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 Harbeer Sandhu
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A Former Teacher Speaks

A Former Teacher Speaks
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Interview by Harbeer Sandhu
Art by Mark Williamson

AN is a former English teacher who taught for five years in two HISD high schools, each with populations where 90-96% of the students qualified for free and reduced lunch. This conversation started when I spotted this comment that she left on a mutual friend’s Facebook page, on a post about the cheating scandal at HISD’s Jefferson Elementary School.

AN: Personal anecdote about the impact of cheating on students and teachers: this past year I had several students who could not read placed into my 9th grade advanced-level English class based on their test scores from the previous year. (Their elementary test scores were extremely, extremely low, but their middle school test scores were stellar.)

These students did not thrive in an advanced-level/GT environment and spent most of their time trying to cover up their confusion and inability to comprehend the work by copying or totally disengaging. After identifying the issues, I referred the students for special-ed testing due to evidence of severe dyslexia and/or other issues.

Referring the students was extremely time-consuming and confusing because no teacher or administrator I spoke to at my campus understood the procedures for doing so. I was told by the special ed coordinator that I was the first person ever who had tried to refer a high school student for diagnostic testing. I was also told that there is no way a child placed in an advanced-level class would be tested for special-ed (which does not make sense, because some students who are labelled “gifted” are also labelled “special ed”). Eventually the students were moved out of the advanced classroom, but were not tested. The result is that the students made no learning progress, and they also felt the shame of being made to feel stupid by being placed in an inappropriate learning environment.

These are students who desperately need support and one-on-one attention in a small environment to learn how to read and write and to develop certain social skills. I am concerned about their lives after high school. Finally, their test scores will impact me—professionally and financially—since my evaluation and bonus are based on my students’ test scores in relation to their growth from year to year.

[From there we continued]

HS: As a former college instructor, I was bemused by how ill-prepared my students were. I could not believe that, for example, some of them handed in major papers where the word “dint” (didn’t) would make multiple appearances, where students did not know which words to capitalize and which words to leave in lower case.

AN: Was this at a community college or a 4 year university?

HS: It was a four year university with an open admissions policy.

AN: I was a college writing instructor for two years when I got my MA and students had issues with grammar and conventions. Not “dint” though.

HS: I had students who would capitalize their own first name and not their last. I had students who would capitalize or not capitalize words at random, like “United states of America” one time and then “united States of america” later in the same paper! And I wasn’t mad at them (Ok, I was, a little—that is almost deliberate laziness/sloppiness there!) I was mad at whoever signed off on their documents and lied to that kid and her/his parents and said s/he had earned a high school diploma.

I hope that doesn’t sound mean, but a high school diploma should mean something, that the bearer is capable of certain things. Capitalization of proper nouns is taught in first grade!!!

AN: Not all of those students were in the US when they were in elementary school. Also lots of students have unstable environments—at home and at school, which makes learning difficult.

HS: True. (At least some of them were indeed US-born, though.)  And I know first-hand about unstable environments. It’s true that just having space and time to do schoolwork is a luxury not available to all students.

AN: I always tell my students that grammar and conventions are important because people will judge you negatively if you don’t have those skills mastered—both professionally and socially. I do emphasize, however, that ideas, organization, and style are more important than grammar or conventions. Actually, something I really like about the STAAR test is that it tests grammar, conventions, and editing, as well as reading comprehension, literary analysis, and different kinds of writing. If teachers are held accountable for students learning something, they will teach it!

HS: I have never heard anybody say anything positive about a standardized test. This is a first.

