March 12 2007

March 12

One Teacher Can Make a Difference 

Before I continue on with my favorite things and people, I want to focus this entry on one particular person who I hope people – especially parents, teachers, and politicians too! - will pay attention to.

I’m sure some of you know who Erin Gruwell is. She’s the teacher who Hillary Swank portrays in the recently released movie, Freedom Writers. In 1995, Erin began her teaching career at a high school in Long Beach, California. Her class consisted of a diverse group – African-American, Asians, poverty-stricken – all mixed in with...


Caucasians from upper middle-class neighborhoods (this, a result of busing).

Hers was the class of kids “no one else wanted” – the troubled ones (many were gang members by age 14) with bad attitudes, arrest records, and horror stories before they were 16. Society had already written them off. The other teachers and school officials did nothing to give these kids one ounce of hope for a future that didn’t include drugs, jail, pregnancy or death. These adults in their lives, who were supposed to help them find their way in life, assumed they were not worth helping. They fully expected them to drop out by 10th grade, and that they’d never amount to anything.  

And like most perceptive kids, they knew it. And behaved likewise.  

Through her unique brand of teaching (and a lot of heart, coupled with energetic ambition) this dynamic English teacher won the kids over and got them interested in great authors. She taught them to be proud of their heritage and respect others’ differences. She taught them about the Holocaust so they could understand that fighting among others and labeling people can produce disastrous results that last forever. She also got them to learn how writing can save you. That the mere act of writing down your true thoughts and feelings is oftentimes the best therapy one can get. And it’s free.

So they began writing journals and called themselves, “The Freedom Writers,” after the Freedom Riders of the 1960s civil rights group.  

Erin Gruwell is my hero. 

And the timing of this movie—and the books, “The Freedom Writers Diary” and Erin’s memoir, “Teach With Your Heart,”—was apt because my daughter is having trouble with one teacher who seemingly hates her job, and doesn’t much like her students, either. It’s not the first teacher my daughters have complained about in the course of their academic years. The first time it happened, my one daughter was still in elementary school, and the teacher was so angry all the time, she was making the kids hate learning. But upon my talk with the principal, I basically learned that one parent’s complaint does not produce change. And most parents feel they don’t have the means, or the power, to question this kind of authority. Sad, but true.  

Before I go on, let me say that I have the highest regard for teachers, who are at the top of my list that includes nurses and librarians—all who work hard to improve the quality of life.

And I know how kids can be. They can be disruptive, argumentative, and make a classroom miserable by their attitude and behavior. And that’s precisely why I respect teacher’s positions. I’m lucky. I teach adults – who not only want to be there, but pay to be there.

However, when the teachers reflect the same bad attitude as their students, not much gets done. And what is done, is often damaging to the kids who all need, and deserve, a good education—whether in a public or a private school.  

I’ve known some excellent teachers, and they are the ones we should bless and thank God for every night—even if you don’t have school-aged children— because they are influencing a whole new generation. They should be hailed, supported, and awarded. Many are, and that’s good. It’s so important to honor great work. It gives people pride. And more energy to do more great things. Which can be contagious. 

I’ve always taught my children to give their teachers that due respect. But there are some who don’t deserve it, because they clearly don’t want to be there, and are not respectful to their students. And it should go both ways, don’t you think? 

So when I had a conference last week with this problem teacher, I was first in line. She was late. Seven minutes. She dropped her stuff on the table and handed me a sign-in sheet. She did not apologize for being late (but I know she reprimands her students for this very thing), despite other parents in line who were a bit perturbed by her tardiness. Apparently, her lack of respect extends to the parents as well.

Our talk produced no great result. There was no apparent concern on her part, no “I’ll talk with her and see what we can work out.” She placated me by assuring that my daughter “will be just fine,” despite the threatening letter I’d received in the mail about my daughter’s grade. 

The interesting part came a few days later when I was relating my story to another parent with kids in college. “What’s that teacher’s name?” When I told her she screamed, “Oh, not her! She is just terrible!” The woman proceeded to tell me that ten years ago her son had many of the same problems that my daughter has experienced, which basically came down to a horrible attitude toward the students, and a clear dislike for her job - which ultimately affects her teaching abilities. 

Who’s Doing the Evaluating? 

I teach at a community college, and literary center, and I have to pass out evaluations about my performance at the end of every one of my courses.  

And every time I, my kids, or husband, go to the doctor, we receive an evaluation form in the mail asking us to rate our experience – on the physician’s knowledge, ability, interest, and attention to us. And whether the physician explained everything we needed to know in a way we understand it. 

I have never received any such form from my child’s school or the school board.

And why not? Why aren’t parents and students given the opportunity to evaluate their teacher’s performance?

I do feel children of all ages have a right to voice their opinions. And sure, some grievances will not be warranted. But there will surely be some valid complaints that should be addressed.

But I wonder, do administrators even care?  

Is anyone doing any evaluating when it comes to our children’s education? 

Why are these D- teachers allowed to continue to make themselves, their students, and parents miserable day after day, year after year, decade after decade until they retire, leaving a legacy no one should be proud of?

Have they ever thought how wonderful it would be, to be remembered as someone’s “favorite teacher who really cared?”  

Striving for that should be on every teacher’s personal syllabus.

And I don’t mean winning a popularity contest by catering to kids’ whims.

I mean simply doing their job and doing it well. That’s the kind of popularity that changes lives. Produce honorable adults. Can even change the world …  

No wonder schools across the nation are in trouble. It doesn’t all have to do with money. It has to do with heart. 

That’s why Erin is my hero. I saw her speak at the Cleveland Public Library this past Sunday. She had the capacity crowd in the palm of her hand. She was interesting, captivating, and a great storyteller. 

Just like any good teacher.

Just like those we name as our favorites. 

I just wish there were thousands more like her.  

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Till next time ….

Thank a teacher.

I mean a good one.