Personal Reflection

How I lost my first job as a teacher

Typically, these posts are 800 words or less. However, I’ve missed a post – so I’ll make up for that with a double-post today. I hope you enjoy it.

My first teaching job was as an ICT teacher at a small secondary school in one of the most-deprived areas in Cincinnati. We were a “Title One” school, meaning we received federal funding so we could provide free school meals to our pupils. 100 percent of our students received free school meals.

The school had a certain ‘reputation.’ It was regarded as a “Black” school, when in reality, 70 percent of the students were white (Appalachian). Perhaps the low-income profile of the area shaped people’s perceptions – even the teachers. On my first day, a somewhat grumpy teacher with a heavily-stubbled face and wrinkled sport coat asked me if I was here to “change lives.” Caught off guard, I said “I suppose.” He then shook his head and, turning to walk away, said “there’s no point Smith. These kids are just hillbillies with afros.”

There were many excellent teachers who devoted their lives to the school, its pupils and their families. At the same time, the school often seemed permeated by an exhausted sense of resignation – a sense that this was a poor school, in a poor area, full of poor people and there’s nothing we can do about it, so there’s little point in getting an education.

At this time, both my pupils and I were growing restless with the curriculum. It felt pointless and distant. “Pretend you’re the CEO of a Landscaping company. You’ve just received a shipment of Widgets. In this lesson, you will use Excel to inventory your latest shipment of Widgets.” This was usually how a new section in the textbook began, and it was soul-crushing.

This was my second year as a PhD student, and I had been reading Freire, Giroux, Kincheloe, Apple and McLaren (among others). I was intrigued by the “promise” of Critical Pedagogy, and the longer I worked with my pupils, the more I felt this approach could transform their schooling experiences into educational experiences. “Today we’re going to have a political debate” I said, much to the pupils’ surprise. We used technology like Word, PowerPoint and HTML as part of the process, turning our “pointless” curriculum into one that included our local politics and everyday experiences, as well as national and global issues. We wrote letters to politicians, created posters on issues in the community and engaged in “real talk” about life in and around our school.

The Aberfan disaster

Throughout our discussions, I began to see similarities between the Welsh Valleys and our little corner of Cincinnati. Both had an industrial past that resulted in a polluted environment and economic disadvantage, but both also possessed a strong sense of community and connectedness. It was October, and I thought my pupils would be interested in the story of Aberfan and the community’s response to the disaster. We watched a film on the tragedy and the pupils were intrigued. They were particularly inspired when the Aberfan community took action against National Coal Board and fought in memory of the children who died and the future of those who remained.

A few days later, I waited in my classroom for my pupils – but they never arrived. Concerned, I went downstairs and found them sitting in the main corridor of the school. “What are you doing?” I asked. “We’re protesting!” they replied. “Like you showed us!” I was shocked. It turns out a pupil was supposed to sit on the Board of Governors, but the Superintendent refused to allow it. “We decided to do what the people in Aberfan did and fight for our rights” the pupils said.

I asked them if they understood the consequences and if everyone had consented to the plan. They said they did. I then returned to my room in case some of the pupils decided to come to class. There was no one there. A few minutes later, a pupil arrived…

“Hey, K-Swizzle” (that’s what he called me), the Principal says he’s going to mark us all truant.”

“Well,” I replied, “ he can’t really do that because school regulations say you just have to be on campus, not in the classroom, so just remind him of that rule.” The pupil smiled and dutifully went downstairs.

I kept in contact as best I could, but I had other classes to teach, so was splitting my attention between my classes and the protestors. Periodically, a protester would show-up, say the principal was doing something and then I’d respond saying he couldn’t do that because of a particular rule or policy.

Around lunchtime, another pupil appeared.

“Mr Smith,” she said, “the principal says if we don’t go back to class he won’t feed us lunch.”

