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This is a Test

written Saturday, 3/25/2006

This is only a test

Monday saw the start of Louisiana’s standardized testing week. Statewide, schoolchildren of various grades spent up to four days testing to determine if they will advance to the next level in the coming year. For high-schoolers, this meant taking the Graduate Exit Exam (GEE) in subject areas of math, English/language arts, social studies, and science. Students need to pass these tests by their senior year in order to receive a diploma. Freshmen need to pass the iLEAP exam to move on to 10th grade.

I expected this week to be somewhat of a vacation for me. To a certain degree it was, since I had no lesson plans, tests, or assignments to write or grade. The ninth grade homerooms took their exams throughout the mathematics hall. During actual testing, life was generally calm. However, the ninth grade tests were less extensive than 10th and 11th grade tests (Most seniors didn’t have to test). Once the freshmen were done with their exams, the administrating teachers became babysitters for up to a couple hours until all grades had finished their tests. As one may suspect, adolescents with no assigned work can become rather rowdy.

I was fortunate enough to be assigned the role of hall monitor, instead of a test administrator. My job was to “move along” loiterers in the hallways, who were supposedly on restroom breaks. A few times each day I had to escort troublemakers to the “discipline” room to complete their tests. I also watched over classrooms as teachers took breaks to use the restroom or turn in completed tests to the office. During these moments, I gained some self-assurance that my classroom management skills are not bad for a first year teacher. All classrooms became raucous upon completion of testing, and some teachers (mostly older women) struggled to keep any semblance of control. In multiple instances I found that students responded to my orders more than they did for their administering teachers.

I used to worry that my soft-spoken personality might undermine my authority. Fortunately I’ve found that any softness in my demeanor quickly erodes in the presence of children behaving like animals. If anything, the rare spectacle of a nice guy raising his voice startles students into realizing that they’ve crossed the line (Remember the New Mr. White?) I stepped inside one noisy classroom on Tuesday to politely remind them of strict rules against talking during testing. When the administering teacher called me in again the next day, I sternly barked out orders to stop behaving like elementary schoolchildren, and “handle your business like mature young adults.” If I had to return again, I warned, someone would be removed from the classroom. They briefly whined about why I was “fussing” at them, but then proceeded to finish their testing without any further disruptions.

Can’t we all just get along?

This week, there were more fights on campus than usual. Four occurred on mornings of the tests. I had to wonder, why would anyone choose such a stupid time to settle a score with another student? Were these kids who already felt they had no chance of passing the test, and therefore had nothing to lose? I hate to stereotype, but were these delinquent kids from Orleans parish? Or, more likely, were these just immature kids who haven’t yet developed any rational sense of actions and consequences?

One of the altercations took place on Wednesday, just before homeroom. Student traffic was even more congested than usual as I turned the corner of the math hallway. From my viewpoint above the students, I saw the commotion right outside my classroom. I pushed my way through the crowd to find two girls and a boy shrieking obscenities at each other. (I didn’t know any of the students). A third girl appeared to be trying to calm one of the girls, so I instinctively turned my attention to the boy who was continuously ranting “F--- that ho!” I pushed him about thirty yards down the corridor until he finally turned and stomped away, still shouting. I returned to find the girls still at each others’ throats. I had been warned numerous times not to get in between two fighting girls, as they tend to be more relentless in their attacks. Furthermore, male teachers need to consider their own risks for being accused of inappropriate physical contact with female students. After one skirmish of slapping and hurling threats, the girls briefly separated. A female teacher and I took advantage of the break and stepped between the two. I backed one of them into the classroom across from mine. As she furiously tried to push her way around me, I cautioned her against assaulting a teacher. Eventually the discipline deans arrived and took the girls away. I helped usher the rest of the students to their classrooms.

I later heard that the altercation stemmed from a supposed neighborhood incident of gunshot fired at the boy, whose girlfriend was now confronting the female cousin of the alleged shooter… or some wild mess like that. In the end, all three combatants were arrested for fighting in school.

This week turned out to be more stressful than I expected. I followed each workday with a long nap. Oddly though, I found a pleasant surprise amongst all the drama and commotion. Whether barking orders at rowdy classes or breaking up a fight, it caught me off-guard to see students obeying me in such high-stress situations. After witnessing these same students ignore and disrespect other teachers, I wondered why they didn’t treat me the same way. I’ve got my theories. I imagine it has something to do with my height, gender, age, and race – advantageous traits that I can’t really claim credit for having selected. However, I’ll also give myself some acknowledgment for having picked up effective techniques for dealing with teenagers over the past six months of teaching. Rather than keep questioning why these kids listen to me, I’ll just appreciate it when they do.

Final grades

The third quarter just ended, and I’ve finished calculating grades. One might not guess from the numbers below, but I actually softened quite a bit. The number of As is four times what it was for the 2nd quarter, although still not particularly great. I ratcheted down my grading curve another notch, and about a dozen students ended up passing in spite of woefully poor math skills. In those cases, consistent attendance and attempts to do classwork allowed them to squeak by with a D. If I had stuck with my idealistic high expectations, dozens more would have failed. This school system is broken, and I just didn’t see my assignment of more Fs as a step towards fixing it by myself. Too many students entered my class hating math, and already feeling incapable of succeeding. This will be the last math class that a lot of them will ever take. If they gave a sincere effort and demonstrated at least some miniscule amount of learning, should I really punctuate their report cards with an F? Thirty-nine students who made little or no effort still got the failing score they deserved, so I’ll be able to sleep just fine with this distribution of grades.
# of students

No Teacher Left Behind

I knowingly chose to enter this profession, in this part of the country, so I don’t spend much time complaining about how little money it pays. Nonetheless, I think the following chart (distributed by Jefferson Parish Public School System) helps illustrate how pathetic a schoolteacher’s starting salary is in southern Louisiana. It’s not really a fair comparison, since this graph shows average salaries, but still…

Hold the cursor over the image to see where a starting JPPSS teacher with a Bachelor’s Degree appears on the chart. Click on the image to see the complete poster.