Teachers Stumped by Budget, Discipline
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News.
The news business, and we know we're in it, sometimes seems to specialize in bizarre crimes, stolen cars that crash through living room windows, would-be thieves that get stuck in chimneys. Most of the time we just filter it out, but this one was one crime we just couldn't ignore. In Waycross, Georgia, three third graders are accused of devising an elaborate plan to knock out, handcuff, and stab their teacher. They were allegedly mad at her for disciplining a student for standing on a chair. While many psychiatrists and psychologists have weighed in to express doubt that kids so young seriously intended to hurt anyone, many teachers have also put up their hands to say, not so fast. They say violence is just one of the under recognized challenges they face today. We wanted to talk more about challenges to teaching, so with us are Joanne Wilkerson (ph). She is a long-time educator. Rockwell Flint, a middle school social studies teacher, and Preston Robinson (ph). He is a former high school Spanish teacher and welcome to you all. Thank you for speaking with us.
Mr. PRESTON ROBINSON (Former High School Spanish Teacher): Hello. Thank you.
Mr. ROCKWELL FLINT (Social Studies Teacher, Middle School): Thank you.
MARTIN: Mrs. Wilkerson, I think you are our senior diva, so I want to start with you and ask, why were you attracted to teaching?
Ms. JOANNE WILKERSON (Educator): Well, you know, as a child, I guess I was told, the majority of my life, I was a born teacher, because of the things that teachers and others observed in me. And I guess, I kind of believed what they said. Plus, I just enjoy working with children because, I believe, there is so much potential there.
MARTIN: I don't want to be in your business, but about how long have you been teaching?
Ms. WILKERSON: Thirty-one years.
MARTIN: OK. Rockwell, I understand that you are a second career teacher? Is that right?
Mr. FLINT: Yeah, I came into it at the age of 35.
Mr. FLINT: So - and teaching, it's - when I got into it, there are several reasons, but primarily, the aspect with working with so many youth, that your impact was so widely spread and I just thought, if you are going to have an effect and if that's what you are looking for out of, you know, career happiness, and having some sort of impact, teaching was just the natural place to, you know, situate myself.
MARTIN: And how long have you been teaching about now?
Mr. FLINT: Three years now.
MARTIN: Three years now. OK, Preston, what about you? Why were you attracted to teaching?
Mr. ROBINSON: I always had this passion for mentoring and, you know, and being in the lives of young men and especially now, since so many young men are facing a lot of challenges today, and that's about it.
MARTIN: I think I heard you say that being African-American is part of it. You thought as a young African-American man that you might be a good role model, particularly in the Washington area, where you were teaching. Is that part of it?
Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah, that's also part of it.
MARTIN: Preston, I want to start with you because apparently, your tenure in the classroom was short lived. I understand that it's a little bit of a painful story, but if you just briefly tell us what happened? You're not teaching now?
Mr. ROBINSON: I went into the public schools in the middle of the year. They had lost about three other Spanish teachers before me, and I was replacing one of them. It was a bad situation to begin with because the kids had been used to not having a teacher and not having central discipline, but I was there for four weeks and in those four weeks, our school was in the news twice. Once, for a having a situation where some kids brought guns to school and another one for having the second highest suspension rate in the entire country.
MARTIN: This was a high school?
Mr. ROBINSON: This was a high school. Yeah. I had to deal with a myriad of discipline problems. I would say, maybe, anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of my students would have discipline problems and...
MARTIN: And when you say discipline problems, what do you mean? You mean fighting? Mouthing off? Cursing?
Mr. ROBINSON: Mouthing off.
MARTIN: Just refusing to sit still? What?
Mr. ROBINSON: Cursing, not being attentive. I had one kid who would get up and dance during my lectures. The straw that broke the camel's back was when I had to deal with a student who was disrupting my classroom from the outside, and the situation was - I asked him to leave and to go back to class. He said something very disrespectful, that I won't repeat. I asked him for his ID, then he started walking away. So I started walking after him, and it turned into an all out chase. I eventually caught the kid, but I tore both of my plantar fasciitis in both feet, in the process, which made it extremely painful for me to walk.
And most teachers in the school would've have said, I shouldn't have chased him, but if I didn't, he would have gotten away with what he was doing. So I was out for a few days because I couldn't walk, and I couldn't make the lengthy commute, and I took those few days to consider whether I wanted to stay and deal with this. And I just realized that my mobility is something that I'm not willing to sacrifice, just to, you know, have order in my classroom. And I decided the next week that I was going to resign.
MARTIN: Wow. Mrs. Wilkerson, I wanted to ask you, and obviously it's easier to fall into the trap. Like you know, kids today, they're just bad. But as the longest tenured teacher here, do you think that there are more challenges in the classroom then there were when you started out.
