Monday, March 08, 2010

Reflections: My Posse Don't Do Homework

LouAnne Johnson is a former Marine Corps Officer and a journalist in the US Navy who restarted her career as an English teacher, aspiring to teach at a University. In the course of her certifications, she took up a part-time job teaching high school students English in a California public school. She is assigned to a class that held the terrifying reputation of having harassed and driven away multiple teachers in the past, the most recent of whom had burst into tears and fled out of class. With trepidations on one hand, and enthusiasm in the other she walked into a class full of stubborn, closed, boisterous, obnoxious, and defiant teens who try as they might couldn't dampen her spirits. Instead, they inspired in her the unwavering grit to make them learn and reform them for the better. In this book, Miss. Johnson recounts her real-life encounters with "problem" teens, sharing her strategies, challenges, frustrations and extremely inspiring and moving experiences.

In the Hindu tradition, a teacher (Guru), is highly revered and is regarded to be a life-altering influence in the pupil's life. Respect for the teacher was implicit, and their command and authority were unquestioned. With such cooperation, discipline and obedience in place, the Guru could concentrate on imparting lessons and molding the pupils. But in recent times, respect is no longer implicit for anybody. Without the stringent enforcement of law, even basic respect for fellow human beings cannot be assured. Knowledge is no longer as isolated and concentrated in the heads of a specialized few. Besides, education is now a service. One pays, the other delivers. With little respect and discipline, unfortunately, a teacher's foremost task is to establish trust and respect, before delving into any serious teaching. With unruly kids who don't hesitate to insult and harass, and who don't seem to care about their grades or future, the task gets exponentially harder. We have all witnessed many such scenes with fellow classmates. We have seen such students being verbally abused, "punished", failed, and tormented, all in a vain attempt to discipline and reform. Yet, every year the same events unfold until everyone reaches a dead end, gets tired of flogging and being flogged at and there is unanimous resignation. Indifference sets in. The teacher no longer cares if anyone learns, and the belligerent ones no longer have to try to care.

In all these years of countless classes and numerous teachers, I can remember only a few... the rest no longer have a face, or a name, until memory is sufficiently squeezed. These few stand apart from the faceless crowd, not necessarily due to their exceptional teaching abilities, but because they truly cared, supported and helped. Miss. Johnson is one such a teacher. Rather than blame, criticize and get disheartened, she always took the initiative to first understand the student, their personality, and the life they led. As in most public schools, the "less-ambitious" students were cooped into a different set of classes. Most of these students hailed from the low-income minority communities. When forced to voice out their lives, we see how riddled their lives are with emotional abuse and poverty. If an adolescent grows up in an atmosphere that demeans their self-respect and motivation, corrodes their perception of the world, and demoralizes their spirit, why would they care about a homework in class? The bigger problem is getting one meal a day and escaping a beating from their step parent. These students put up vile defenses to guard off their inner insecurities and vulnerabilities. Their defenses cannot be broken down through meaningless punishments. Teachers like Miss. Johnson turn their world over by first offering them emotional support. It's miraculous how people turn over a new leaf, if given the right encouragement, acceptance and trust.

The stories are full of hopeful, sagacious and inspirational techniques. The most crucial trait that sets teachers like Miss. Johnson apart, are their abilities to adapt and innovate. If one technique of reinforcement doesn't work, they try another, and another, until they get through to the students. They never give up, nor do they keep butting against a dead end. They have the right knowledge of psychology to apply them at the right instances. In the journey, they erase the line between them and the students, get accepted as one among them, while still commanding respect and admiration. They realize that forging such a bond of trust and acceptance is a culmination of plenty of tiny steps, and they patiently work on their steps like dribbles of water trying to erode a stone. Tagore says, "Not hammer-strokes, but dance of the water, sings the pebbles into perfection."

But not every story is a success. She relates her experiences of students with whom she could never reach through. The bitter truth dawns - we can't help somebody who does not want to be helped. No matter how far we reach out into the waters, we can't pull someone out unless they try to hold onto our hand. Parents and guardians also play a significant role. Without any cooperation from them, some students continue to deteriorate. Despite such emotionally draining experiences, Miss. Johnson has still not given up. She continues to help hundreds of kids make a decent life. I truly envy such a satisfying profession, wherein one can retire to bed with the contentment of having touched someone in a significantly meaningful way.
In Miss. Johnson's words, "For every student who slips through the cracks, a dozen or two dozen step over the cracks and walk out of high school with a diploma in one hand and a dream in the other. It's these kids - the ones you don't read about in the newspapers because good news doesn't sell - who keep me coming back every year to my lopsided wooden desk, my crumbling bulletin boards, my outdated textbooks, and my own handful of dreams."
My lofty (and often scoffed at) ambition is to be able to do something as constructive with my life and career. Stories such as these galvanize and encourage it further.

Through the book, she also highlights the discrimination, unnecessary politics, power play and stagnant policies present in schools. Constrained by rules, policies and skeptic higher authorities, she has to fight many battles for her students. Each battle reiterates her commitment towards her students. As a former journalist and an English teacher, Miss. Johnson's writing is impeccable. Her words are touched with humor and insight. Her frustrations are palpable. Her genuine care and persistent dedication to help students advance in their courses, and in their lives, make us reminisce on our favorite teachers who made a difference to our lives.


Sanjini said...

Amazing book and subject. I think this will be the next book to read for me if I can lay hands on it.

Neeraja said...

I think the book is still in print. It is also available under the name "Dangerous Minds".