I hated high school. I hated sitting in rigid rows. I hated listening to teachers drone on about the reformation. I loved books, and I hated reading “Silas Marner.” I liked math, and I hated rationalizing polynomials.
I hated the arbitrary rules. In my day, it was about clothing. No bell-bottoms for the boys, no skirts more than six inches above the knee for the girls. The assistant principal carried a ruler.
I had a couple of teachers whose classrooms were different. My journalism teacher, Mrs. Carpenter, defended the Vietnam War, and defended our right to criticize that war. My algebra teacher, Mr. Dinkel, wrote one problem on every quiz that had an answer of zero so that the kid who refused to ever write down anything would always “get that one right.”
Despite these teachers, I hated everything else about school. Later, though, I wondered if I could create for students the kind of classroom that Mrs. Carpenter and Mr. Dinkel had created for me. I was working as a bread baker when I returned to college to earn a teaching certificate. I had a degree in history but got certified in math because I thought that was the best way to ensure I could find a job.
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Sure enough, I hired on at Northern High School to teach math and “computers.” I had one course in Fortran (a now ancient programming language) which made me the resident IT expert. I taught students how to use the brand new software of a word processing program and an electronic spreadsheet. The monitors were green and black.
I taught algebra pretty much right out of the textbook that first year. Half of my first class failed. This did not look promising.
I learned I could loosen up a little. When I returned their tests, I cranked the volume (on a turntable) for the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” As they deciphered the organ solo on the intro, the kids smiled. I knew I had a chance.
Almost three decades later, I have taught just about every type
of math class in every kind of variation. “Discovery” algebra had students explore situations rather than directly solve textbook problems – it turned out that parents couldn’t figure out how to help their children, so it died. “Project Calc” required a series of parent meetings to justify the use of this new technology of a graphing calculator in a calculus course – what was innovative is now the norm.
Most days, to be honest, my math class does not look so different from the classrooms I grew up with. Students practice solving problems. They listen to me explain new concepts. They sit a lot. But I learned to let students talk to each other, and I learned to get students moving either in the room or outside. They would draw graphs on sidewalks, jump rope, and act out motion functions. I don’t know if a test would show that students learn more this way, but these are the things they remember.
I jumped at the chance to teach journalism, starting a newspaper from scratch at a new school. I spent a summer learning how to design a newspaper on a computer. Fifteen minutes after I began demonstrating the program, one of my students announced “OK, I’ve got it.” She then taught the rest of the staff for another 15 minutes, and they were good to go.
That was my last journalism lecture. It was clear that students learn best from other students. My job in journalism is to advise and defend.
And I give advice on humor – it is always OK to make fun of people with power, and it is never OK to taunt the powerless. Tease the principal, not the losing field hockey team.
I defend students’ right to say what they think. The staff wrote about peer counseling for gay teenagers back when that seemed controversial. They covered a student group’s escape from a revolution in Kyrgyzstan, a cheating scandal in the honor society, and drug use at school. They have written the stories that students want to read.
As I reach the end of my nearly three-decade run, I find myself dismayed at the slow death by a thousand cuts bleeding our schools dry. And yet, I take hope in all the teachers in all of the classrooms who would have been out of place in the high school of my youth – teachers who are creative and active and engage kids day after day. Politicians talk about failing schools – I am witness to the truth that teachers today are more creative and better trained than ever before.
At the end of the year, after their advanced placement test, I teach my calculus students how to juggle, and I give them two weeks to learn anything they want to learn. The burst of energy is a wonder – students learn grandma’s pie recipe, to ride a unicycle, to carve a baseball bat using a lathe, to program a game on a computer. They remember, and I remember, how much fun it can be to learn.
I still hate school – the testing, the need for control, the endless paperwork, the rigid rules. There have been plenty of days when I did not do my job very well – too quick to anger, too slow to listen, too harsh in my words.
I hate school, but I have loved teaching. Day after day, in my little corner classroom, I have had the greatest job in the world.
Steven Unruhe teaches at Riverside High School in Durham and is retiring after 29 years as a teacher.