Ms. WILKERSON: In a sense, yes, there are more challenges, however I am very reluctant to call a child bad, because I think every behavior has a reason, and so my goal is always to determine why this child is behaving this way. You know, early on you asked me why I went into teaching. As I reflected on that, both of those reasons were so, but another reason, for me it was a calling. And I think that's very important because if you do not see it as your call, or something that you're almost born to do, then it can be very difficult and very frustrating. Today - there - I think the students have a lot more challenges. And then I think perhaps teachers in many instances are not given the type of training that is needed to deal with today's youth.
MARTIN: Rockwell Flint talk to me about this. When you - I'm just interested in your general impressions, and I'd also like to ask each of you when you hear a story, about like we talk about this Waycross Georgia school where kids said they were going to, you know, hurt the teacher. And I understand that there's some dispute and this matter is still under investigation, so it is possible that the facts are not as they first represented, but I'd just like to know, how do you react to that, Rockwell?
Mr. FLINT: Well I can relate to what the last speaker just said in the sense that instead of being - kids being bad, what I see mostly is kids coming and they're just from the get-go, mad. And you're dealing with a very mad child. I teach middle school so you can't blame an 11, 12, 13 year old and say that something's occurred. And then they're life's destabilized, and they're having a hard time dealing with friends or with family, going through that very volatile adolescent period of life, the majority deal with each other, you know, in a very angry manner. And I teach over in northeast D.C., and a lot of kids, their interaction, their play, is very violent. As a teacher you have to deal with that all day long, and that, I don't think teacher-training programs address that.
MARTIN: Were you trained to deal with that?
Mr. FLINT: You know, as a relatively new teacher that issue has been realized, and we did discuss that and all the students were cohorts teaching in the D.C. system, so everyone is aware of that.
MARTIN: What are the kids mad about?
Mr. FLINT: You know, I think that's a huge question, and we could have a show on that. The kids are mad about - I think - I'll give you an example. A lot of kids that I deal with are moving constantly. The sense of stability isn't there. The situation, often staying with a relative while the parent does something else. There's mental illness in the family in several situations with students I teach with. There's a huge amount of problems in some of their neighborhoods that aren't addressed, that now it's put upon the school system to address.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News, and I'm talking about teaching today with educators Preston Robinson, Joanne Wilkerson, and Rockwell Flint. So, Mrs. Wilkerson, I wanted to ask, do you find that the kids family lives are more fragile today than they were when you first started out, or over the course of the time that you've been teaching?
Ms. WILKERSON: Well, I think they definitely are because you have so many working parents, oftentimes out of necessity. But as I read some of the articles about the three children, I thought what if the ability and creativity of those children could have been harnessed and directed. I mean obviously...
MARTIN: That could be Quentin Tarantino.
Ms. WILKERSON: Right.
MARTIN: But go ahead, I'm sorry to interrupt.
Ms. WILKERSON: You know, and so I thought of three quotes, one from the Bible that says "I know the thoughts that I have for you." And I don't think God has planned for anybody to fail, and so I said there must be a solution. And then children learn what they live. So the environment is crucial. And then it takes a village to raise a child, and as the gentleman said previously, sometimes a child moves from village to village and so they do not receive the benefits that we received many years ago. I think for the children, there is a lack of discipline. Sometimes at home, sometimes in the classroom. There's often a lack of love, a lack of understanding, a lack of attention, and most definitely a lack of communication. One of the things I do daily with my students is spend one hour around the table just talking to them. Because this gives them an opportunity to vent and to express concerns that they may have.
MARTIN: What age?
Ms. WILKERSON: I have students 10 through twelfth grade. And in my case, all African-American young men. And it is very important to them that they be heard. I think another problem is the parenting skills. I was talking with a student who had played hooky. So I called his home to let his parent know that he was not in school, and I said well before the child returns to school we'll need to have a conference. In the course of that conference it was stated to him that, you know, truancy is something that can be turned over to the probation department, and the mother interrupted and she commented, then you probably should have stayed at home. And I said to the mother, you know, you shouldn't be telling your child that. I said because by doing so, you are sanctioning his hooky playing.
MARTIN: You've given us a lot to work with. I wanted to ask Preston how you react to this. I mean do you think that you got adequate training in managing your classroom?
Mr. ROBINSON: None whatsoever. I was basically thrown into the classroom with kind of the attitude, well, here you are, good luck. I can't say that I was completely unsupported. There were a couple of teachers who would drop by and see how things were doing, and one in particular was another Spanish teacher who had been there much longer. She would come by with lesson plan ideas and - which was helpful because the plans that I had initially, I had to throw out because I couldn't really get through to the students to begin with. But as far as training for dealing with the discipline problems, I didn't have any. In fact, the first day I had a situation where I had to throw a couple of the students out of the classroom, and the process you were supposed to call the security or call the vice principal. And I did that, and nobody picked up. Security never came, and the vice principal was away.
