Saturday, January 26, 2008

The school system

Well, I guess updating this blog every week was a big fat lie. We'll just have to see how often I can do it.

I've started working as an on-call emergency substitute teacher in the Burlington-Edison school district, and hopefully I will be employed by the Mount Vernon S.D. by next week as well (since
only having on-call jobs in one district is making it difficult to work often enough). Being back inside our public school system for the first time really since I left it upon graduating high school in June of 2000 (was it really 7.5 years ago? My God...) has given me an interesting new perspective on all kinds of things that I took for granted or didn't notice when I was a student.

As a substitute, your main challenges are to maintain order in a room full of 30 kids who are urged to make trouble by childish impulses or raging hormones , to understand and adapt to all the unique rules and standards in your various working environments, and if you manage the first two, to try and follow along with the absent teacher's necessities as closely as possible so that they don't lose a day with their kids doing nothing in the hands of an inept substitute teacher. I never imagined it as being a particularly stressful job, but it is somewhat, because managing other peoples' kids feels like a pretty big responsibility and once you find yourself in that role, it's hard not to worry about whether or not you're doing it as well as you possibly can. As with most things in my life, the biggest challenge is not taking myself too seriously.

Our public schools in and of themselves are really fascinating environments, and have a significance that most people probably don't think about. Our whole social order in miniature lives within every one of those buildings, complete with government, laws, criminals, and justice. In fact, it seems to me that the real purpose of public schools is less to educate children about the physical reality of the world than to imprint them so strongly with the norms and rules of our social system that when they emerge, they'll be able to function instinctively in our society.

Take for example the simple act of sending somebody to detention. A wrong of some kind is committed in the classroom and the teacher, acting as policeman, writes down the kid's crime on a piece of paper and removes him/her from the rest of the class, where he/she goes to sit in an office somewhere isolated from the rest of the group and watched by a school official. In order to get out, the student usually has to talk to the school official and provide some kind of justification as to why they know what they did was wrong. It's almost exactly like sending an adult to jail and releasing them through a parole hearing.

Another interesting thing is the way teachers are isolated from students both socially and physically. We don't use the same bathrooms, don't relax in the same spaces and don't discuss sensitive topics with them. The whole effect is to discourage kids from thinking of their teachers as normal, fallible human beings whose ideas can be called into question. A little more disturbing even is the way the school faculty extends their influence through willing "student leaders" who often act as representatives of the school among their colleagues.

Don't get me wrong, a functioning modern high school of 1200 kids is a miracle of social control. Given the parameters, I don't think the situation could be any other way. There aren't enough teachers, and the basis of the our education concentrates too much on the intellectual, and not enough on the human, development of children.

All this makes me think that the old feudalistic model of making society function through the more powerful controlling the less powerful hasn't really changed as much as we'd like to think. We've just gotten a lot more subtle about it; better at it. Is it possible to have schools, or a society in general, based on caring and human relationships rather than a controlling outside force? Does man's nature even allow it? I know one thing for sure; we're not going to find out anytime real soon. There's just too damn many human beings in the world.


At 6:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, Gabe, all I got to say is, you learn fast. Great post. Can't wait to talk with you about it in person!

nos vemos,

At 4:03 AM, Anonymous Zaida said...

Good for people to know.

At 11:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Be careful what you post - this is the first time I've seen your blog and its a year old so hopefully you've made it to MV - you are far better off there -

BESD is under investigation. They were teaching intelligent design for 10years despite threats of lawsuits. Now BESD is facing insolvency. This is big. With any luck the state will take over. There are a lot of jobs and futures at stake.


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