Up Front: September 2005

Back to schooling

When I read that the governor was sending in special teams — 10 of the 44 “failing” high schools he has targeted are in the Charlotte/Mecklenburg system — I told my wife she should turn state’s evidence. “Maybe they have a witness-protection program. And even though my hands are clean, I’m willing to share your fate if they set us up in some place like, say, Figure Eight Island or maybe Roaring Gap.”

She didn’t appreciate my attempt at humor at her expense. After twentysome years in the classroom, Jane is now a content coach, working with physics and chemistry teachers in low-performing high schools, including many of the places the guv says he’s dispatching the special state teams. One of the delicious ironies is that my wife, a self-proclaimed yellow-dog Democrat who doesn’t deign to dodge the “L” label, is paid through a No Child Left Behind grant. That allows me, anytime she starts complaining about her job, to lecture her: “She who take the Shrub’s shilling must do the Shrub’s bidding.”

Jane thinks that’s about as funny as my remarks about her getting into the witness-protection program. In fact, she and her fellow coaches suspect that some lateral-entry teachers — who come into the system after working in private enterprise — must have been stashed there by the feds. Why else would someone with a Ph.D. in a field that could command a six-figure salary volunteer for the hazardous duty that is running a high-school classroom these days?

There’s an old saw that goes: Those that can’t do, teach. (And one of more recent vintage: Those that can’t teach also teach.) But that doesn’t usually apply to lateral-entry people, Jane says. Most are folks who’ve always wanted to teach school but didn’t think they could afford to. They’ve seen the benefit of education, the difference it has made in their own lives, and want to share its gift with others. Then something happens — they achieve a certain level of financial security or lose their jobs due to downsizing or just get fed up with what they are doing — and they make the break. Consider it a type of delayed gratification.

It’s not an easy transition. As one my wife works with told her: “In industry, I was successful. I was used to success.” Work hard, apply yourself, know what it is that needs to be done — success follows. “But in the classroom, no matter the tactics and strategies I’ve used, I haven’t had success.”

What Coach K — not that other one, but the one I sleep with — tries to do is get them to realize that, no, it’s not like a business, even though teaching is a skill every successful executive must master. But the classroom is a far different place, one inhabited by many different people — all young, most still emotionally and mentally immature — with many different reasons for being there. And many of them, if they had their druthers, would not be there at all.

“First and foremost,” she says, “you have to win them over.” And as every coach knows, you can’t win them all. But that doesn’t mean you can ever stop trying.