Directly after the class, I went to go see the principal. I felt pretty sure about needing to candidly report to her what I observed. Thinking back, I should have addressed the teacher first, but at the time, I just wanted to get out of there. I arrived at the Principal’s office to find the Assistant Principal there. Now, keep in mind, this is my first day observing this school. I had no idea of the politics or school culture. If I had, I would not have talked with him. I guess I was pretty distraught because he saw that I needed to talk and I didn’t want to push him off just to wait for the Principal. I figured he would talk with her once I let him know what was on my mind. I told him that I had seen this specific teacher hitting a child and he said he was very concerned and would deal with it immediately. He assured me that this kind of behavior was not appreciated in this school. I felt somewhat better…

…until I learned that directly after I spoke with him, the AP went directly to that teacher to let her know that I had ratted on her. When I checked back in later in the day he said that he decided to get her side of the story and told her all that I had told him. She of course responded that she had done no such thing. And so it was her word against mine. Did I mention it was my first day? I guess I didn’t stand a chance. My eagerness and determination to protect the children there got the best of me and I acted before understanding more about the administration, more about the school, more about how my reaction would be received. I became quite the outcast – the bad guy in the situation – news of my “tattling” swept the school and all teachers kept their distance and remained pretty suspicious of me for the first few months of my teaching there. It was extremely disappointing that the school handled the situation in this way. I learned later that this teacher had been using these kinds of “techniques” for some time, and that the Principal and AP basically turned their heads to it. I am really not sure why – whether it was their desire to support her in order to “keep the kinds in line” or whether they were afraid of her. She was a pretty big bully. After about six months, she started to become friendly with me, but she would still yell in her classes and act roughly with the children. I think this is one thing that finally really did me in as a teacher – seeing violence in my schools but not having much power to change it.

Just a note – staff on student violence was rampant in my junior high school (much worse than the elementary school mentioned above), and I found that the administration similarly turned their heads to it – again, it became the only way that para-professionals could discipline the students. I worked this situation differently though – I learned my lesson from my first day at the elementary school! I was able to enforce a no-violence rule in my classrooms. I basically worked my way to having a good rapport with the paras with whom I worked, and explained to them that I couldn’t have shoving, pushing, hitting, or punching in my class. They agreed to it and respected my way of teaching, but let me tell you…as soon as the paras and my kids crossed the threshold from my classroom to the hallway, the rules of the school would immediately take over again. I swallowed this for as long as I could…and I tried to get help (more on this in Flash 5), but really felt powerless with this as a new teacher – me against a whole culture and a whole staff who solved by yelling and hitting – it was extremely difficult to see my way through it.

Flash 3: A class of under-achievers.
Conclusion: Escape! And a depressing interaction with my professor.
Moral: You have to have a hand in your own learning to ensure that you get the tools, knowledge, and resources (this includes like-minded educators!) you really need. Also, PLEASE do not become an educator if you want to half-ass things. Seriously. The last thing we need in a classroom is an adult who doesn’t really want to work too hard. Teaching effectively is just about the hardest thing you can do (in my mind), and if you are not willing to really push yourself and your kids, don’t bother.

So I was in class, and after screaming “NOOOO!” (completely overshadowed by the 70-something other Yeses) to my teacher’s question of whether he wanted us to go over both the questions and answers to our final exam, I got up and left the room. I was surprised at myself for just jetting, but it was my natural reaction and it felt like the smartest thing to do for myself at the time (I was pretty heated). I just couldn’t sit there. I knew that with each question, I would get angrier and angrier. I didn’t want to sit through it. And it wasn’t just that I didn’t want to go through this tedious and wasteful task along with the rest of my class…I was literally disgusted by the whole thing – and I am sure it was so enraging to me because I was in a room full of educators. After class, the teacher asked me to stay and it was the most depressing thing – he looked beaten, had his head slightly turned down – as he explained to me that he has to do things this way because people in the class aren’t really here to work. He thanked me for my “energy and interest,” and said that he was glad I was in his class – but that he had to really cater to the majority. So depressing…should we really hold teachers to such low standards? Shouldn’t we be pushing educators in the same way that we plan to push our students? It was disheartening that people who were clearly being lazy about their own learning were also currently teaching our children.

This was one of the last classes that I took towards my MA in Education – Instead of getting so disgruntled and discouraged; I should have taken this as a major sign that I would have to get resources and knowledge on my own. Unfortunately, I think that this was too overwhelming for me to attempt at the time.

Flash 4: “Why are you smiling?”
Conclusion: I stood my smiling ground.
Moral: A little smile goes a long way.

My smiling – just a little smile – actually threatened the anger that was such a big part of the junior high school. The students were angry, the teachers were angry, the parents were angry, the administration was angry. It was clear that everyone felt trapped in what seemed like a hopeless situation. On top of that, there was no real leadership to encourage everyone to see it otherwise. I may have been the only one smiling, but I continued to do so because I did see the positive effects.

