Friday, September 3, 2010

The Teaching Life Revisited


Teaching in Philadelphia: In Retrospect

Maybe This Year


Buried beneath the test scores, the rosters, the class lists, the attendance statistics, the roll sheets, the interim reports, the report cards, the serious incident testimonies, the counseling referrals, the truant officer’s legal briefs, the probation officer’s assessments, the lesson plans, the behavioral objectives and the specific learning outcomes, Bloom’s taxonomy of critical thinking skills, Directed Reading Activity, and the 5-step writing process, the think-pair share activity, the split page note-taking method, the SATs, the APs, the PSSAs, the benchmark tests and the core curriculum, real people are gasping for breath. Sometimes it is hard to come up for air. Often it feels as if we are living in a place that the rest of the world has forgotten. Except of course, when the bureaucrats, careerists, reporters and statisticians descend upon us like a post mortem team, to dissect the numerical indicators of our adequate yearly progress or to count up the number of school children who have lost their lives to the violence that makes parts of Philadelphia more dangerous than parts of Iraq.

I have been a teacher in the School District of Philadelphia for over thirty years. I have stood in front of almost 5,000 different teenagers, in fifteen different classrooms in five different schools in 8 different grades. I have been known as Miss Rose, Miss Frozenfrogs, Miss Rose Twig, Mrs. Pincus, Pink-Ass, Yo, Marsh! Marsha Marsha Marsha, Hey teach, Pinky-poo and Teacher of the Year.( twice 1988 and 2005).

I have been called a racist bitch, a moron, a loser, a pussy. I have been punched, pushed, screamed at and stolen from. My car has been broken into three times. Three different cars in three separate school parking lots. Curse words and threats have been scrawled on my classroom walls, doors and blackboards. I have been locked inside a classroom with 30 14 years olds from 9:30 in the morning until 2:00 in the afternoon, while crime scene investigators from the Philadelphia Police Department marked every drop of blood that had fallen on the floors of the corridors and stairwells, following the trail left by a terrified dying boy with a kitchen knife dangling from his neck. He died in the nurse’s office.

I have sat in a darkened classroom room with a teen-age girl as she showed me pictures of her still born daughter whom she named Angel. I have hugged another teen-aged girl, comforting her after the death of her grandmother then one month later, listened as she told me of her dream where her grandmother welcomed the child she had aborted into her arms in heaven. I once helped a teen-aged boy select a name for his yet to be born daughter from a book of baby names, a girl, it turns out wasn’t even his.

I have heard the pop pop pop of gunshots outside my classroom window. I have heard the urgent blare of a frantic fire alarm and the words, “This is not a drill. I repeat this is not a drill!” as the halls outside my classroom turned white. I have huddled with a dozen teen-agers under one umbrella in the pouring rain as the Philadelphia Fire Department extinguished a trash can fire whose flames had jumped the can and engulfed the wooden floor beneath it. I have heard a principal lose her mind over the PA system after that very same system had been hijacked by a student who dismissed school and sent everybody home in the middle of the day.

I have read their stories of abuse, rape, incest and murder. I have seen the marks on their bodies from childhood diseases, acne, bullets, knives, razor blades and scalding water and I have seen the other scars which are much more difficult to discern. I have taught the daughters of policemen and sons of cop-killers. In the same class. I have taught children whose only contact with their fathers has been through the armored glass in a prison visiting room. I have listened to the stories of girls who have sold their young bodies in exchange for a place to live after their crack addicted mothers threw them out of the house in a jealous rage and boys who were abused and trying desperately not to give in to the violent urges bubbling up under their skin.

I have been laid off, transferred, written up, reprimanded and left to fend for myself. I have been praised, awarded, documented, televised, published and ignored.

But through it all for the past thirty four years, I have been more learner than teacher and my classroom, filled with the children that many people outside of their communities have already written off, has been the center of my intellectual, emotional and spiritual life. And it's shaped the parent and the person that I am today.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I retired from full time teaching two years ago, but the lessons I have learned and the people I have encountered remain with me. I carry their stories in my heart.

Two years out, here is what I know. That hope springs eternal and with faith all things are possible. Even in the darkest moments there is always a light shining through to the classroom. Even the angriest, most recalcitrant child, harbors a spark of possibility buried inside of of his despair. And that human beings have the capacity for enormous resilience.

I have been given one of the greatest gifts any teacher can be given -- I have had the privilege to continue to know so many of my students after they left my classroom. I have been to their college graduations, their weddings. I have seen them earn graduate degrees, become teachers and principals, businessmen and community leaders. I have seen them with their own children and watched as they became role models for other young people in their communities. Yes, I have also been to funerals. More than I want to remember. But such is life in all of its complexity.

Every child, no matter old or seemingly jaded, starts the school year with the hope that maybe THIS year will be the one.

Maybe THIS year I will finally love school like I once did, when I was little and the teacher put smiley faces on my papers and my mother packed me lunch in my Peter Pan lunch box.

Maybe THIS year, people will see me for who I am and value what's inside of me.

Maybe THIS year, I will connect with a teacher who will help me understand the ways to realize the dreams I barely let myself imagine except late at night, right before I fall asleep.

Maybe this year.

Hope you all have a generative, positive, healthy and loving year.

15 comments:

Lee Ann Spillane: said...