AN: I’ve taught students who had to take the TAKS test and the STAAR test. The English I (9th grade) TAKS test, which my students took for four years, tested skills as opposed to memorized facts: reading comprehension, literary analysis, making complex inferences, making a reasonable claim, and using evidence to support a claim. The idea is that students can be dropped into a completely unfamiliar, grade-level appropriate text and be able to understand, think about, and write about that text in a number of ways. I always liked the test because I agreed that students should have mastered those skills by the end of the year. And the test was really so easy that we could fly above and beyond the test itself. For that kind of test, you don’t have to “teach to the test” because you are really teaching reading skills and critical thinking skills, which can be taught in so many ways that are helpful to students. The STAAR test is more rigorous, and it’s still being tweaked. It surely has problems, but I’ll let others vocalize those problems. Here are some things I like about the English I STAAR test: (1) it tests important skills, (2) it asks students to read and interpret a wider variety of texts than the TAKS (poetry, drama, expository, fiction, personal narrative), (3) it tests grammar, conventions, and editing, and (4) it requires proficiency in more types of writing, which pushes students further. From what I understand, the STAAR test functions differently between subjects and grade levels. I know that in social studies and science, the test focuses more on memorization rather than skills, which is frustrating to teachers of those subjects because it forces them to use every bit of their class time to focus solely on those tested facts.

To return to the subject of unstable environments, I had students who had absent parents (deported, ill, missing, incarcerated, deceased), who were sexually abused, who didn’t have access to health care (one boy carried a single eye glass lens around in a handkerchief, and he carefully unwrapped it when he wanted to see the board), who lived in unsafe housing, who were responsible for the care of siblings, who lived with family who suffered from alcohol and drug abuse, who were victims of violent crime, etcetera.

So those issues are the main things that affect learning, in my experience. The poorly-managed schools are also a problem, but poverty is the main problem.

Also some Spanish-speaking Hispanic American kids go to bilingual schools that are poorly managed, and their language skills are always a little weird as a result. I’ve seen that happen. I spent time on grammar and conventions every day, and was teaching—in addition to sentence structure—spelling rules and things to help the kids. Like “i before e except after c” and when to double a consonant if you’re adding “-ing.” These rules were news to my students. They practiced with games on the computer. I think I could do better—but I’m not teaching anymore.

HS: Well, that turnover is a big part of it, too, right? Not enough teachers stick around to really hone their skills; students are being taught by rookie teachers, year after year, because of the high turnover rate.

AN: High turnover, lack of investment of students, teachers, and administrators are all problems. That’s why, to me, school spirit, sports, and other activities are really important. Also collegial, supportive faculty relationships. At my first campus, the faculty were professional, friendly, and focused on helping students find success. At my second campus, the faculty were divisive, competitive, and ego-driven (for example, audibly mocking each other under their breath at department meetings). The administration dealt with teachers punitively, rather than offering support. I didn’t receive this firsthand, but I observed it, and it created a bad atmosphere. Teachers were demoralized, told that the school was “in crisis mode” by administration. Of the eight English teachers in my grade level, five teachers either quit, were removed from their post, or were terminated (including replacement teachers—one classroom had four teachers over the course of the year). That’s why I think school pride and and a collegial atmosphere are so important in keeping students—and adults—invested in the school. Like we are happy and proud to be here, rather than living in shame, apathy, or fear.

HS: Interesting. I would not have counted school spirit among helpful factors.

AN: I know, right. But it is incredibly important. Even if kids don’t think they care about it, it makes them feel proud of the group they’re a part of. Like being part of a family. As opposed to being stuck in a shitty ghetto school.

HS: Could you generalize that to any kind of pride in self? Mexican American Studies, for example, have been found to instill a pride in students that pushes them to excel—even among students who claim no Mexican or Latin@ heritage.

I, myself, have met Mexican American and non-Mexican American students who benefited tremendously from Tucson High School’s now canceled (due to politics) Mexican American Studies program.

AN: I think Mexican American Studies are a good idea for a lot of reasons, including that most of the students in HISD are Hispanic (more and more from Central America now, as opposed to Mexico). One can’t assume that a student will be interested in an elective course like that because they’re Hispanic, but I know individual students, for example, who have expressed interest in reading Spanish language literature. I think there would be a lot of interest. The bottom line is that students need to feel they’re in a loving, safe environment when they’re at school, where the adults care about them, respect them, and have high expectations for them. That helps children develop pride in themselves, each other, and their community.

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