Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales
BY: Cheryl Y. Brundage
He who opens a school door, closes a prison.
Although for a number of years I had considered trying full-time teaching, my first job actually came out of desperation. With my savings account dwindling to an uncomfortably low level following several months of unemployment, I reluctantly accepted a job teaching Spanish at a charter school for at-risk high school students in downtown Houston. The salary was about half what I'd earned in my previous position at a law firm. The school was under the direction of a woman whose only credential was certification in teaching home economics. On the plus side, teaching certification was not required for my job, and there was no contract. I wouldn't have to invest time and money in certification programs yet. And if I hated the job, I could just give some notice and take off.
Characteristics of the charter school included open enrollment, a self-paced curriculum (hardly appropriate for a large population of special education and below-grade level students), a director who changed the curriculum daily and hired and fired personnel at the drop of a hat (even members of her own family and lifelong friends), and students in and out of jail and/or rehabilitation programs. When the year concluded at the end of May, only a handful of students sitting in my classes had been there since the doors opened in August.
Chad was one of them. He started out in my first semester Spanish I class. He had taken the course twice already without earning a credit, which was not an uncommon phenomenon at the school. He was hyper at times (at our school, the teachers joked, ADD was contagious), but fairly bright, and he never missed a day of school during the first semester. With some prodding and encouragement, Chad earned credit for first semester Spanish and moved on to the second.
I noticed a huge change in him when he returned from Christmas vacation. He was quieter and more focused. He began class each day by retrieving his folder and working diligently through his assignments. He asked questions and participated. I was impressed by his dramatic improvement, which one teacher attributed to new medication.
Towards the end of the spring semester, Chad missed several weeks of school. When he returned, he wrote in a warm-up that he was soon being shipped off to "year-round school in another state" and he didn't know if he would finish out the year.
The day I submitted Chad's name for an award, I discovered that the "year-round school" was prison. I was shocked to learn that he had broken into someone's house and threatened the occupant with a "deadly weapon" (a BB gun). Some of the teachers called Chad a punk. "You should give the award to someone else," one suggested, and I considered it. But in the end I decided to judge Chad only on what he had done in my class. "If we take their extracurricular activities into account, we might as well call this whole awards thing off," another teacher pointed out.
It was the first awards ceremony ever at our "school for the criminal professions." Some teachers said that we should be handing out awards like "Most Likely to End Up on Death Row" or "Most Likely to Test Positive for HIV." But even the most cynical among us were moved by the kids' enthusiasm. Some of these street-tough kids covered with gold chains and tattoos had never received any kind of award in their entire lives. They swaggered up to the awards table, flashed victory signs when teachers presented them with handwritten certificates in front of their peers, and asked how they could make copies of the awards for relatives and friends or convert the awards into posters.
Chad's sentencing had been delayed, and he made it to school that day. He hardly reacted when I presented him with an award for Most Improved. But after the ceremony, my quiet, cooperative student ambushed me with a hug. "Thank you," he said in a voice thick with emotion. "Now I have something to show my mom."
Chad didn't finish second semester Spanish, and he never got credit for the course. But I'd like to think that award made a difference. That having something tangible for his efforts would remind him that he could accomplish things, and that he would turn his life around. Or was it already too late -- his last achievement in the civilized world before embarking on a career in crime?
Even if the award didn't make a difference in his life, it certainly did in mine. I realized that while I couldn't remain at that particular school, interacting with those kids -- trying as it was at times -- was much more meaningful than anything I had ever done. I knew I would never return to the corporate world. I earned my standard teaching certificate a year later and have taught full-time ever since.http://www.beliefnet.com/Inspiration/Chicken-Soup-For-The-Soul/2010/05/Chads-Award.aspx?source=NEWSLETTER&nlsource=49&ppc=&utm_campaign=DIBSoup&utm_source=NL&utm_medium=newsletter