Wow. I love your listing. It hammers home the daily, weekly, monthly constant battles teachers face. Thank you--many of my "kids" have similar stories and I too have followed that blood trail.

Joel said...

What a wonderful piece of writing. I've only taught in the city/first ring suburbs for ten years, but your post resonated in so many ways.

Bonnie said...

sDear Marsha,

I was moved to tears....I remember feeling so much of this when I taught for 12 years, handicapped children within the school system. Unlike you I was frightened away. And now, so many years later, my certification no longer valid I sometimes entertain the idea of returning.

So moved was I, that I hope you do not mind but I am sending this to a dear friend of mine who is now at the school board and was at one time while I was at Penn a VP.

I was constantly being yelled at by teachers who were not special ed....why was I working past required hours? Why was I testing more than the required amount per day? Why would I do this? I even had a principle ask me why a nice Jewish girl like myself would teach autistic children in diapers ...and was I sure....that I could handle it.....Two degrees, years of experience and he insulted me as if because I was a Jewish woman I couldn't change a diaper on a 13 year old? Unlike you I wasn't brave enough to ignore these comments and left the field.

I admire your persistance and am ashamed of the lack of mine.

Love,
Bonnie

Bonnie said...

sDear Marsha,

I was moved to tears....I remember feeling so much of this when I taught for 12 years, handicapped children within the school system. Unlike you I was frightened away. And now, so many years later, my certification no longer valid I sometimes entertain the idea of returning.

So moved was I, that I hope you do not mind but I am sending this to a dear friend of mine who is now at the school board and was at one time while I was at Penn a VP.

I was constantly being yelled at by teachers who were not special ed....why was I working past required hours? Why was I testing more than the required amount per day? Why would I do this? I even had a principle ask me why a nice Jewish girl like myself would teach autistic children in diapers ...and was I sure....that I could handle it.....Two degrees, years of experience and he insulted me as if because I was a Jewish woman I couldn't change a diaper on a 13 year old? Unlike you I wasn't brave enough to ignore these comments and left the field.

I admire your persistance and am ashamed of the lack of mine.

Love,
Bonnie

Rachael said...

This was moving and an incredible read. I found myself in tears without even knowing it. You should be proud to know that you have made such an impact on the world by the impact you have made on these young lives. I wish you a wonderful year as well.

Stehpen said...

Your heart, listed. Very beautiful because it is simply real. Stay in this place.

Lissa said...

As one of your former students, I think you did a great job of capturing our attention. I'll never forget reading Linden Hills, or just having discussions with classmates about books. In this day and age it takes a lot to give into the students. And I went to a "good" school. The Education system needs to be fixed, no doubt, but I think people like you definitely have a positive influence on the lives of those they touch. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Dear Ms. Marsha Pincus,

What a terrific post. It made me very emotional. I am currently a second year teacher in Juniata Park/Feltonville and your post resonated within me. Please keep up the excellent writing.


Thanks.

JohnButts said...

Hey Marsha,

I just love your candid description of teaching in Philadelphia. I teach Secondary English in a tough British school and can relate to much you have written, very, very moving closing comments on the kids; real ‘lump in the throat’ stuff!

With the rigours that accompany teaching today, I too feel that we can often forget why we wanted to teach at all. I love my classes, and although sometimes abused and ignored and frustrated to hell, it really is the best job in the world.

Bless you and thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

John Butterfield.

Q. Hall said...

Mrs Pincus,
As one of the kids that was priveliged to see you in action, thank-you! Though I was never assigned to your class directly, my twin Brother was and I was able to participate as an actor in a few of the student written plays performed in your class at the end of the year. I even attended the end of the year trip to Temple (I believe it was Temple). Nonetheless, I thank you for your persistence, your determination and your overall drive to have accomplished what you accomplished. I visited a fellow Gratz Alum in Chicago this weekend (she is a 2nd grade teacher now) and we marveled at the things that we made it through. It was because of dedicated teachers like yourself that we made it. I hope this beautifully written piece inspires current and future teachers to remember why they became teachers and sustains them throughout their careers.. THANKS!!

Anne Higgins said...

Wow, Marsha --- I read this one today, and yesterday I posted my own, extremely short and superficial comments about my own teaching life.

This is a great blog.You haven't posted anything for a while. Hope you pick it up again.

Anne

Susan said...

Aw shucks, Marsha! I love how you reach out. I hope you will continue to speak for teachers and to teachers and everyone because you explain so feelingly and at times let just your experiences speak. I am glad you not only survived, but grew stronger.
I also wrote today, but about me (ego) for the first year in 55 NOT going back to school! That does not mean the end to work as you well know. Here is my piece: http://susan60.blogspot.com/2012/09/labor-day.html
Enjoy, however you spend your day.

Lauren Baldwin said...

Wow. Yes. Wow.

Hope Moffett said...

I read this before, but it will be my first September outside the classroom in four years. Thanks for re-posting.

Lisa R said...

Marcia - When I began reading this post, I thought wow, you worked in a much harder school than I do. Then I started thinking of all the violence I have witnessed myself, all the deaths of my former students as they went on to high school, the pregnancies - and I was humbled. Your story is so similar to mine except for the number of years in the classroom - I am "only" at 22, and still have at least 8 more to go. But, another way your story has helped me with mine is to remind me once again that indeed I still love teaching.