In the end, I buckled. Kept quiet. Attended class. Did my homework. Made straight A’s. Like Gian, I played the school game.
I got my teaching credential. Monkey see, monkey do. Not surprisingly, my students suffered under me what I had suffered in “teacher school.” Every day they filed into my English class expecting it to be boring and silly. Often, it was.
And, I admit, I probably hadn’t loved my students much more than my education instructors loved me. They hadn’t cared, for instance, that I was a single mom of grown kids, that I’d taught myself to surf head-high waves, or had survived my first husband’s embezzlement of a million dollars, which left me and my kids destitute, or that I had a master’s degree in English or was a published playwright. Never mind that I just might bring something unique and individual to their classes or to a teaching career. Or that my insubordinate questioning came from a burning desire to get teaching right.
The most interesting thing I remember about my UCSD education instructors was that one of them was a world-renowned bagpiper. In comparison, my teacher-in-training cohort was part of the most brilliant and diverse group of people I’ve ever known. In the end we were only bodies to fill with the drill, to be remade in our instructors’ image. Just as I, later in my chain-gang classroom, with its rules and regulations and expectations, was determined to remake students in mine.
One Saturday night, during my second year of teaching, while flipping through TV channels I stumbled onto an interview between a former professor of mine and a San Diego City Schools principal. The two sat there and coolly discussed teachers. How teachers needed to be managed and evaluated, regulated and held accountable. They might as well have said, If it weren’t for us education professors and district administrators, heaven knows what would be happening in your San Diego classrooms!
I fired off an unprofessional email to my former professor, who never replied, and, I’m sure, erased me from his address book. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I remember my rage. Because in two years of teaching in at-risk high schools, I personally knew hundreds of teachers. They were scholars, drinkers, burnouts, geniuses, whack jobs, angels of mercy, nationally ranked professionals, sports coaches, district toadies, flirts, union reps.
I don’t remember a single teacher who didn’t give teaching everything he or she had to give.
Granted, some had more to give than others. But of the teachers I knew, not one phoned it in.
Not because an administrator was watching, but because the students were.
Jim Giardina is a La Jolla Shores local I’ve known since I started surfing. When I interviewed at Morse Senior High, I dropped his name. I told the new principal how highly Jim thought of her.
“Who?” the new principal said.
“Jim Giardina, um, he teaches history. And government, maybe? He thinks you’re bringing the right kind of, um, change to Morse,” I said.
“Oh, yes, Jim,” the new principal said. I wasn’t convinced she knew who Jim was. And in truth, what Jim had said about her wasn’t that flattering, but he was the only connection I had to the school, so I played it.
I got the job.
Five years later, that principal is long gone. Giardina, on the other hand, is well into his 33rd year of teaching. (One of the most valuable lessons any new teacher can learn is that principals come and go, but the principal’s secretary and the tenured teachers stay. Those are the alliances that matter most.)
Through every new administration and its reform policies, Giardina goes his merry way. His classroom technique is set in stone: high expectations, caustic wit, intolerance for bullshit, and show-stopping intelligence. Ask him why he teaches, and you’ll get a wise-guy answer: “Because I can’t sing or dance.”
When I worked the Morse graduation ceremony at year’s end, seating graduates and their families, the PA system reverberated through Viejas Arena, blasting recorded voices of seniors sending shout-outs to their favorite teachers. Over and over, I heard Giardina’s name.
“Hey, Mr. G! It’s me, Alonzo Becerra! Thanks for kicking my butt! You’re the best! Later!”
Over at RateMyTeacher.com, the site where students grade their teachers anonymously, posting for all the world to see anything they feel like writing (with little or no punctuation or correct spelling), not one student who’s posted on Giardina gives him anything less than a 4.5 out of 5.
The comments run like this: “Everyone fears him in the beginning and loves him by the end…An admirable genius of a teacher…Consider yourself lucky if you have him, and savor every word he says!”
The year I taught at Morse with Giardina, I spent $2000 of my own money on school supplies and making copies. Outside of the eight hours a day in class, I’d work six to eight more on lesson planning and grading. These were 12- to 18-hour days, usually seven days a week.
When friends asked what teaching was like, I got tired of saying, “Hell.” I wanted to be more specific. “Teaching,” I’d say, “is like writing one, two (or even three) new 60-minute stand-up routines every night and performing them the next day in front of five tough audiences.”
These killer routines (properly balanced with student participation and teacher instruction) had to keep students awake; motivate them to learn one of the hundreds of grade-level skills mandated by the State of California; implement a variety of different learning styles; and be adaptable to every disability represented in the class. Oh, and, um, impress the principal if she walked in.
And every night you start again.
Serious homework for the rest of your life. (One veteran English teacher I knew awoke at 3:00 a.m. every Saturday — every Saturday — to grade papers. She’s been doing that for more than 20 years.)
That year, my second, just weeks after school started, I got desperate enough to pray. I prayed hard. When I woke up the following week to the 2003 wildfires and schools were closed for a week, I felt personally responsible. But I lesson-planned and graded the whole week and was able to catch up enough to make it through the semester.