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Story by MONIQUE FIELDS
© St. Petersburg Times,
There I stood, overdressed in a gray wool pantsuit, blue silk blouse and comfortable black shoes. At my feet was a royal blue bag filled with brain-teasers, my substitute teacher training notes, John Coltrane and Marvin Gaye CDs, paper, pens and Post-it notes.
There they were, all of 13 or 14 years old, wearing T-shirts with slogans such as "Boys Lie," using the f-word, chewing gum and thinking they knew it all.
"Take your seats," I started. "I'm Ms. Fields."
Half the class continued talking.
I started again.
Again, the chatter.
"Hush! I've got a few rules. When I'm talking, you're not. If you have a question, raise your hand."
Four hands shot in the air. I ignored them.
"You will respect me and your classmates," I said. "If you don't, you know I will warn you, send you to detention or write an office referral."
"Hush. I have some papers to hand out and then you will work on your journals."
"I've already done mine," a girl said, without raising her hand.
"Me, too," chimed in another.
"Yeah, we do those while we're waiting for the bell to ring," a boy informed me.
I took in a deep breath and exhaled.
What have I done?
That was what teachers at Dunedin Highland Middle School told me I was after principal Peggy Landers announced at an October faculty meeting that I would teach there.
Brave? They were the ones letting a reporter into the school for a week.
See, I felt I knew a little something about classrooms. For 12 years, I had sat in school, gaining knowledge about teaching. After college, I became an education reporter. Now I wanted to see the classroom from the other side of the desk -- to do what teachers do, feel what they feel.
We've all heard about the struggles teachers must face with unruly, disrespectful, MTV-era kids. But could it really be as hard as all that? Landers agreed to let me find out.
My assignment was straightforward: Teach language arts to 144 eighth-graders for a week, from Oct. 29 to Nov. 2, while their regular teacher was on medical leave.
Every member of the school staff, and all of my students and their parents, would know I was a reporter writing a story about the experience. Knowing that didn't seem to change my students' attitude or behavior.
I knew I would learn something from my time at the blackboard. I just hoped I wouldn't be the only one.
It is more training than subs received just two years ago, but it definitely wasn't enough for me.
The basic pay is $60 a day. Those with bachelor's degrees receive $65, and those willing to tough it out at a school where substitutes are hard to come by receive $85. I qualified for $65 but worked for free.
I made my way down the narrow corridor to Room 1-6 on a sunny Monday morning.
"Remember," Landers had told me, "you're competing with television, you're competing with videos."
No wonder my pleas for students to turn their books to page 132 and read Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart were met with resistance.
"I'm a slow reader," one boy said.
"I don't like to read," said another.
"I can't read," a third complained.
I rolled my eyes. This is the kind of thing a sub has to put up with.
When the 52-minute first period ended, I opened the door.
"Have a good day," I said.
The students rushed past me without saying a word.
I went out into the hall to direct traffic and watch the self-absorbed.
"See the one in the white shirt? That's him."
"Am I fat?"
"Can I put this in your locker until after next period?"
"This one is number 12," as in 12 girlfriends. "This one is number one."
"You get on my nerves."
"How do you get your hair to do that?"
No wonder it was so hard to teach them. One minute they were sweet and trying to belong, and the next, they were defiant and disrespectful. Some of the girls still played with dolls. At the same time, they had to maneuver adolescent minefields as they got their periods and developed breasts. Some of the boys were short and scrawny with girlish voices, while others were tall and giving Barry White a good run for his money. After fourth period, I had 30 minutes for lunch and 52 minutes for planning.
Shell-shocked, I asked teachers for advice on how to keep my classes quiet and focused on their work.
"Eighth-graders?" asked Rich Wisemiller, a sixth-grade science teacher. "There's nothing you can do. They are social. They have been together for three years. Plus, their parents have already told them teachers don't know what they're doing."
The sixth and final period of the day started well. The class silently read The Tell-Tale Heart with little or no problem. But when I asked them to answer the questions on their own, they squawked.
A hand shot in the air.
"What does sane mean?"
I explained and moved on.
Another hand. Same question. Again, I explained.
A third. A fourth. A fifth.
I addressed the class: "Someone who is normal, someone who has a sound mind, someone who is not crazy is sane."
Later that day, I asked their regular teacher, Jennifer Oliver, whether she thought they knew what sane meant.
"Sure," she said. "Their intention was to drive you insane."
We had a fire drill during second period. Somehow I managed to get all of the students out the door and back into the classroom without losing anyone. But precious teaching time was gone, and hardly enough was left to complete the journals or start a new assignment.
I was getting my bearings when a desk hit the floor. I saw a boy with a red face, and another pulling back his fist for another blow.
Right away I started breaking the rules I'd learned in substitute teacher training.
Mistake No. 1. Don't lose control of the class.
Suddenly I was in the center of it, and I had the tall, lanky one in a bear hug.
Mistake No. 2. Don't break up a fight.
Mistake No. 3. Don't touch a student.
"Get off me!"
"Don't fight me!"
I loosened my grip and ordered both outside. I followed them and closed the door.
Mistake No. 4. Never leave students unattended.
In the hall they flared up again, and I put myself, all 110 pounds of me, between them. I barricaded the lanky one in the corner and shielded him from the red-faced one.
The school's head plant operator was in the hall.
"Do you need an administrator?"
"Yeah," I said in defeat.
He pulled out a walkie-talkie.
An assistant principal investigated and learned that the fight had started when one called the other "fat." Disappointed I hadn't prevented it, I walked inside my classroom.
When the bell rang, I said goodbye to the students. A girl stopped at the door. Her name was Tiffany Yancey.
"Ms. Fields, I'm sorry we were so bad."
