I’m sitting in my friend’s classroom in Vermont. Her German students have just gone home for the day, and she’s in a faculty meeting. While I wait for her, I’m contemplating the differences between her school and mine. This student population in rural Vermont is so much more familiar to me than the one I teach in Brooklyn. I immediately recognize these kids: the pretty girls, the jocks, the nerds, the freaks, the farm kids, the funny Asian or black kid using exaggerated humor to distract from his obvious minority status.
Today I was a guest in the AP Government class, and both the teacher and the kids had copious questions about the Middle East and the Arab Spring. They knew about current events, they’d been following Occupy Wall Street, they had a sense of world geography. Many of them have travelled abroad. They think critically as easily as they breathe. Several stayed after class to ask more questions, thank me for coming, and shake my hand on their way to lunch.
Of course, I don’t expect this of my students in Brooklyn, for many reasons. I know that the demands of poverty and gangs bleed away the time they might otherwise use to follow current events. I know that the homes here in Vermont mostly have two parents with college degrees, steady jobs, and the time and knowledge to help their kids with homework and get them excited about learning. And, of course, teaching an AP class and teaching Special Education are worlds apart. The reasons I had for going into the latter rather than the former still stand; I don’t want to teach “smart” kids full time. Their tendency for laziness is ten times more frustrating to me than helping students with disabilities overcome their obstacles.
At the same time, though, it’s a reminder that not all schools are like where I’m teaching now. There are schools without metal detectors, where students are trusted to go the library without a pass to work on a project, where students do class activities because they’re having fun and not because it’s graded, where seats don’t need to be assigned because the kids respect each other in the classroom. There are no security guards, and the kids aren’t afraid of their administrators. This is a school without bells, where kids wait for the teacher to dismiss them. An 80-minute period here flies by like nothing, when a 50 minute period where I teach can be torture to fill from bell to bell with work that students will take seriously.
The city of New York pays for my certification and Masters degree for a reason: because it’s damned hard to teach where they’re asking us to teach! It’s also a population in desperate need of really good teachers. But someday, when I’ve put in my years here, I look forward to teaching in a small rural high school with kids I recognize from my own high school experience.