MARTIN: So you felt undermined that there was no consequence to your actions?
Mr. ROBINSON: Exactly.
MARTIN: There was no follow through.
Mr. ROBINSON: And that's a pretty big statement to make to the kids on the first day of new teachers' arrival.
MARTIN: The National Commission on Teaching in America's Future says that the average turnover for all teachers is about 17 percent, in urban school districts the number, the stated number is 20 percent, but they also estimate that the teacher attrition has grown by 50 percent over the last 15 years. So even though the system is constantly recruiting new teachers, they're losing them at a faster rate. Anybody have any idea why that might be, Rockwell?
Mr. FLINT: It's very difficult. It's very frustrating. You know, there's several different reasons. I can only assume that the primary one is, you know, the lack of discipline in the classroom and how hard it is to control a classroom of kids, if you're ill prepared to do it. You've got to really battle through a lot. You know, I was in a situation too, you know, where we didn't have phones in the room. You know, and it was really, if something went wrong, there was no intercom system. You know, it was you and the kids, you know. And things were going wrong every moment of the day.
MARTIN: So why do you stay?
Mr. FLINT: I have to stay because I really love doing it. I love working with the kids. Because you do have these moments that are just incredibly powerful, where it's just - you're making this relationship where you see the progress being made and you see students become - can rely on you, and you just take that in and internalize it and it becomes - you know, really the only thing you can do. And that's the way I look at teaching at this point. I can't imagine, you know, another career at this point.
MARTIN: Ms. Wilkerson, what about you? Why do you think people are leaving the profession, and have you noticed this in your own schools that people are leaving?
Ms. WILKERSON: Oh yes, in the inner-city schools where perhaps the discipline is seen to be more difficult, people leave. And I think another reason that teachers leave is that as human beings, we like immediate gratification. And there are some teaching situations in which you're not going to get immediate gratification. It may be 10 years later. And another thing is that sometimes when you work with children there is so much emotional involvement for you, especially as you become attached to them. And I think there that not everyone is cut out to be a teacher.
MARTIN: Preston, what about you? Is there anything you think that would have made a difference? That would have - that could have kept you in the classroom?
Mr. ROBINSON: Well, I know for that particular day when I had to limp home, it probably would have made a difference if one of the teachers actually offered to drive me home as opposed to letting me take the metro and the bus and another metro. But I asked and nobody did. I think...
MARTIN: So, support from your colleagues?
Mr. ROBINSON: Yes, I mean support from my colleagues would have been a much-needed incentive for me to stay. Knowing that if I called security that they would come and you know, deal with whatever the situation was, and probably just knowing that I wasn't going to come to school every day and there be another surprise like five more students in my classroom with no type of notification. I'll leave it at that. That's probably what I wanted to say.
MARTIN: OK. Rockwell, do you have any final thoughts about? Is there anything you would like people to know about teaching or your life as a teacher today, that they might not know?
Mr. FLINT: I don't know if people grasp what people go through and what the kids are going through too, in some of our schools. You know, sometimes I'm just amazed that they make it to school, and they're as upbeat as they are. I've got to give them credit. Every day that they come in and the kids have a good attitude, and they're upbeat and they're willing to do their work - there are kids like that. Not every kid is just in there, you know, causing a ruckus and tearing it up. Once you find a way to make contact with these kids, and you can't alleviate all the problems - I have problems every day, I had problems this morning. But you can mitigate them.
MARTIN: Mrs. Wilkerson, final thought from you? Is there something you would like people to know about being a teacher today?
Ms. WILKERSON: If you think you want to be a teacher, ask yourself why. And as a teacher, some of the things that you will definitely need are passion, understanding, and the belief that every child can be reached.
MARTI: Joanne Wilkerson is a long time educator and the developer of SEED Academy. She joined us from Ball State University in Monsey, Indiana. We were also pleased to be joined by Preston Robinson. He's a former Spanish teacher in a Maryland high school. And Rockwell Flint, he is a social studies at Kelly Miller Middle School in Washington, D.C. They were here with me in the studio. Thank you all so much.
Mr. FLINT: Thank you.
Ms. WILKERSON: Thank you.
MARTIN: Remember, with Tell Me More the conversation never ends. We'd like to know more about what you think about the challenges teachers and kids face in the classroom today. To tell us more and to read what other listeners are saying, go to our blog at npr.org/tellmemore. You can also call our comment line at 202-842-3522, that's 202-842-3522. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
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