Passing one of my students in the hall, I greeted him with a warm hello and a smile. He bowed his head and mumbled something in response. Later I told another teacher that I couldn't get this student to do any assignments in class.
"He's been through a lot, several surgeries," the teacher said. "I think he completes some of his assignments at home on a computer."
"Oh," was all I could muster.
He wasn't the only child with grownup problems.
Forty-three percent of the students at Dunedin receive free or reduced lunch, meaning they come from relatively poor families. Administrators say many of them get their only square meal of the day at school. Poor nutrition can often lead to other problems, such as poor reading skills and bad behavior in the classroom.
A few of my students had grade point averages below 2.0, which meant they were on the verge of failing. Others had difficult home lives and were desperate for attention. They made indecent noises, constantly asked to go to the bathroom and blurted out wrong answers to questions when they knew the correct answer.
As I circulated the six rows of seats, I heard one student casually tell another that his brother was in jail. One of my students spent the period writing "sexy" over and over again on her notebook. When I asked her to stop, she snatched her pen away and wouldn't look me in the eye.
So what kept these teachers in the profession, some of them for more than 30 years?
"It's frustrating, but I love it," math teacher Kim Myers told me. Others told me teaching was all they knew how to do.
David Taylor had come to Dunedin Highland Middle School to teach social studies.
"But I realized I was here to be more of a social worker, someone to care and listen to them. Every time I think of leaving, the good Lord sits me right down and makes sure I'm here."
On Wednesday night I went out and picked up three foam boards, push pins and a cheap map of the United States. I also clicked on CNNfyi.com and found an article about skyscrapers and the effects the terrorist attacks may have on building design and architecture.
I got to school early and popped a Marvin Gaye greatest hits CD into my portable stereo. I scrawled a crude drawing of a skyline on the board and rearranged the room so that the desks faced each other.
This was the plan: Read and discuss a CNN article about skyscrapers, push pins into the map and illustrate how many cities have them, and, finally, debate whether to build them in the wake of Sept. 11.
Things went okay in the first two periods, but the kids really caught on in the third, an advanced class. As they read the article, I didn't hear anyone exchanging notes or talking about who liked whom.
I was amazed.
They like this.
When I asked them to name cities with skyscrapers, almost every student offered a suggestion. Atlanta, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Houston and, of course, New York. It took four days, but I finally had their interest.
Then they debated the issue:
By not continuing the American tradition of building skyscrapers, we are telling our neighboring countries that we are giving up, one group said. Terrorists weren't looking for physical height in buildings. They were looking for our national strong points like our war capital and economical capital. Others disagreed:
We think that we should never build another skyscraper because we will give terrorists more targets because they are high and can be hit by airborne objects to destroy the U.S.A. They will cost a lot of money, and they will make our taxes higher. In the end, the pro-skyscrapers groups won, with the exception of fourth period, which offered these arguments:
Skyscrapers are vulnerable to attacks, cost too much money, can result in a huge loss of life, will raise taxes, take money away from education, cause more destruction when they fall, pollute the environment during the construction, don't have enough escape routes, crowd the landscape and are made from flammable materials.
And I thought I couldn't get through to them.
At the end of the day, it appeared I'd done something right.
I stood at the door and collected my reward.
"Goodbye, Ms. Fields."
I woke up in pain. It hurt to swallow and to talk. Overnight, my alto voice had been transformed into a raspy baritone.
There's no way they're going to listen to me today.
My second try at using CNNfyi.com bombed in the first period. We read and discussed a story about books and how sales of some books had plummeted while those of Bibles and other spiritual works had skyrocketed. I divided the students into groups and asked them to create their own books, give them a title, explain why people would read them after Sept. 11 and develop a marketing plan. First period didn't take to it.
In second period I placed more emphasis on the project and less on comprehending the article.
By then, I didn't have any voice. I pleaded with my students and told them I couldn't talk very loudly.
The chatter continued. I sat down.
Tiffany, the girl who had apologized for her classmates' behavior on Tuesday, walked up to the desk.
"Are you mad at us? Because I want to learn," she said.
"What do you want to learn?"
"I want to learn whatever you're going to teach today."
I alerted the rest of the class that one person wanted to learn.
"Does anybody else want to learn?"
"Yes," they said in unison.
But the talking continued, and again I sat down.
"Tiffany, since you're the only one who wants to learn, come up here so that I can teach you."
She slowly pulled her desk to the front of the room.
Twelve others followed.
I was proud and disappointed at the same time. Proud that at least half the class wanted to learn. Disappointed that the students who are so often identified as reluctant learners didn't come forward. I have listened to teachers talk about how their minority children are not motivated and how they don't do well on standardized tests. I had always figured that the students needed a black role model. But there I was, and I wasn't making any difference.
Those in front formed a tight circle, and I dubbed them the Learning Group.
They read the article aloud. Then I asked each one to complete the assignment. When everybody was finished, they shared their ideas.
Most of the books were for people like them.
The Sept. 11 Tragedy: Understanding for Teens, a self-help book to help teens comprehend the attacks and put them in perspective.
The Truth: Four Kids Face the Truth for the First Time, a nonfiction book tracing the lives of four teens from Sept. 7 through Sept. 11.
Remembering the Twins, a historical look at the World Trade Center towers.
When the period ended, I felt guilty that I hadn't taught all of them. In substitute teacher training, I was told 80 percent of the students want to learn. In my second-period class, it was more like 50 percent.
I left school about 5 p.m. that day. I dragged my compact disc player and my bag filled with journal entries and student assignments through the empty hallway and out the front door. A group of boys and girls were standing on the sidewalk, exchanging insults about someone.
"Ladies and gentlemen," I said in the sternest voice I could manage, silencing them for a moment.
I walked to my car, giggling, and feeling pleased that, just for the moment, I was in charge.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.