Sunday, August 24, 2008

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

My summer break has ended, though it never feels totally over until the students show up, and that happens in a few days. Of course, the end of summer break means the beginning of hot weather. We have been told to prepare for 40 students in a classroom this year, as opposed to our usual 32. The idea of 40 adolescents being packed into our rooms (fingers crossed about the air conditioning, which often doesn't work when we first return) on a hot day after they have made it through a day that included P.E....well, you get the picture. In California, we're still waiting for the budget to pass, which means that we can't get things we need, like teachers to relieve the class size problem. In addition to all this, we have no network at our school right now, which means no television, printer or internet. It's hard to feel positive, and yet I know that all of our staff will be welcoming and positive on the first day of school. We realize that it is not the fault of children that California makes such a low priority of meeting their needs.

For those of you who don't live in California, or those of you who do live in California but have not visited a school in a bit, let me take you on a tour of a typical classroom at my school. Let me add that my classroom is, luckily, not typical. A few years ago, there was a plan to bring ninth graders to our school, so money was obtained to build them a beautiful new science building, complete with lab facilities. Never mind why it was not considered necessary to have facilities for sixth to eighth graders. The building was built, and the plan to move ninth grade was nixed for many sensible reasons that should have been obvious on the day the plan was hatched. So, we ended up with the type of room that all children should have for a classroom. But, let's visit a more typical room. It has one door and no windows. That's right. Right here in the Bay Area, near the Hayward fault, which could relieve its pressure at any time, we pack up to 42 people into a classroom that has only one exit. Don't worry, though. Every room has a little crowbar and a single gallon of water in case of emergency. The classrooms were pretty small and crowded with 32 desks, but now there are 36, and teachers are having to arrange these desks so that everyone can see the board. Additionally, all of our new students (one of the middle schools in our district was closed at the end of last year due to shrinking enrollment) have created the realization that sixth graders cannot have lockers this year. So, a sixth grade classroom with one door, no windows, 36 desks, and possibly 40 students, will have 40 backpacks packed with books, binders and other things to add to the fun.

It's hard to say who is to blame for this lack of planning and foresight. Anyone you ask will blame it on someone else. The school board, superintendent, state, Democrats, Republicans, foreclosures. The list goes on.

Our school has only three rules, which we spend the entire first week on:
Be Safe
Be Respectful
Be Responsible
It occurs to me that it may be hard to tell kids to follow these rules when they are forced into a system that does not follow the rules. A crowded school is not safe; the situation shows little respect for teachers and other staff or students. Most importantly, the mess I'm walking into was mostly avoidable. In fact, most people at our school who have little power to make decisions (secretaries, custodians, teachers, technicians) can recall at least one time (for most of us, several times) where we made it clear to someone who could make decisions that we were worried about safety, space, technology. Someone needed to be responsible and make the responsible decision. Instead, we got:
"I know it's difficult, but we know that you can make it work."
"Our hands are tied until the budget passes."
"There's a chain of command in this district. Have you gone through it?"

So, here lies the moral dilemma. Society entrusts us with the important job of educating the next generation of adults. Parents trust us to not only educate their children but to keep them safe. What happens when we feel that we can't do both?

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