“Well…” I replied. “Remind the principal that we’re a Title One school, which means our funding is dependent on the school providing you free school meals. Tell him that if he doesn’t provide you lunch, he’s in violation of federal law and can lose his school funding.”

Her eyes widened. To be honest, we were both a little nervous. “OK!” she said and headed downstairs. Some of the other teachers approached me, concerned that the pupils weren’t in class. “I agree,” I said. “They should be in class, but they should also have their position on the school board.” Throughout the day, my fellow teachers and I discussed (often argued over) the pupils’ decision (and right!) to protest. Is this in their best interest? What are the ramifications? Does this ‘undermine the authority of the school?’ Are the pupils learning an important lesson about power and voice?

Other teachers and I would periodically check-in on the students, to make sure they were ok. Of course, they were, but it wasn’t long until the principal, who was red-faced and more than a little flabbergasted, appeared in my room.

“Mr Smith,” he said severely. “We need to talk.”

We sat down and discussed the situation. He demanded I tell the pupils to return to class. I told him I had already recommended they do so, but that this was their decision. I suggested that if he wanted them to return to class, he should discuss the matter with them. Initially, he refused. I think he felt discussing the issue with the pupils was akin to ‘negotiating with terrorists,’ but as the protest continued throughout the day, he and the superintendent eventually came around. They spoke to the pupil who organised the protest and asked her about their demands. Eventually, they offered the position on the board to the pupils, and the pupils held a vote in the corridor to see who should take the spot. The young woman who organised the protest won the vote, and much to the chagrin of the principal and superintendent, joined the school board.

Throughout the remainder of the year, the pupils would often reflect on their experience. Their faces beamed when they reminisced over their protest. Our classroom discussions were invigorated. Our ICT projects, from creating PowerPoint presentations to digitally recording hip-hop and rap songs, took on new dimensions – including their hopes, concerns, and attempts to make sense of how the local and the global intersect in the day-to-day lives of our corner of Cincinnati.

Time marched on, as it always does. The pupils left and the corridors fell silent and still. When the next school year began, I learned the pupil had continued to serve on the Board of Governors throughout the summer, and when the pupils returned, they asked me if I remembered the protest. We laughed as they reminded me of all the times they came up to my room for advice.

It was a joy to see my pupils learn and grow. In the previous year, they engaged in the planned curriculum and learned how to use technology as a tool in achieving larger aims. They thrived in the enacted curriculum – one in which they took an active part – showing leadership and determination in changing the course of our studies, and in introducing us all to new and uncharted territory. They also revealed elements of the hidden curriculum, challenging the assumptions of schooling, of voice, and of power. They also revealed aspects of the null curriculum – dimensions of schooling not explicitly or implicitly taught. The lessons learned from these experiences continued to influence and shape the way my pupils and I taught and learned with each other.

In reflecting on the experience, I can only describe our remaining time together as vibrant, caring, trusting and more “aware.” Were there still difficulties? Of course there were. We still faced many challenges that arise between teachers and pupils in schools, and these were often exacerbated by additional challenges that come with working in communities experiencing extreme deprivation – but things were different, and in many ways, better.

Shortly after the beginning of the new school year, I was called into the principal’s office. With a bit of a smile, he told me the school district had decided to not renew my contract. This would be my third and final year at the school. Disappointed, but not terribly surprised, I smiled back and thanked him for the experience to work with him, my colleagues and pupils. I spent the remainder of the year with my pupils doing things as we did the year before. We maintained a sense of curiosity and a desire to challenge our thinking about the world and our place in it. Even now, I occasionally get messages and emails from these pupils who tell me what they’re doing and asking me if I remember when they held a protest at our school.

How could I forget?

Reflective Questions

  1. Should pupils be able to protest at school?
  2. How can educators make meaningful connections between planned curriculum content and pupils’ everyday lives? Should educators be concerned with that aim?
  3. How do you think educators should respond to pupils who want to hold a protest at school?