There were only occasional fights in my room and most students were attentive and engaged. There was even one unintended consequence – students began to get into the habit of running into my classroom to seek refuge when they were not engaging in their other classes, or when they were trying to escape a fight. While this made me feel good – I was gaining the trust of the students and they felt safe in my room – this didn’t make me nearly as popular with the other teachers, and I was concerned about what the students might be missing wherever it was they were supposed to be. It was pretty common for me to leave my classroom, shut the door, go to the office to make copies for my next class, only to return to find a few students now inside, quietly drawing. They would look up, a bit bashful, and ask, “Ms. Chau, can we stay here? We want to draw with you!”

I firmly believe that a school’s culture could really make it or break it. What if all teachers had taken the same outlook and decided, you know what? Let’s not focus on the fact that we have no windows, barely any books or pencils, let’s do our best to teach our kids! Well, I guess in order to get to that outlook, we needed all of the teachers to believe that these kids were actually worth our trouble. I know that many of them were resigned to the idea that our students were incapable of achieving, so they too gave up. The belief that they could actually make it wasn’t one that many people held.

While some thought I was crazy for being happy in an under-resourced school with “out of control” kids, it was the only way that felt right. Children deserve to learn in a pleasant and happy atmosphere. If we are giving them anything short of that, we aren’t doing them justice.

By the end of my time in the schools, I wasn’t able to smile anymore. This really confirmed for me that I needed to go.

Flash 5: You have now entered the Twilight Zone.
Conclusion: I couldn’t get back out.
Moral: The system isn’t going to be perfect – know that going into it and don’t be shocked (ok, so that’s not too ground breaking!).

So, as you’ll remember from Part 2, the trainer from the DOE had been lecturing a large group of new teachers about the importance of standing up for all children – that if we were to witness any child abuse, that it was our absolute duty to do something about it. During the lunch break, I asked him for advice regarding the really violent junior high school where I was teaching, and he told me to basically ask for a transfer. This made me feel like I was in the Twilight Zone…wasn’t he just telling us to do the complete opposite, and fight for our children’s welfare at all costs?

After the lunch break was through, he started the second half of the training. And just as I suspected, he started saying all of the same things…getting really passionate and demanding that any teacher unwilling to protect their students leave the room immediately and quit teaching. I couldn’t stomach his hypocrisy – I mean, what good is all of the preaching if he wasn’t practicing it in action? I raised my hand.

He called me, I stood up, and I said something to the effect of: “I have a question. During the break, I talked with you about my school where there is a lot of staff-on-student physical abuse. You recommended that I ask the superintendent for a transfer to another school. I don’t understand, since you are telling us th…” and he cut me off there.

He said (with impatience, and a tone that conveyed how-dumb-can-you-be?-didn’t-you-hear-me?), “No no no…you misunderstood, young lady. I said, make sure that you document everything that is happening at your school. You need to be prepared with dates and exactly what is transpiring…” And at that moment, *I* zoned out. I can’t really explain what happened to me right then (it was definitely straight out of a movie where the person keeps talking, but everything is muted and in slow motion). I can confidently say that this was really the moment where I decided I would have to leave teaching. I thought that this was one person who would surely be able to help me, as he trains all teachers on child-abuse prevention. Once I saw that even he wasn’t willing to take a risk, or really recommend that I should (someone who was clearly up for it!), I gave up. I knew that I was in big trouble when someone from the DOE told me to turn the other way and save myself. This on top of my professor recommending the same, my fellows program telling me not to rock the boat, and everyone acting like it was no big deal. I was confused and started to question whether I really could have an impact. At the time, I didn’t feel strong enough or prepared to go up against all of this.

I realize now that if I had known the extent to which our educational system was damaged, I would not have held it to such high standards. : | I would have gone in with a more realistic outlook on what I was getting myself into.

If I could capture how badly our schools need fixing in one quote, here it is: “Your job as a teacher is to actually be a bouncer, a warden…keep these kids from killing each other. That’s all. They’re not going to learn and they’re not going to go anywhere. After all, we need someone to work at McDonald’s. We need someone to be the janitor.” This was said to me by someone from the DOE. Is this really what we hope for our children? Our children from low-income underprivileged communities? I know I expect more than that, and we should be enraged by the idea that anyone should decide for another person his fate (especially based on what he has already been given). Just because the kids I taught were poor, mainly of color, some ESL, everyone had written them off. This kind of thinking needs to change. All children should be given the tools to succeed, regardless of background.


I am happy to be working towards this ideal now, via an organization called New Leaders for New Schools. I am pretty sure that I might still even be a teacher if I had had a New Leaders principal leading my schools. For the two years in between teaching and starting at New Leaders, I had a recurring dream about my students. I was back in the classroom, and there were no problems. Unfortunately, it was a dream. But the thought of it all haunted me and I knew that I would never feel at ease until I was contributing to education in some way. After being behind the scenes and seeing just how much help our schools needed, I would not be able to forget it. We still have a lot of work to do, and New Leaders is trying to answer a lot of the questions.

Writing down all of these memories has gotten me thinking again… maybe one day I will return to the classroom, but with a bit more insight and even more understanding about the challenges that lay ahead…

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