“The worst nightmare of a contractor is undoing the shoddy work of another contractor,” my brother-in-law said to me at a family reunion last weekend.
And this got me to thinking of my teaching at the prison. Half my classes were students who failed a reading test when they entered the prison system. And they were told they had to go to school, willing or not. And most were not.
They had their reasons. They didn’t like to learn, they didn’t see the use in school, and they didn’t think they could learn. And besides, school was for kids. So on the first day of class, they sat with averted eyes, crossed arms, and jutted chins.
My job was clear—to undo some shoddy schooling. Here’s evidence that something had gone wrong:
- My students felt dumb. Having teachers who belittled them for what they couldn’t do instead of building on what they could do, having been at the end of sarcasm and intimidation, they had withdrawn from learning. They had, after all, their dignity to think of.
- My students thought learning was boring. Math, for example, can be taught as a series of formulas and tables to memorize or it can be shown for the beautiful and precise language it is. Most students in my mandatory classes at the prison had little imagination for math or science or literature or social studies. Their teachers had failed to inspire, so they were no longer curious about academic subjects.
- My students saw school as irrelevant. Many of them hadn’t read about their own people in literature or heard their own history. They hadn’t seen pictures in books that looked like them. Their teachers didn’t know much about their lives and didn’t ask. Their own worlds and the world of the school seemed to be in different galaxies.
To be sure, there were other dynamics at play. Students come to school hungry or after an early morning beating. They sit at their desks with minds clouded by alcohol or drugs. Their parents don’t care much what happens at school. So the complete burden doesn’t rest on teachers.
But part of it does.
And to be honest, I’ve done my share of shoddy teaching. Teachers who knew how to have more fun than I did, teachers who kept a better balance between the practical and the theoretical, and teachers who didn’t get mired down in student problems have all made repairs behind my teaching.
Reconstruction is harder than building fresh, so I can sympathize with my brother-in-law, who left our family reunion to go back to work—tearing out what someone else did wrong.